The Windup: Will Wang's injury derail Yankees' turnaround?
Just when the Yankees were starting, finally, to make a little noise, just when they were beginning to get healthy and flex their considerable muscle, just as they looked ready to get back into the American League East race, a disjointed dash around the basepaths by a guy who hardly ever dashes at all has the Yanks staggering once again. And this one could really hurt.
When Chien-Ming Wang, the Yanks' ace, came up limping while running toward home during a 13-0 blowout of the Astros on Sunday, it became New York's latest setback in a young season full of them. On Monday, it was announced that Wang has a partially torn tendon in his right foot and is expected to be sidelined until September.
That might not be a killer blow for the Yankees, who have survived and, now, are starting to thrive despite injuries to some of their biggest everyday players. But it's a big blow. Wang, 8-2 with a 4.07 ERA, has won 46 games since the beginning of the 2006 season, more than any other pitcher in baseball. This year he has been the Yankees' steadiest pitcher, if not necessarily their best. He has also been the workhorse, making all 15 of his scheduled starts while throwing a team-high 95 innings.
Without him the Yankees are again scrambling to find bodies for the rotation. They could move the surprisingly effective Dan Giese (1.23 ERA in three appearances) into an emergency starter role, call up a pitcher from Class AAA (Jeffrey Marquez or Kei Igawa?) or look to the trade market. The New York Times says that the Indians "are likely" to trade their ace, C.C. Sabathia, and that the Yanks are interested.
Of course the problem there is that the Indians seem likely to dictate demands. The Yankees' top trading pieces when they were considering dealing for Johan Santana in the offseason were young starters Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy and center-fielder Melky Cabrera. But injuries and ineffectiveness have plagued Hughes and Kennedy, presumably reducing their trade value even if the Yankees were willing to part with them. As for Cabrera, the Indians already have a star in center in Grady Sizemore.
Wang's injury comes at a time when the Yankees, after a sweep of the Astros over the weekend, have scraped their way to a 37-33 record, a high point for them if not exactly the zenith that the Steinbrenner boys are after. New York is back in the AL East race despite injuries to the aforementioned young guns (a lat muscle for Kennedy and a stress fracture in a rib for Hughes; neither is due back until next month, at the earliest), catcher Jorge Posada (who missed 32 games with a bad shoulder), third baseman Alex Rodriguez (16 with a lame quadriceps muscle) and reliever Brian Bruney (who may be out for the season with a foot problem that may be similar to Wang's). And those are just the ones that merited a trip to the disabled list.
Since dropping a season-low five games under .500 on May 20, though -- the date Rodriguez returned to the lineup -- the third-place Yankees have gone 17-9, pulling within six games of first-place Boston. They haven't lost a series in June. And they've done it all in true Yankees' fashion: They've bludgeoned the other guys.
In the 26 games since A-Rod's return the Yankees are averaging almost 5.7 runs per game. (In the 17 games A-Rod missed, the Yankees went 6-11 and averaged just 3.5 runs.) Since his return, last year's AL MVP is hitting .366 with eight homers, 26 RBIs and a 1.180 OPS.
A-Rod isn't the only one starting to come around. Johnny Damon has played in 25 of those 26 games. He's hitting .447 with a .486 on-base percentage and a 1.069 OPS in that stretch. Hideki Matsui is batting .360 with a .441 OBP. Jason Giambi is hitting .364 with seven homers and a 1.168 OPS. Giambi, with 15 homers, already has one more than he had all of last year.
The pitching has improved, too. Right-hander Mike Mussina (10-4, 3.87) has had a resurgence. Fill-in Darrell Rasner (3-4, 3.64) has been better than his record indicates. The trumpeted Joba Chamberlain has made a steady, if not yet particularly smooth, move to the rotation, where he has given up 12 hits in 12 2/3 innings and has a 2.84 ERA in three starts.
Then there is Wang. Or there was Wang. The Yankees have fought through a lot to stay in the playoff hunt. If they can find some way to get by without their steadiest starter -- a trade, a parade of minor leaguers, whatever it takes -- they might yet find something special to look back on come September.
It's not going to be easy, though. With this Yankees' team, nothing ever seems to be.