Can Yanks weather Pettitte's setback?

NEW YORK -- If the rest of the New York Yankees' starting rotation was as steady as CC Sabathia, the news that came out of an MRI tube about Andy Pettitte on Tuesday wouldn't seem so grim.

Notice I never said "as good as" CC Sabathia, but truthfully, not too many pitchers in either league are as good as the big guy who always looks as if he's pitching in his pajamas.

Tuesday night, Sabathia pitched another quiet gem, allowing a home run on his first pitch of the game and pretty much nothing else the rest of the way, shutting down the Detroit Tigers to the tune of two runs and five hits over seven innings.

Meanwhile, the newly revamped Yankees lineup, minus Alex Rodriguez but with a fresh 1-2 punch of Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter at the top of the order, was driving Justin Verlander to distraction on the way to a surprisingly easy 6-2 win at Yankee Stadium.

It was Sabathia's league-leading 16th win, his third in a row, and he is now undefeated in his last 19 starts in the Bronx -- which is second only to Whitey Ford's 21 straight spread over the 1964 and 1965 seasons.

Any baseball team, even one as financially blessed as the New York Yankees, would be happy to have one Sabathia in its rotation. The problem with the Yankees is, after Sabathia, where do you go?

Well, when everyone's healthy, two days later you would go to Pettitte, who is every bit as stable as Sabathia and, on a lot of days, just about as good.

But Pettitte is not going to be around for awhile (another three weeks at least) after another cranky bullpen session and a hastily set-up MRI at Columbia Presbyterian revealed that whatever the 38-year-old left-hander did to the left side of his groin on July 18 hasn't gone away a month later.

So now, after Sabathia you go to A.J. Burnett, a talented head case who can self-destruct at any moment, to Javier Vazquez, who has lost the accelerator pedal on his fastball, to Phil Hughes, who is on an innings limit, and to Dustin Moseley, whose glass slipper is slowly but inevitably starting to slip off.

"This is the team we've got," GM Brian Cashman said in the Yankees clubhouse after nearly all the players had showered and gone home. "I don't anticipate any more moves. We're looking forward to playing out the string and seeing where it takes us."

That means there isn't going to be any savior waltzing through that clubhouse door between now and the end of the season, even though the pennant race is in full stride -- the Rays won again on Tuesday and remain in a first-place tie with the Yankees atop the AL East, and let's not forget the Red Sox, stalking the field from a mere 5 ½ lengths back. No matter how tight things get, the Yankees are going to try to squeeze by with the pitchers they've got now, not the ones they wish they had.

"It's taking longer than any of us would want, but it is what it is," Cashman said of Pettitte's recovery. "I know we're in a pennant race and we'd love to have him in the middle of it, but he's not gonna help us right now. Until he feels 100 percent down there we're not going to take any chances because we've got a big picture in mind.

"He'll be in meaningful games for us at some point. We're just going to have to wait on it."

Right now, it looks as if that wait could stretch into mid-September. Although manager Joe Girardi said he expected Pettitte by Sept. 1 "at the earliest," when you do the math it is obvious the manager is being hopelessly optimistic.

Pettitte, usually among the most open and cooperative of players in the Yankee clubhouse, watched the game from the dugout and then left without speaking to reporters, probably no longer wishing to discuss a situation that seems to get worse every time he talks about it.

The MRI showed "a small, persistent strain" in Pettitte's groin. As a result, the Yankees have chosen to shut him down -- or at least limit him to just light throwing on flat ground -- for a week, which brings us to Aug. 24.

After that, the best-case scenario, an uneventful rehab progression -- bullpen session followed by simulated game followed by a minimum of one rehab start -- adds probably another 10 days, which takes us to about Labor Day.

And the likelihood is that Pettitte will need more than one rehab start to get back to where the Yankees need him to be for the crucial final three-week run, in which they face the Rays seven times and the Red Sox six, including a three-game series at Fenway in the final weekend of the season.

"It certainly hurts," Cashman said. "You can't replace an Andy Pettitte."

Cashman then proceeded to explain how he would try by cobbling together a rotation of Burnett, Vazquez, Hughes and Moseley -- and if need be, a call-up such as Ivan Nova, currently 11-3 with a 2.93 ERA for Triple-A Scranton.

"At some point, if we have to dip down and grab somebody to help us out, then so be it," Cashman said. "But that's what they're there for."

And under no circumstances, Cashman said, would the Yankees alter their innings limitation on Hughes -- which is believed to be 175. In that case, Hughes has about 31 more innings to play with before the Yankees shut him down, too.

"I wouldn't say what our plan is, but there's an innings limit in place and it will come online, no matter what," Cashman said. "I'm not worried about it. We'll just deal with it as we've been dealing with it, and hopefully we can handle it the way a championship team is capable of handling it."

Late last year, after the injury to Chien-Ming Wang and the innings limit on Joba Chamberlain kicked on, the Yankees got by cobbling together a rotation that featured Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre, and in fact made it through their championship run with just three starting pitchers.

It was a dangerous way to live last year, and somehow they survived.

But what are the odds the Yankees could walk that same tightrope two seasons in a row, and live to celebrate it? It sure sounds like we are about to find out.

Even Sabathia seems to realize he can't do it all alone. "With Andy out, we're all trying to pick up the slack," he said. "We're just trying to weather the storm until he gets back."

Game notes: Girardi said he is likely to stick with the new batting order, featuring Gardner in the leadoff spot and Jeter batting second, until Rodriguez is ready to return. On Tuesday night, Gardner and Jeter combined for three hits, three walks, three runs and two stolen bases. ... Speaking of stolen bases, Jorge Posada celebrated his 39th birthday by stealing his third of the year to tie his career high. ... Since having his swing remade by hitting coach Kevin Long, Curtis Granderson has been on fire. On Tuesday night, he hit a long home run off Verlander in the second inning, and even more encouraging, drew a walk after falling behind 0-2 to left-hander Brad Thomas. ... Robinson Cano hit his 22nd homer in the seventh, a line shot into right field where the bleachers meet the Yankees bullpen. ... Nick Swisher had another painful night. One night after being replaced in the sixth inning because of pain his right elbow, Swisher got hit square on the foot by Daniel Schlereth's curveball in the seventh. ... Alfredo Aceves pitched an effective 2-1/3 innings for Trenton, allowing one hit, one run and striking out four. His status will be re-evaluated this week. ... Wednesday's pitching matchup: Moseley (2-2, 4.41) vs. RHP Jeremy Bonderman (6-8, 5.16). First pitch at 7:05 p.m.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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