Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 28, 2011

Don’t Tell Bartolo It’s Not 2005

It’s a pleasant evening in the Bronx, the first time I’ve been at any ballpark in this still-young season when it hasn’t been necessary to bundle up in multiple layers of clothing. The Yankees are entertaining the White Sox in the third game of a four-game series. The New York offense has been silent in the first two games, won by Chicago 2-0 and 3-2. Effective outings by A.J. Burnett and Ivan Nova have gone for naught as Chicago’s moundsmen have stymied the normally potent New York hitters. So it is that we 40,000 plus in the stands anxiously hope that tonight at last Yankee bats will boom again in support of the reclamation project that is Bartolo Colon.

Colon, the burly Dominican right hander, is part of the unlikely group of pitchers who became general manager Brian Cashman’s Plan B after top free agent Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees for the Phillies and long-time Yankee stalwart Andy Pettitte retired. Winner of the 2005 AL Cy Young Award and twice an All-Star, Colon’s career was sidetracked by injuries. Prior to being invited to Tampa by the Yankees for Spring Training, he had not pitched in the majors since July, 2009. But New York bench coach Tony Pena managed Colon in a Dominican winter league, and lobbied for New York to give him a shot.

In Tampa Colon was joined by Freddy Garcia, another former star who led the White Sox to a championship the same year that Colon was winning the Cy Young. But less than two seasons later Garcia would undergo shoulder surgery and miss the better part of three campaigns. While Colon and Garcia competed for a spot in the starting rotation throughout training camp, the Yankees added what amounted to a Plan C in their quest for pitching, signing two more oft-injured former stars, Kevin Millwood and Mark Prior, to minor league contracts.

By the time New York was ready to head north for the season opener, Colon had outpitched Garcia. But given his extended absence from a major league routine, the Yankees were concerned about Colon’s durability. So as the season began Garcia was slotted into the rotation while Colon went to the bullpen to pitch long relief.

That arrangement lasted less than a month. Right hander Phil Hughes, an All-Star in 2010, was ineffective in his first three outings, going 0-1 with an unsightly ERA of 13.94. Lacking velocity on his fastball, Hughes went on the disabled list in mid-April and began a series of medical tests in an effort to determine the cause of his dead arm. That opened the door for Colon who after three appearances in relief, all in games that Hughes had started, got his first start against Toronto last week. He was effective and picked up the win in that game, giving up two earned runs and five hits while striking out seven over six plus innings. So as the 37-year old walks to the mound this evening we are hopeful, if not entirely certain just what to expect.

The top of the first goes smoothly enough. Colon fans Juan Pierre to start the game, much to our delight. After grounding softly in front of home plate, Alexei Ramirez is easily thrown out by Yankee catcher Russell Martin. Carlos Quentin smacks a double to left, but Colon ends the inning by freezing Paul Konerko with a called third strike.

In the bottom of the first the Yankees waste no time striking against White Sox left hander Mark Buehrle. Derek Jeter leads off by looking at four straight balls. After Buehrle fans Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez bloops a single into short right field as Jeter races to third. Then Robinson Cano clears the bases with a lined shot into the lower deck in right field. The Yankees lead 3-0 and The Stadium is alive with noise.

Little did we know at that moment that Cano would be the last Yankee to cross home plate on this evening. Even less could we have hoped with Colon on the mound that three runs would be more than enough. As the second inning begins it quickly appears that the lead may not survive Chicago’s next at-bat. Adam Dunn grounds a seeing-eye single between Teixeira and Cano. Alex Rios walks. When White Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski hits a grounder up the middle there is a flicker of hope for a double play. But the idea no sooner forms than it is extinguished. The ball is hit too sharply; Cano does well to get a glove on the ball behind second, knocking it down but unable to make a play. Chicago has loaded the bases, and no one is out.

But having been given an unexpected chance, Bartolo Colon seems determined to prove himself the unlikeliest of heroes. It’s not as if the veteran has never been in a jam before. With the radar gun dancing between 94 and 96 MPH, he fans Gordon Beckham on four pitches. Omar Vizquiel swings at the first 94 MPH fastball and lifts a fly to short left field. Andruw Jones makes the catch, and lumbering Adam Dunn at third has no chance to try for home. Three more mid-90’s fastballs to leadoff man Pierre produce a fly ball to straight away center. When the ball falls into Curtis Granderson’s glove the White Sox have been denied. Colon walks to the Yankees’ dugout as the cheers cascade down from all three decks.

Over the next three innings Colon allows but a single base runner; and thanks to a double play he faces the minimum nine hitters. Finally with one out in the top of the sixth inning he surrenders three successive singles that plate a Chicago run. But with men on first and second and one out, once again he finds within himself the power to shut down his opponents. At the very point when most starters’ start to tire, Colon seems to find another gear. With his pitch speed actually increasing slightly, he retires the next six batters. When Carlos Quentin hits an infield single with one out in the top of the eighth, Colon has thrown 95 pitches and two relievers are up in the bullpen.

He has done everything asked of him on this fine spring evening, and then some. With the dangerous Konerko approaching the batter’s box, no one would be surprised were Joe Girardi to stride out to make a pitching change. No one that is, except perhaps for Bartolo Colon. Wasting no time, he toes the rubber and looks in for the sign. On his 99th pitch of the evening, he gets the White Sox first baseman to bounce a ball right at Rodriguez at third. The throws sweep crisply around the horn, and a double play ends the inning.

With Mariano Rivera certain to pitch the ninth, Colon makes his last walk to the dugout for this game. As he does so we are on our feet, cheering this affable aging giant. In a few minutes, after Rivera has set the White Sox down in order in the ninth, the 3-1 victory will be official and Colon will have picked up his second victory of the season, with a performance even more impressive than his last.

In five days time he’ll take the mound again. Who knows how many outings like this he has left in him? Colon last threw more than 100 innings in 2005. The Yankees brought him to Spring Training without expectations. Neither they nor we fans should start burdening him with any now. But tonight and so far this season Bartolo Colon has turned back the clock. For however long he can do so, all of us making our way out to the streets of the South Bronx will be grateful.

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