(Strikeout or back pain? Only Youkilis knows for sure. Courtesy of The Boston Globe)
Andy Pettitte returned to the mound Friday night and pitched 7 strong innings, easing concerns about the back issues that caused his last start to be pushed back. As one back problem seemingly goes away (for now), another took its place in the form of Kevin Youkilis. Youkilis left Saturday's game early after feeling some tightness in his back, and was a scratch from yesterday afternoon's game for the first time this season. Joe said he expects Youkilis to be back in the lineup tonight against Tampa, and as expected, Youkilis has talked down the seriousness of the issue since the moment Saturday's game ended. In the same way that Pettitte's back is still worth keeping on the radar, Youkilis and his back should also be closely monitored over the next few weeks.
Sunday being the first day of rest Youkilis has gotten this season is a fact worth revisiting. Despite being signed to be the full-time third baseman in A-Rod's absence, the 34-year-old Youkilis was just as much a candidate to receive some regularly scheduled off-days and DH days as the rest of the Yankees' crew of 30-somethings. As injuries and replacement-levelness have affected the roster, however, that regular rest has become a luxury the Yankees just can't afford. Youkilis is the sole right-handed bat on the roster that can strike a little fear into the hearts of other teams, and his presence behind Robinson Cano in the lineup has made it more difficult for opposing pitchers to work around Cano. As much as a day or two of rest would help Youkilis, the negative effect on the rest of the lineup and the team's chances of winning without him results in that decision coming out to a net loss.
Joe and Youkilis both know this, and I'm sure conversations have been had between the two about Youkilis staying in the lineup. Based on his reputation, Youkilis doesn't strike me as the type of player to willingly take a day off if he knows being in the lineup helps the team's cause, and his early offensive production has certainly been a plus. But in breaking down his still small statistical sample into two smaller sample sizes, there are some concerning trends that stand out relative to performance and the negative impact that 16 straight games may already be having on Youkilis.
In his first 9 games of the season, Youkilis had 14 hits (at least 1 in each game), 3 walks, 7 runs scored, and 7 RBI. In the last 7 he's had just 4 hits, 2 runs, and 2 RBI. He hasn't had an XBH or drawn a walk since April 12th, and he's struck out at least once in each of the last 7 games. His OPS for the season is still a more than respectable .827, but that value has dropped exactly 400 points from its highest level on April 12th. There's no way to know for sure when Youkilis' back starting bothering him or if it is the reason for the recent slow stretch of games he's had, but based on the results and the fact that Joe finally elected to give him a day off on Sunday it's a reasonable assumption to make.
Everybody knew this was the risk the Yankees were taking when they chose to forgo other replacement third base options and sign Youkilis. His last few seasons haven't been healthy or up to the level of production he achieved in his prime, and there wasn't much reason to expect that trend to turn around this season. The Yankees have needed Youkilis to play every day and he's responded by giving them good work on both sides of the ball. Now that his first health-related speed bump of the season has been reached, it'll be interesting to see how much Joe continues to ride him. The Yanks certainly can't afford to have Youkilis start falling apart in May or June, but they also can't afford to rest him as much as they'd probably like to.