Yanks' hopes hinge on Pettitte's return

CHICAGO -- Andy Pettitte threw 20 pitches off a mound on Friday afternoon and didn't leave the ballpark in an ambulance.

The way the New York Yankees starters are performing lately, that passes for very good news.

Because right now, the job of No. 2 starter in the Yankees rotation seems to be up for grabs between Dustin Moseley and Ivan Nova.

Is this any way to win a division? And not just any division, but the AL East, the toughest division in baseball?

The fact that Pettitte did not wind up on a gurney or in an MRI tube after throwing pitches at three-quarter speed is about the only thing Yankees fans had to cheer Friday night. That, and the Red Sox beating the Rays, which means for one more night at least, the Yankees will retain a share of first place in the division.

Because watching much more of A.J. Burnett could drive the most blindly loyal Yankees fan to the loony bin, or the bottom of a whiskey bottle. And right now, it has driven his manager to say he would "evaluate" his rotation after this weekend, which could easily be interpreted as the first step to removing Burnett from it.

"Take it any way you want to," Joe Girardi snapped after the game. "I'm not saying that I am [replacing Burnett]. I'm just saying we'll evaluate after the weekend and do the necessary things we have to do."

The problem is, there doesn't seem to be much he can do, short of re-inserting Javier Vazquez, who just got booted for his own ineffectiveness earlier this week. Short of a last-minute waiver deal -- Hiroki Kuroda is out there, but according to my sources, the Yankees did not put a claim in on him -- Girardi is going to have to cobble together a rotation for his team's stretch run from the collection of frayed arms he has in his own clubhouse.

And whether he likes it or not, Girardi is probably stuck with Burnett the rest of the way. "We need him to pitch better," he said.

Lately, it seems as if Girardi is saying that after every one of Burnett's starts. Even before Friday night, Burnett had had a rough month of August, losing three of his last four. But Friday night, he officially entered Javy Country, a bleak and forbidding landscape that swallows up pitchers, never to be seen again.

"Its like Ground's Hog Day again, always the same situation," said Burnett, a guy who can flog himself with the best of them. "I take the team out of it in the first two or three innings and it wears on these guys, you know? It's gotta be frustrating not knowing which one is gonna be there every five days."

The problem with that is, we've heard it so often it becomes nothing but empty words and broken promises.

Burnett's line was ugly enough -- 3⅓ innings, nine runs, eight of them earned -- but his third inning, in which he wild pitched Carlos Quentin around the bases, was horrendous even by his standards. Worst of all, he was outpitched by Freddie Garcia, a 35-year-old slop merchant who couldn't make the Mets' starting rotation in 2009 despite being Johan Santana's buddy, but held the defending champs to one earned run over seven innings.

Garcia's effectiveness wasn't Burnett's fault, of course -- until Nick Swisher doubled leading off the seventh, the only Yankees to have hits were Francisco Cervelli, Ramiro Pena and Brett Gardner, who had two -- but his ineffectiveness was no one's fault but his own.

The game wasn't nearly as close as the final score, 9-4, since Nick Swisher's two-run homer in the ninth gave it an appearance of respectability it surely did not deserve.

This one was a mess from the first inning, when Burnett, staked to a 1-0 first-inning lead, promptly gave back four in the bottom of the inning on five hits, including a two-run double by A.J. Pierzynski.

It was Burnett's third straight loss, and the third time this year he allowed eight earned runs, although this time he did it quicker than ever before. It was not his shortest outing of the year -- that honor goes to the two-inning stint against the Rays in July when he lost a tussle to the clubhouse door -- but by every other standard, it was his worst.

Asked if he would be surprised if Girardi removed him from the rotation, Burnett said, "Yeah, I would be surprised. Joe makes the decisions around here, so you know, whatever. I look forward to going out there in the next five days and making my start and turning this thing around."

We've heard that before too, and coupled with all the other woes afflicting the Yankees rotation, it only makes Pettitte's swift return from the groin strain that has had him on the disabled list since July 19 that much more vital not only to this club's hopes of going deep into the playoffs, but even making them at all.

The news about Pettitte was by no means all positive: He acknowledged throwing only at about 75 percent intensity. Neither he nor Joe Girardi will know for sure if his injury is truly healed until he cuts loose against live batters, which won't happen until sometime next week. And even if it is, Pettitte is expected to need two and maybe three rehab starts before he can rejoin the team, probably in mid-September at the earliest.

By that point, who knows what the AL East race will look like?

For the first three months of the year, when Pettitte was healthy, Vazquez was pitching reasonably well and Burnett was only flaming out every third or fourth start, the Yankees seemed destined to win the division by open lengths.

But the Rays have hung tough and, little by little, aging parts of the Yankees have begun to rust and flake off. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Alex Rodriguez have had sub-par, injury-plagued seasons, yet nothing compared to the slow but steady implosion of the rotation, capped by the injury to Pettitte.

On July 18, the day Pettitte went down, the Yankees were 58-33 and three games ahead of the Rays. Since then, they are 20-17 and in a first-place tie.

And over that span, not only did Pettitte go down, but Phil Hughes began to struggle, Vazquez lost his spot to a rookie with eight innings of major league experience and now Burnett has completed his slow, inevitable spiral down the drain.

"Its important that we get Andy back, there's no doubt about it, because of his experience this time of year," Girardi said. "But we've got to get a lot of our guys going."

The Yankees had hoped to allow the 38-year-old Pettitte to take as much time as he needed to recover from this injury in the expectation that in October, when they really needed him, he would be ready to do what he does best, which is win big ballgames.

Now, the big ballgames may be coming in September, and the Yankees can only hope that Andy Pettitte will be around to pitch some of them.

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

More from ESPNNewYork.com »