Yankees relying on talented trio of rookie hurlers
Tanaka, Whitley boosting rotation, Betances thriving in eighth-inning role
KANSAS CITY -- This was not in the original game plan, but three rookie pitchers have been keeping the New York Yankees afloat.
The Yanks, for instance, are 4-1 in games started by rookie Chase Whitley. This is not quite Masahiro Tanaka territory, but it serves the purpose.
Tanaka, who went 24-0 in Japan last year and is 9-1 in North America this year, seems like something more than your garden-variety first-year man, but he is still a rules and regulations rookie. Then, you throw in the imposing Dellin Betances, who has become the Yankees' eighth-inning guy, and you have an extremely helpful trio.
The Yankees are missing 60 percent of their projected rotation due to injuries, but their pitching has not been the problem that this situation would normally suggest. There is a lot to miss in the absent trio of CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda and Ivan Nova. But the Yanks have been helped considerably by the fact that they have gone 18-8 in games started by rookies.
OK, most of that is their record when Tanaka pitches, which is 10-2. He could win both the American League Cy Young Award winner and the AL Rookie of the Year Award. And at this pace, if the Yankees were to win the AL East, Tanaka would be a legitimate candidate for the AL Most Valuable Player Award, as well.
But Tanaka wasn't pitching on Friday night against the Kansas City Royals and the Yankees won, 4-2, anyway. Whitley, eight days shy of his 25th birthday, gave the Yanks the longest of his five starts and gained for himself the first decision of his Major League career. He went seven innings and worked with efficiency, needing only 87 pitches in his first victory.
This is a converted relief pitcher so in a way Whitley is a double rookie. He has pitched well enough to be better than 1-0.
"He's definitely given us an opportunity to win in every game that's he's pitched," manager Joe Girardi said. "He throws strikes. He locates. He fields his position. He doesn't beat himself. He does a lot of things right."
Whitley gave as much credit as he could to the game plan that catcher Brian McCann outlined.
"Just follow that guy, he knows everything," Whitley said.
Not only did McCann have knowledge, but he had runs batted in; three of them on a bases-clearing double in the third.
This was the first time that Whitley had gone beyond five innings in his five starts as a Yankee.
"Getting that first out in the sixth, that was key," Whitley said with a smile. "Finally got past that five, you know? That was cool."
McCann credited some of Whitley's success to an improved slider.
"It's getting tighter, he's using it both back-door and back-foot to lefties," McCann said. "He's been everything that we could ever ask for him to come in here and do. Every start it seems like he's leaving with a lead. Tonight's a big night, we're all happy for him."
Another rookie, Betances, 26, took over from Whitley in the eighth. Betances leaves a huge impression, not only because he is 6 feet, 8 inches tall.
Betances went to 3-0 on the first hitter he faced -- center fielder Lorenzo Cain. But Betances worked his way to a full count and then struck out Cain on a 99-mph fastball. Having successfully demonstrated that portion of the pitching art, Betances struck out third baseman Mike Moustakas on a terrific breaking ball. Shortstop Alcides Escobar doubled, but Betances restored order by getting right fielder Nori Aoki to bounce out to first.
Betances has a 1.50 ERA, but more notable than that is the fact that he now has 61 strikeouts in 36 innings. That's 61 strikeouts out of 108 outs recorded by Betances. And he isn't exactly tapering off. Of his last 76 outs, 45 have been strikeouts.
Tanaka was obviously a major part of the Yankees' plan for 2014, but Betances and Whitley would qualify as part of Plan B. But that's perfectly OK, as it turns out.
Tanaka and Betances have been dominant. Whitley has been useful and more. Pitching injuries have damaged the Yanks, but this trio has done more than enough to salvage the situation.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.