Bartolo Colon entered the picture as an after-thought, but has become a key to the Yankees' success or failure in 2011. Wait, what?
It started off as an amusing footnote, the type of spring training filler copy that beat writers must churn out over a long month in Tampa.
Tony Pena, we learned, had seen Bartolo Colon pitch in winter ball and was impressed by the 37-year-old's still-there stuff. Sure, Colon was careening into Rich Garces territory physically, and hadn't put together a decent big-league season in five years, but he was also pitching with purpose again. Pena, so the legend goes, reported this back to Yankee generals who reached out to the former Cy Young award winner with an invite to camp.
The rest is history. After a few impressive long-relief outings, Colon was moved into rotation and has responded with six quality starts in his first eight tries. There have been a couple of clunkers along the way, but on balance Colon has been a revelation, giving New York pitching depth when its needed it most.
On Tuesday, Colon threw the first shutout by a Yankee since last September. It felt so much like 2005, I blasted Arctic Monkeys on my iPod and yelled out the window that George Bush doesn't care about black people.
Seriously, though. A 3.26 ERA in 66.1 innings? An 8.4 K/9 ratio? A 1.10 WHIP? For Bartolo Colon? Bartolo freaking Colon! This is why Red Sox fans hate us.
Once Cliff Lee signed with the Phillies and Andy Pettitte traded in standing ovations for a honey-do list, this Yankees season became all about July 31. The offseason was an unmitigated disaster, leaving the Bombers more vulnerable than they've been in years. Their only chance was to hang in the race until the trade deadline, with the hope Brian Cashman could bring in reinforcements at the right price.
Only problem was, there was more bad news to come on the pitching front. Phil Hughes — who you could argue the Yankees needed to improve on his 18-win 2010 season — came to camp with a right shoulder that didn't work. Uh oh.
Full disclosure: I thought this was the death blow of the 2011 season. Hell, it might still be. But removing Hughes from the equation — only an eternal optimist thinks he can contribute at this point — put the Yankees in a near impossible situation. CC, Hughes, and a Whole Lotta Bad News was suddenly CC, Loss, Loss, No-Decision and Loss.
It wasn't even catchy anymore, damn it!
And yet here's Colon, turning back the clock and effectively filling Hughes' spot in the Yankees rotation. The team still needs serious help, but Colon is at least giving them a chance every five days. The wait 'til July 31 is back on in earnest.
How much of this we owe to the marvels of modern medicine is debatable, but all we do know is that Colon's re-birth has probably saved this Yankees team from dying. A sincere tip of the cap is in order to Tony Pena, who was already cooler than Fonzie to me by virtue of his ability to throw out baserunners from his knees back in the day.
Obviously, the man has outdone himself.
Dan Hanzus is a regular contributor to Pinstripe Alley. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @danhanzus.