By Brad Carroll
Here are the three biggest storylines facing the New York Yankees heading into a three-game series with the Texas Rangers this weekend.
1. Yankees ace pitcher Masahiro Tanaka took a major step in a possible return to the rotation with an impressive rehab start for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Triple-A team Thursday night. He allowed two hits in three scoreless innings, striking out two and walking none. Tanaka, who the Yankees desperately need if they want to make playoff run, is likely to have two more rehab starts, and if everything goes well, he'll be back with the big league club soon after. His pitching line looked great, but more importantly, Tanaka didn't suffer any immediate injury setbacks. He hasn't pitched in three weeks since going on the disabled list with a forearm strain. If all goes well, he could be starting for the Yankees during the first week of June.
2. The Yankees need to put their nine-game road trip, in which they won only twice, behind them quickly, but they are going to have to do it without Jacoby Ellsbury. The Yankees spark-plug outfielder went on the disabled list Wednesday with a knee injury and will be out for two weeks. Ellsbury is eighth in the AL in batting average, fourth in runs scored and first in stolen bases, so his production is going to be missed. Now, the Yankees are going to have to find offense without him, no easy task considering they already are struggling putting runs on the board. Over the last eight games of the road trip, the Yankees scored just 19 total runs, 2.375 per game. It's no wonder the Yankees lost seven of those games. Chris Young should get plenty of at-bats with Ellsbury out and Carlos Beltran has already moved into the two-hole, so they will have to up their games. Slade Heathcott was called up from Triple-A, but isn't likely to be a major contributor. Beltran has heated up at the plate, riding an 11-game hit streak into the Texas series, and must continue that run. It's not just on Young and Beltran to save the offense, but those are the two biggest players who have to pick up their games with Ellsbury injured.
3. CC Sabathia, who starts the middle game against Texas Saturday, was the only pitcher to win during the road trip, and he did it twice. That is a stark contrast to his previous six starts, where he lost five of them and didn't win a game. That run was enough for some fans to call for his banishment to the bullpen and others to simply say he was done as a starting pitcher. Well, Sabathia has certainly answered the critics with two solid starts in a row, including a great one against Kansas City Saturday. He allowed one run on six hits over seven innings of work, striking out five and walking none in that win over the Royals. That performance lowered his season ERA to 4.67, which is still enormously high, but it's down more than a run since he was beat up badly by the Mets earlier in the year. Sabathia has raised his game, now it's time for the rest of the staff to step up as well, including Chris Capuano, who was roughed up in his first start of the year and pitches what should be an important game Sunday.