Late-game pitching plan lifts Yankees

It was way back in spring training, when the Yankees were devising a blueprint to conquer the Red Sox. They knew it wouldn’t be through starting pitching — the rotation was too old, too unsettled for that. And there was no clear advantage in run production, either; not against a lineup that had added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford over the winter.

The advantage the Yankees sought was in the late innings, the 21st through 27th outs — a human chain that would end with Mariano Rivera.

“It’s what we talked about as something we could realistically do,” is how pitching coach Larry Rothschild recalled it.

Who knew the Yankees brain trust could be so prescient? The relief corps is first in the American League with a 3.04 ERA, and was brutally efficient Friday night in a 3-2 win over Boston. The bullpen not only threw 4 1/3 scoreless innings, but retired 13 of 15 as the Yankees won their eighth straight and climbed into first place.

Remember the Yankees’ 1-8 start against the Sox? It’s history, according to Rivera, who said, “Whatever happened in the past is the past. You start counting now.”

Rivera was talking about the sea-change moment in the fifth inning and all the ramifications that came with it. If ever there was a point for the Red Sox to deliver a message to the Yankees, this was it:

Bases loaded, two out, 2-0 lead, Bartolo Colon taking that million-mile walk to the dugout after being knocked out. Adrian Gonzalez was waiting for Boone Logan, arguably the weakest link in the Yankees’ bullpen. This had the scent of a mismatch, all right, as one swing from Gonzalez, the odds-on favorite to win the AL’s MVP Award, would’ve sent the Yankees into oblivion.

Already, the Sox had worn out Colon, who was unable to match Jon Lester into the fifth. Colon didn’t generate a swing and miss until his 55th pitch, reason enough for Yankees manager Joe Girardi to pay close attention when his 38-year-old right-hander started deteriorating in the bottom of the fifth.

With one out, the Sox quickly built a full-blown, bases-loaded monster of a rally after Dustin Pedroia’s infield single. Colon, desperate for the final out, abandoned his slider and even his two-seam fastball in favor of pure heat. He threw eight pitches to Pedroia, all four-seamers that rang up the radar gun to the tune of 93 to 96 mph.

Yet Colon couldn’t get the inning-ending swing and miss he needed. Pedroia’s single behind second base prompted an act of faith — or was it madness? — from Girardi, who decided he wanted Logan, not Colon, to face Gonzalez.

Logan, a hard thrower, is paid to retire lefties, but he’s no magician. In fact, lefties are batting 19 points higher against him than righties. So what chance did he have against Gonzalez, whose average against southpaws is a healthy .303?

Logan had a plan, though. And, incredibly, it worked, as he struck out Gonzalez on three pitches: a fastball and two sliders.

“In a situation like that, lefty against lefty with the bases loaded, the hitter is usually looking for an off-speed pitch, which is why I threw him a fastball,” Logan said. That was strike one, and Logan’s brain was now busy processing the data.

He threw a slider that Gonzalez swung at feebly. Logan instantly decided, “I knew I could get him to swing at it again if I threw it in the dirt.”

One more pitch, down and away, far out of the strike zone, and Gonzalez was history: His strikeout set the stage for the Yankees’ three-run rally off Lester in the sixth.

Logan talked about the “contagious” nature of late-inning outs, and how momentum builds from reliever to reliever.

That’s the calculus the Yankees were imagining in February, although no one foresaw the season-ending injury to Joba Chamberlain. The components have been shuffled a bit. But going into the final 50 games, the seventh inning now belongs to Rafael Soriano, the eighth is David Robertson’s property, and the ninth belongs to this generation’s greatest closer, Rivera, who put the final touches on his 29th save with back-to-back strikeouts of Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Josh Reddick.

Girardi would later call it “a big win” for his team, although the manager is preoccupied with sorting out his starting rotation. Colon almost certainly is still the Yankees’ No. 2 starter, and if momentum counts for anything, Ivan Nova’s 10-strikeout performance against the White Sox on Thursday means he’s earned the No. 3 slot.

Freddy Garcia is a reliable No. 4, but that’s assuming Girardi has the guts to shove A.J. Burnett all the way at the back of the line. And even then, the Yankees still have to find a place (and role) for Phil Hughes.

Girardi is procrastinating as long as possible, using a six-man rotation, but he knows “you can’t do this forever.” The Red Sox have pitching issues, but their offense is too good, too dangerous to leave the business of the rotation unsettled for long.

At least this much of the Yankees’ universe is in order: The seventh through ninth innings have never looked so tidy. If it’s not a prophecy, it’s close enough.