Yankees' Sore Four show signs of wear

NEW YORK -- It is no fun growing old, even when you are winning championships and posing for magazine covers and soaking all of your achy, breaky parts in a delirious champagne bath.

This unforgiving fact of life presented itself Wednesday under a cloudless sky in the Bronx, where Mariano Rivera didn't pitch, Jorge Posada couldn't catch, Andy Pettitte couldn't finish and Derek Jeter couldn't help but flail at a couple of balls smacked to his left.

The New York Yankees are packing their 19-8 record for a train ride to Boston, and the undefeated forces of gravity and time might stand as the biggest hurdles -- no, make that the only hurdles -- separating Jeter from a sixth ring to match the collection of his American idol, Michael Jordan.

"I think it's inevitable," Brian Cashman said of the natural decline of aging stars. "But we hope that doesn't happen at any point in the near future."

Cashman was speaking after Joe Girardi pulled Pettitte from a 7-5 victory over Baltimore, and before an MRI exam revealed the 37-year-old starter has mild inflammation in his left elbow. The GM said it was likely Pettitte would miss a start, if only to err on the side of caution, and swatted away any suggestion that his four horsemen -- Pettitte, Rivera, Posada and Jeter -- are heading out to pasture.

"For the most part," Cashman said, "these older guys have stayed healthy for us. Age is in your mind every year when putting together a team, but I think we'll be fine."

Nobody is suggesting the Yankees' senior citizens are approaching David Ortiz-dom, a sad place to be. But as the wretched Orioles mounted something approximating a late rally against relievers not named Rivera, it was hard to ignore the portrait of a team stripped of its dynastic core.

Posada, 38, was out with a calf strain, a weekend-warrior injury straight from a beer league playbook. Pettitte was gone after five innings with stiffness in his pitching arm, a nuisance bugging him for the second straight start.

Jeter, 35, spent much of his day turning double plays against a Baltimore offense with a spectacular talent for producing them, but looked less supple moving to his left than he did during last year's renaissance. As it turned out, Wednesday marked his 2,164th career game, tying Lou Gehrig for second on a Yankees list topped by Mickey Mantle's 2,401.

That's heavy mileage on a set of wheels that can't burn rubber forever.

"I think we're going to have to manage that," Girardi said of his graying players and the hard facts of human frailty. "Part of what we have to manage is the competitive spirit in there."

At 40, Rivera's competitive spirit burns hotter than most. He told his manager the stiffness in his left side -- another old man special -- had loosened enough for him to finish off the Orioles and drive that Yankees train north.

Girardi desperately wanted to give Mo another day of rest, to package it with Thursday's off day so he'd be fresh for the series at Fenway. And sure enough, as Baltimore went to work on the likes of David Robertson and Boone Logan, creating a lot of unnecessary ninth-inning angst, Girardi resisted the urge to go to Mo.

Never mind that Joe Torre would've succumbed to the temptation, and Rivera would've been summoned from the 'pen. Girardi was playing it smart against the one opponent -- Father Time -- that owns more titles than the Yanks do.

How can a manager determine whether a player is sore or injured? "It's usually harder when a guy has mileage," Girardi said.

Mileage was the word of the day, as Pettitte's added three degrees of urgency to his MRI. Suddenly, without warning, Javy Vazquez wouldn't make anyone's rankings of the top 10 pinstriped problems.

"Any time you're talking about the area around the elbow," Pettitte said through team spokesman Jason Zillo, "you start to worry a little bit."

Pettitte was already working with a surgically repaired elbow. When Girardi was asked to identify the location of Pettitte's stiffness Wednesday, the manager patted the back of his elbow but declined to utter the e-word.

That was A-OK; Pettitte did the dirty work for him. The pitcher called the elbow stiffness and his inability to last beyond five innings "frustrating," but maintained the injury is nothing like the torn flexor tendon he suffered in the summer of 2004.

"Nothing like it at all," Pettitte said.

So chances are Pettitte will miss a single start, maybe two. Rivera should be ready for the Red Sox, Posada is a possibility for the weekend and, let's face it, Jeter remains among the game's best players.

But starting Friday, the Yankees play games across 17 consecutive days. Their four aging horsemen are going to feel it, the strains and pains of growing old in a young man's world.

Even the greatest of Yankees legends can't last forever, and Wednesday was a small and sobering reminder of why.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.