On Tuesday afternoon, Joe Girardi outlined precisely what he wants in an eighth-inning reliever.
“The guy that steps up the most, that’s having success against left-handers and right-handers,” the Yankees manager explained. “A guy you know that you’re not going to (replace) to face that left-hander. That’s what we’re looking for.” Consider, then, what happened on Tuesday night at Fenway Park.
The Yankees had a one-run lead entering the bottom of the eighth … and Girardi used three pitchers to face the first three hitters.
Guess you could say that he’s still looking.
Thanks to a surprise rescue by Joba Chamberlain, the strategy worked. This time. The once-and-perhaps-future setup man struck out Adrian Beltre and J.D. Drew to strand the tying run at second base. New York beat Boston, 6-4.
Chamberlain should be able to do this all the time. Among the in-house candidates, he has by far the highest ceiling. If he hasn’t pitched well enough to take the job by May or June, the Yankees will be in trouble.
But don’t let one night fool you. He’s not ready to be a full-time setup man now, because he spent far too much of the spring as a starter. That’s one reason this will be a turbulent April for the defending champs. And it didn’t need to be this way.
Chamberlain’s performance was met with rave reviews in the Yankees clubhouse. Girardi said he “really liked” what he saw from the 24-year-old. Of course he did. Chamberlain’s line — two up, two down, two strikeouts — would sparkle in any box score from April to November.
Catcher Jorge Posada took the praise to another level, saying, “It was very similar to what he was doing in ’07.” Since that seems like a long time ago, I’ll refresh your memory: That was the season in which Chamberlain, the rookie sensation, had a 0.38 ERA in 19 grunting, fist-pumping, crowd-riling appearances. Posada was right: Chamberlain channeled some of that three-years-ago electricity. It was an impressive outing in an impressive win.
But there’s no reason for Yankees fans to be giddy. Yet. To suggest that the Bombers have completed the 2010 edition of Bullpen Mad Libs would be shortsighted.
It would take a doctoral thesis to address all the doubts surrounding this bullpen. Tuesday’s game offered Girardi some encouraging information. That shouldn’t be confused with a solution.
Girardi wants to get the eighth-inning assignment “ironed out as soon as possible,” as he put it Tuesday afternoon. I’m not sure if that’s realistic.
Girardi stopped well short of anointing Chamberlain as The Guy during his postgame remarks. In fact, he acknowledged that David Robertson, the first reliever to take the mound in the eighth, had an opportunity to finish the inning himself.
But Robertson began his outing by surrendering a leadoff single to Kevin Youkilis, and it was time for Girardi to audible.
In came Damaso Marte to face David Ortiz. One of the left-hander’s first acts was a wild pickoff throw to first base that allowed Youkilis to move up. But since Big Papi left his hits in Fort Myers — he’s currently 0-for-7 — the mistake wasn’t costly. Ortiz flew to center.
Then Girardi gave Joba his chance. Much to the manager’s delight, Chamberlain’s stuff was back. His fastball hummed at a lively 94, 95 and 96 miles per hour. His slider snapped away from bats. Like it used to.
Chamberlain looked much better that he did on Sunday night.
And that’s exactly the issue.
Right now, Chamberlain isn’t equipped to dominate hitters in back-to-back outings, much less back-to-back nights. He’s only now readjusting to the bullpen (again) after auditioning for the rotation (again) this spring.
So, it wasn’t a surprise that he needed 33 pitches to get four outs in Sunday’s season opener. Girardi described the outing as “OK,” and it would have been difficult for Chamberlain to be much better than that.
When the Yankees announced last month that Phil Hughes would be their No. 5 starter, Chamberlain’s throwing regimen changed. In running terms, he went from marathons to sprints.
“It’s a process,” Chamberlain said after Tuesday’s game. “It’s going to continue to be a process all year, no matter how comfortable you feel.”
Will it be difficult to switch?
“I’ve had the fortunate advantage of flip-flopping for about four years now,” he replied. “Every year’s a little different. Your body changes here and there, things like that.”
Chamberlain and the Yankees might be better off now if the organization decided to give him a single assignment this spring — or long before that. Mothball the Joba Rules — do they even exist anymore? — and let him master one craft.
It would be easier on his arm. It would probably be easier on his mind, too.
Yet the Yankees decided it was worthwhile for him to participate in the five-man derby for one rotation spot. As a result, Chamberlain’s preparation as a reliever is behind schedule.
So, the Yankees can count on some mediocre outings (Sunday) along with the outstanding ones (Tuesday), while the right-hander finds his way.
“It’s one outing,” Girardi said. “He’s had a lot of success in the bullpen. It’s something we feel he can get back to. It’s not going to happen overnight.
“He was prepared as a starter. He’s worked very hard in a short time to get back to relieving form. It was there tonight.”
It was. But no one can promise that it will be there the next time. The best tenor in the troupe is still hoarse from the dress rehearsal.