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Yankees Pregame Notebook: 'First vs. Worst' not as simple as it sounds

Vidal Nuno is hoping to build on his first two starts as New York hosts Tampa Bay
05/02/2014 5:44 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Vidal Nuno pitches in a recent game for the Yankees.(AP)
After being swept (somewhat) by the Seattle Mariners in an abbreviated two-game series, the first-place Yankees will try to keep their perch atop the division when they start a three-game set with the Rays Friday night.

Although the two teams come into the game on opposite ends of the division, they could leave Sunday -with the script flipped; the 15-12 Yankees are just a half-game ahead of Baltimore, while the 13-16 Rays, despite being the bottom end of a virtual last-place tie with Boston, are just three out in the AL East race.

And in Game 1, the Yankees will counter Rays' ace David Price with a guy they didn't even have in the rotation on Opening Day, Vidal Nuno. The 25-year-old has made just two starts this season, but the first one came against the Rays on Easter Sunday, and he was brilliant that day - allowing just three hits over five shutout innings, while striking out six and walking only two.

In his short career, Nuno has split 10 appearances evenly between the bullpen and the rotation, yet manager Joe Girardi is still unsure why Nuno has been better as a starter (1-1, 2.39 ERA, 1.101 WHIP in five starts) than as a reliever (0-1, 9.82 ERA, 2.318 WHIP).

"To me he's been pretty much the same guy - a guy who really mixes his pitches, throws anything at any time, and works fast," Girardi said. "I really haven't seen a lot of changes in him, but we haven't seen a ton of starts from him; it's a pretty small sample, but he looks like the same guy to me."

John Ryan Murphy will catch Nuno tonight, partially because the Yankees will use all their right-handed hitters against Price, but mostly because the two have developed a rapport of late with Murphy catching both of Nuno's previous starts.

"I think (staying together) probably helps them both a lot. I always liked it when you were catching the same guy because you can build off it," Girardi said.

Nuno should be good for 85 to 90 pitches, Girardi said, meaning the bullpen will play a big role tonight. One of the key men in that scenario could be Adam Warren, who the skipper admitted has "become very important to our bullpen" but isn't necessarily "limited" to one role, per se.

"I look at him as somewhat of our seventh-inning guy, but he's a guy that I would use for more than three outs," Girardi said of Warren, who did in fact throw 1 2/3 innings in Thursday's loss to Seattle. "If I do that, then depending on how many pitches he throws, sometimes you might have to give him a day off, but I'm not afraid to still consider him a two-inning guy."

Girardi did say, though, that Warren is not likely to be a candidate for a spot start anytime soon, saying that "we haven't pushed him, and it would take time to build him up."

The lineup behind Nuno, as noted above, contains the entirety of the Yankees' right-handed arsenal, and it will be Brett Gardner who gets the day off. Brian McCann will be the DH with Alfonso Soriano taking over in left field, and there's a good reason for that: the memory of McCann going 2-for-5 with two RBI against Price on April 17.

"Well, I'd have to put in another lefty somewhere anyway," Girardi joked, "but we're not going to catch (McCann) all three games here, and Murph has worked with Nuno his last two starts, so I figured this way we can get both in there. If you recall, (McCann) had a pretty good game down in Tampa against Price."

The three Yankees on the bench - Gardner, Ichiro, and Kelly Johnson - have hit a combined .154 (6-for-39) against Price in their careers, so hopefully, for Girardi, the starting nine is also the best lineup.

A few other notes from the Yankees clubhouse:

-Girardi was asked about the play in the fourth inning last night where Brett Gardner appeared to hesitate before letting what ended up as an RBI single for Brad Miller drop: "We looked at each other (in the dugout) wondering if he could have caught it, but I haven't watched it on tape or talked to him about it, so it's probably something I need to look at."

-Tonight marks Girardi's 1,000th game as Yankees manager, making him one of just six men to reach that plateau with the team, and while he didn't even know he was close to that milestone until Thursday, it's one he reflects on humbly: "I'm fortunate and blessed, is probably the best way I can put it. I've been able to do what I love to do in a place that I love to be for a long time."

-Brendan Ryan has been moved up to Double-A to continue his rehab assignment, and will join the Trenton Thunder tonight for their weekend series against Richmond at ARM & HAMMER Park. Ryan had 14 at-bats in four games with Class-A Advanced Tampa, and could be ready to be activated Monday, which is when the Yankees can place Michael Pineda on the disabled list.

-Last word goes to Girardi, with a rare look ahead to tomorrow's starter, Masahiro Tanaka. The Japanese righty told the media Friday afternoon that he thinks he has pitched "so-so" this season, and this was the skipper's response: "I think that he expects an awful lot from himself, and I think that's what really pushes him to be great. He kind of set a high standard for himself last year, and I don't know if he's comparing it to that, but I think he's done pretty good this year, no?"

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