Litsch struggles in loss to Yankees

Litsch struggles in loss to Yankees

NEW YORK -- Command is the critical element of Jesse Litsch's game. If the young starter's control deserts him, he can begin to fall into predictable patterns that a patient team such as the Yankees can capitalize on.

Such was the case on Wednesday night for Litsch, who hasn't experienced many lapses this season. His options were quickly limited, as he lost control of his sinker and New York took advantage in dealing a 5-1 defeat to Toronto at Yankee Stadium.

More frustrating for the Blue Jays might have been that the command Litsch lacked was hardly an issue for Mike Mussina. The Yankees' veteran right-hander handled Toronto's hitters with ease, dropping the Jays' record to 4-4 with one game remaining on their nine-game road trip.

"It's all about location," Litsch said. "If you're locating well, it's all right, but I wasn't locating it very well today. I was leaving balls over the middle and not hitting my spots, but that's part of the game."

A more recent aspect of Litsch's game is his two-seam sinking fastball -- a pitch he worked extensively on coming into the season. It's been a nice addition to the 23-year-old's repertoire, helping him post a 5-0 record with a 1.96 ERA over his previous seven trips up the hill for the Jays (32-29).

The sinker, which tails away from left-handed hitters, helps counter Litsch's signature cutter -- a pitch that breaks in on lefties. Against the Yankees (29-30), who had six left-handers in the lineup, Litsch was forced to rely heavily on his cutter because the two-seamer went missing.

"The sinker was running off the plate all day," he said. "And that's been a big pitch for me of late. If that isn't hitting, they just start sitting on the cutter and hitting it."

Litsch (7-2) gave up leadoff singles in each of the first three innings, but the Yankees weren't able to break through against the righty until the third. New York catcher Jose Molina collected a base hit up the middle and later scored on a single by Derek Jeter, putting Toronto behind early, 1-0.

Toronto's undoing came in the following frame, when Wilson Betemit sent a 1-2 offering from Litsch crashing into the right-field seats for a solo home run with two outs. Robinson Cano followed with a double and crossed home plate on a single by Melky Cabrera, putting the Jays down, 3-0.

"[Litsch's] strength is his cutter," said manager John Gibbons. "But he has to get the [sinker] going, too, to equalize everything. He probably didn't throw enough curveballs tonight either, really. But tonight was Mussina. He was in control the whole way."

Mussina -- an old nemesis of the Blue Jays -- cruised to his 24th career victory over Toronto, moving him into a tie with Roger Clemens for the most career wins against the club. This time around, Mussina blanked the Jays for the first five innings before yielding a lone run in the sixth.

That was the last inning for Mussina (9-4), who finished with six strikeouts, including four of the called variety. He stifled Toronto with his looping curve and painted the corners with his fastball. He doesn't boast the stuff he did in previous years, but he's still finding ways to give Toronto fits.

"He's always been that crafty guy," catcher Rod Barajas said. "He definitely did a really good job of using both sides of the plate, even though his velocity is not where it used to be."

Dating back to April 23, Mussina is 8-1, representing the most wins in the Majors over that span. After giving up a pair of singles in the first inning, he retired 15 of the next 17 batters he faced. He picked up his ninth win in the process -- a number he didn't reach until his 24th start a year ago.

"He's always been good," Gibbons said. "He's got that curveball any time he needs it now, and he's spotting his fastball. His career speaks for itself. He was up and down a little bit last year, but shoot, what's that, his ninth win this year? That tells you everything you need to know."

In that same regard, it's fair to point out that Litsch is tied with Jays ace Roy Halladay with a team-leading seven victories. The 10 hits Litsch allowed against New York were a season high, and the four runs he surrendered and 5 1/3 innings he logged each marked his worst showings as a starter since April 22.

"He's pitched so good," Gibbons said. "He was working hard from the get-go [against the Yankees]. But then again, we only scored one tonight anyway."

Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.