Yanks pitching looks in midseason form

Yanks pitching in midseason form

TAMPA, Fla. -- Here in the non-Daisuke Matsuzaka portion of Florida's Gulf Coast, you are reminded that the New York Yankees also have some starting pitchers of significant stature.

The first three Yankees pitchers of the Grapefruit League schedule have faced 19 batters and recorded 18 outs, leaving little room for either improvement or second-guessing.

Whatever questions there are regarding the Yankees' pitching, one through three in the rotation, in whatever order you want -- Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina -- are not among them.

Wang, a 19-game winner last season, and Pettitte, whose work requires no introduction in these precincts, were both perfect in their two innings of work.

Mussina, working against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, actually gave up two hits, one of them a home run to Brad Eldred. The other one was a ground ball by Andrew McCutchen off the glove of shortstop Derek Jeter. It might have been an error, but this was Spring Training and this was Jeter, so, fine, a single. McCutchen subsequently was erased attempting to steal second.

Mussina has been a rotation stalwart for 15 seasons. Although he has never had a 20-victory season, his 239 career victories, fifth among active pitchers, point toward the quality and durability of his work. He is one of only 12 pitchers in the history of the game to win 10 or more games in 15 consecutive seasons.

But every time is a new time when Spring Training appears. So it was on Saturday, Mussina's first start.

"It felt strange, it was the first time," he said. "But you want to at least get the ball over the plate, and I did that, for the most part. That's all you're trying to do, just get used to it again."

With a repertoire as large as Mussina's, you wonder which pitches require the most work at this time of the year.

"Sometimes, command of the baseball takes the most time," he said. "It depends on what isn't working that particular year. I felt pretty decent with my curveball today, and I had decent location, but it felt like it was going about 81 mph out of my hand. But that's just stuff you've got to work on. It's just pitching again, just getting out there and pitching again, that's all.

"I'm sure it's changed from when I was 25. When you're 25, you expect to got out there and have it the first day you go out there. Now, I don't expect it to be great the first day, I just expect to find a feel for it and work up from wherever the starting point is."

Asked about how his slider was working, Mussina smiled.

"The same pitch that got called for a ball on the first pitch to [Eldred]," he said. "This time he hit it out of the park. That's all right. Midseason form on the homer, because that was a pretty good one."

All of the available evidence suggests that Mussina will once again be part of the solution for the Yankees. The same could be said of Wang and Pettitte, although sooner or later they will start allowing baserunners.

The questions are further down in the rotation. Carl Pavano's array of injuries over the past two years open up a whole new line of questioning, about not only his potential fitness, but his desire to pitch. Lefty Kei Igawa, the Yankees' own Japanese pitching import, has a track record of success, winning 75 games over the past five seasons. Americans have learned by now not to dismiss the achievements of players in Japanese baseball. For all of that, Igawa is a rookie in Major League Baseball, and the natural questions flowing from that status will linger until he establishes himself in this hemisphere.

Typically, at this early stage of Spring Training, expectations are minimal for starters. The most important components of their early work are regaining the feel for their craft and simply remaining healthy.

"That's the thing when you watch these guys pitch, especially early in Spring Training," manager Joe Torre said. "It's just that they get through it, they feel fine; there are no physical issues.

"The other part, they've been around long enough that they know what works. I think Mike threw a lot of fastballs today, which is good. That's why he started out last season so well, because he used his fastball in the spring and built up his arm strength."

But given the particular circumstances, there will be an unusually high level of interest in Pavano's first start of the spring, which is scheduled to occur Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies.

"I'm looking forward to it, and I think he's looking forward to it," Torre said. "He seems like he's ready to do this. Basically, it's step one, get him on the mound. He's in this the first time around, there's no special covenant here, he's up with everybody else."

The questions about the Yankees rotation center not on quality, but on depth. The quality in the first three spots is indisputable. The worst you can say about Mussina, Wang and Pettitte is that they will be very difficult acts to follow. If the rest of the rotation could approach their level, the Yankees would be what they always hope to be.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.