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On verge, Yankees start planning ahead

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / September 25, 2010

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NEW YORK — For the Yankees, the object is to win the World Series again. Winning the American League East, however, could get in the way of that.

At face value, that wouldn’t seem to make too much sense. But with eight games left in the regular season, manager Joe Girardi has weighed the merits of going full out to try to win the division against the benefits of having his players rested and his rotation lined up for the Division Series.

The choice was to put preparation ahead of celebration. Phil Hughes, who was scheduled to face the Red Sox tomorrow night, was pushed back to Wednesday. The Yankees instead will start Dustin Moseley.

Hughes, 24, has thrown 169 1/3 innings, 77 more than all of the 2009 regular season and postseason. The Yankees are planning on Wednesday being his final appearance of the regular season.

CC Sabathia will not pitch again until Friday night at Fenway Park, and he may be limited to five innings. Other changes to the rotation are also in the works.

The Yankees, who with last night’s loss to the Red Sox fell a half-game behind the Rays in the division, are prepared to live with the consequences of those decisions.

“We’re still looking at the division, but you also have to think about mapping it out as well,’’ Girardi said.

At this time last year, the Yankees had an iron grip on the East and the AL’s best record. Girardi was able to use the final weeks of the season to rest his regulars and line up his pitching for the playoffs.

“It was a little easier last year,’’ Girardi said. “We took some measures in September because, somewhat, of the lead we had. We spaced out CC a little bit more . . . I think it helped us, I do. We were able to make sure we got some guys some good rest.’’

The strategy, Sabathia said, helped the Yankees win their 27th championship.

“We had it set up well last year,’’ Sabathia said. “They got me extra days off in September and when the playoffs started, I felt pretty fresh. I think we all did. Joe took care of the pitchers and it made a difference later on.’’

Thanks to an accommodating schedule, the Yankees used only three starters (Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Andy Pettitte) in the postseason. They were 8-2 with a 3.44 earned run average in 15 starts.

That will be much more difficult this season. If the Yankees get that far, the first four games of the ALCS are scheduled to be played over five days. The same is true of the World Series.

Outside of Sabathia (20-7, 3.26), the Yankees are short of reliable starters. Pettitte made his second start last night since spending two months on the disabled list with a groin strain. He allowed six earned runs on 10 hits over 3 1/3 innings.

Burnett (10-14, 5.05) has been erratic all season and Hughes (17-8, 4.31) has a 5.27 ERA since the All-Star break. Even Sabathia is a bit of a concern, having allowed 10 earned runs and 17 hits in his last two starts (12 1/3 innings).

“I think our offense has started to click a little more recently but it’s all about the pitching,’’ Yankees right fielder Nick Swisher said. “We need those starters to be ready and to be themselves. I don’t think home field matters if we have our guys feeling good.’’

Girardi is hoping the Yankees will clinch their playoff berth this weekend, which would make preparing for the postseason a little easier. He is impressed the Red Sox remain mathematically alive.

“They’ve done a very good job staying in this. They’ve had a ton of injuries,’’ Girardi said. “The rotation has been intact for the most part. [Josh] Beckett missed a substantial amount of time but they’ve gotten great years from [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz. They’ve done a good job. Their young players have come up and helped out. Some of the guys expected to be role players have played a lot more.

“It’s definitely challenging because the expectations don’t change. Whether you’re dealing with a ton of injuries or not, the expectations when you’re in New York or Boston aren’t going to change.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com.

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