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David Phelps' date with destiny

A strong final start could help Yankees win AL East crown tonight
10/02/2012 12:22 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

David Phelps could be the hero who helps the Yankees clinch the AL East crown tonight.(AP)
Six months ago, David Phelps was battling for a long relief job with the Yankees, one that only became open late in Spring Training when Michael Pineda was diagnosed with a torn labrum.

On Tuesday night, the 25-year-old rookie will make his 11th start of the season, and a victory over the Boston Red Sox would be one-half of an equation that could see the Bombers wake up tomorrow morning as American League East Champions.

For what feels like the first time in a long time, the New York Yankees control their own destiny. Their win in the series opener Monday, combined with the Rays’ win in Baltimore and Oakland’s victory over Texas, pushed the Yankees’ record to 93-67 – one game ahead of the O’s in the AL East and tied with the Rangers for the best record in the league.

As the Yankees own the tiebreaker with Texas, the scenario is simple: win out, and they win the division and have home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.

If both the Yankees and Rays both win again tonight, the first of those two prizes will be in the bag by night’s end, and it’s Phelps – who himself is starting in place of an ineffective Ivan Nova – who holds the key to the first half of the equation.

Pressure? Sure, but the rookie has thrived on it of late, and as much as Nova’s poor second-half numbers have cost him the opportunity to be the one in this position, Phelps’ performance this season has earned it for him.

It was almost three weeks ago, on Sept. 12, when Phelps made what he thought would be his last start. That outing at Fenway Park was just one of many “big” games for the Yankees in September, and coming off a loss the night before, the Yankees and Phelps knew that a second straight loss to the Red Sox could drop them to second place for the first time in three months.

But Phelps responded, allowing just one run on five hits over 5.2 innings, getting the duke in the Bombers’ 5-4 victory. Then, one week later, he stepped in to start the second half of a doubleheader, holding Toronto to a single run over 6.2 innings and keeping the Yankees in a game they would eventually win 2-1.

The rookie threw a season-high 110 pitches in that outing and left the bases loaded for Clay Rapada, but his demeanor never changed; he was locked in, and even when he made mistakes, he figured out how to correct them.

Of course, if Phelps struggles tonight, many will second-guess Joe Girardi’s decision to have him start over Nova, even if Nova is sporting a 2-5, 7.03 mark in the second half. But if the 25-year-old comes up aces in the latest “biggest game of the season,” he could become a part of Yankee lore in a season where he wasn’t even “supposed” to be a Yankee.

And if he does, he might bring Yankees karma full circle.

Last year, it was oft-maligned veteran Jorge Posada, a man who was near retirement and had his role as Yankees DH usurped by a highly-touted rookie in September, who came up as the hero on the night the Yankees beat the Rays to clinch the AL East. Flash forward almost 54 full weeks, and if the Bombers can get another gift from the eliminated Rays tonight, then it could be a somewhat unheralded rookie – one who has filled in for veterans all season, played at four different levels, and done nothing except everything he’s been asked – who gets that mantle in 2012.

They say that good things come to those who wait. For the Yankees and David Phelps, hopefully 161 games will be long enough of a wait for the franchise’s 17th division title.

Here is the Yankees lineup behind Phelps for tonight’s game, as well as the Red Sox lineup that will face him:

YANKEES:
Derek Jeter SS
Nick Swisher RF
Alex Rodriguez 3B
Mark Teixeira 1B
Robinson Cano 2B
Russell Martin C
Curtis Granderson CF
Eduardo Nunez DH
Ichiro Suzuki LF

RED SOX:
Jacoby Ellsbury CF
Dustin Pedroia 2B
Daniel Nava LF
Cody Ross RF
James Loney 1B
Jarrod Saltalamacchia C
Ryan Lavarnway DH
Pedro Ciriaco 3B
Jose Iglesias SS

Follow Lou DiPietro on Twitter: @LouDiPietroYES

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