Yankees Pregame Notebook: 'These are very important games'
That six-game stretch begins Tuesday with the opener of a three-game set against the Houston Astros, owners of the second-worst record in the AL and third-worst overall at 52-73. New York will send lefty Chris Capuano (0-2, 3.60 ERA) to the mound for his fifth start as a Yankee.
The Yankees lost two of three in the season-opening series in Houston, although both teams are much different these days. For instance, three of the six starters in that series are either on the disabled list (CC Sabathia, Ivan Nova) or elsewhere (Astro-turned-Marlin Jarred Cosart), but the objective remains the same: win.
"I've said all along that you have to win series, and it gets to a point where there's not a ton of room for error, so these are very important games," manager Joe Girardi said Tuesday at the Stadium.
In the now, Yankees starters are 4-4 with a 2.45 ERA in the last 12 games overall, and 8-3 with a 2.38 ERA (102.0 IP, 27 ER) in 17 home games since the All-Star break. For Girardi, the key to keeping those numbers going is holding the Astros' lone All-Star, Jose Altuve, at bay at the top of the lineup.
"He's a good hitter, he steals bases, and he's a complete player," Girardi said of the diminutive Altuve. "He's played extremely well this year, and obviously he's someone you want to keep off the bases because of the chaos he can cause."
The Yankees lineup that will face the one Houston pitcher they did beat in April, Brett Oberholtzer, includes Martin Prado at second, Carlos Beltran at DH and Ichiro in right field. Stephen Drew will get the night off.
That, Girardi said, is a function of the flexibility the Yankees now have with players like Drew and Prado -- combined with the desire to still give Beltran time at the DH spot to keep his elbow strong as well.
"Prado gives us a lot of flexibility, but we feel that we have a number of infielders that we can move around and put in positions to be successful," the skipper said. "With Carlos being able to play the field again, it helps us, but I think it's important to give him his DH days as well."
Tomorrow's lineup could be completely different because of that flexibility, though, and the skipper knows not having to keep anyone locked into the same position every day can only help keep everyone fresh down the stretch.
"I think you can do a little bit more of that, moving the DH around more, and I think that helps us," he said. "We have a 13-game stretch here, and we finish with a really long stretch, so I think it's going to be important that we do that."
However, one thing that the Yankees likely won't do is use both Brian McCann and Francisco Cervelli at the same time, especially given McCann's recent concussion. It's of course a possibility, says Girardi, but there's so much flexibility elsewhere that he doesn't see it happening.
"We've talked about that, but you run the risk of something happening if one gets nicked up," the skipper said.
Nor, according to the skipper, will you likely see the team play conservatively and replace McCann too often late in games, even if situations are conducive to that being a positive.
"Do I worry about foul tips to the mask more now with Brian than I did before? A little," he said, "but I don't think you can play scared or conservative. Maybe if you get in a long game and you have a huge lead you take him out, but then you have to worry about what happens if the next guy gets nicked up."
And, as the Yankees enter this series in a crunch where managing bullpen workload is imperative, the Yankees have perhaps two aces in the hole down there; David Robertson's appearances Saturday and Sunday were just his first since Aug. 7, and Adam Warren was not used in the Tampa Bay series, meaning he has now had a full week off after appearing in 54 of the Yankees' first 118 games.
"The situation didn't really dictate using (Warren), but I don't think the days off hurt him, and I think he should feel pretty strong now, which is a good thing for us," Girardi said.
All in all, though, as the skipper noted, you still have to take things one game at a time.
"I don't necessarily think you have to have a long winning streak, but you have to win series, and if you get fortunate enough to sweep a series, that obviously helps," he said. "There's too many teams involved (in the playoff race) and it's too unpredictable on what other teams will do, so our focus has to be on winning games and playing well."
Some more notes and quotes from the Yankees clubhouse upon their Stadium return:
-On the injured-pitcher front, Masahiro Tanaka will throw another bullpen Tuesday, and David Phelps will be re-evaluated by team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad during the game after having another MRI on Monday. Phelps also made 50 throws from 60 feet Monday and said he hasn't felt pain in a week, but the MRI was just a precaution: "It looked good last time, we're just trying to make sure it still looks good…we don't want to have a setback at this point in the season."
-Girardi on Phelps' possible role: "How we use him probably depends on how much time it takes him to get back…but I think the biggest thing is to make sure he's healthy and can throw bullpens and get ready to go, and we'll go from there."
-Derek Jeter is still sixth all-time in hits, but as of Tuesday, he has one less than he thought. The Cleveland Indians challenged the play last weekend that propelled Jeter past Honus Wagner into sixth and Joe Torre upheld the protest, changing that hit to an error. Fear not for the memorabilia lovers, however, as the Yankees have the "new" Wagner-tying and surpassing balls, and as The Captain himself laughed, "there is no story."
-Last word goes to the skipper, with his response when asked why he thinks intentional walks are down in baseball this year: "I think it's because offenses are down. I don't think you're seeing nearly as many runs scored, so maybe you're not pitching around guys quite as much. Our philosophy hasn't changed much though, because it's not something we do a lot of. There are times it is called for, and that's when you do it, but we have belief in our pitchers."