CLEVELAND — “This is how we’re built,” manager Joe Girardi said late Saturday night, and that naturally made you wonder whether these Yankees are built to last deep into October.
Girardi’s group had just survived a nerve-wracking, nail-biting bottom of the ninth inning to outlast the Indians, 2-1 at Progressive Field, to end their four-game losing streak. Brett Gardner and Ronald Torreyes made brilliant defensive plays to bail out Aroldis Chapman, who last pitched here when he helped make Game 7 of the 2016 World Series a contest for the ages, and Carlos Santana missed a probable game-tying hit off the right-field wall by a few feet foul before looking at a Chapman slider to end it.
Had Chapman blown the save and the game, it would have gone down as one of the season’s worst losses. All the more so because Girardi went deep into his bullpen even though rookie Jordan Montgomery recorded a sublime first five innings: one run, three hits, no walks, seven strikeouts and just 65 pitches.
I’m all for protecting young starting pitchers and using data to influence your decisions, but are the Yankees taking those attributes to such an extreme that they turn into liabilities? Can too much thinking lead to overthinking?
“I think you have to look at how we’re built,” Girardi said, again. “It’s the reason we made the trade [with the White Sox], because of the outstanding work we feel we can get from our bullpen. They’re fresh. [Montgomery] has thrown five innings. He’s going through the lineup [for a third time]. I felt really good about the way he pitched, but it’s making a decision based on how we’re built.”
David Robertson, who returned to his original club from the White Sox in that July 19 trade (as did Tommy Kahnle), relieved Montgomery and threw a scoreless sixth and seventh. Dellin Betances dominated in a 1-2-3 eighth, striking out two. Then Chapman endured his four-batter, 21-pitch odyssey, which was the most stressful ninth inning you ever will see in which the tying run doesn’t advance even to scoring position.
So now the Yankees will enter Sunday afternoon’s finale, trying to secure a series tie, with a compromised bullpen. Which would have been perfectly understandable if Montgomery had labored through five innings and thrown, say, 90 to 100 pitches. He hadn’t. The lanky lefty had retired nine straight Indians batters through the fifth.
“He was really, really good tonight,” Girardi said. “And I actually thought his stuff got better when he went along, which is always a good sign.”
Nevertheless, “I had Robby fresh. I had Dellin fresh and I had Chappy fresh,” Girardi said. “We made a decision.”
“We had talked about going to the bullpen early,” Montgomery acknowledged, “but I was a little disappointed when they pulled me. But we got the win and the bullpen did great. The plan worked.”
Now Montgomery might really go to the bullpen early. As in, early August. With Girardi seemingly committed to shortening his starting rotation from six men to five, Montgomery appears to be the top candidate to be ejected, despite lowering his ERA for the season to a respectable 4.05. He would give the Yankees’ relief corps a bona fide long man, something they currently lack, and such a move would ensure Montgomery’s innings count, now at 115 ²/₃, doesn’t go past the 180-ish mark.
The Yankees put plenty of contemplation into their pitching decisions, a considerable upgrade over past methodologies. Man oh man, though. If you ask for four innings from your bullpen on a night your pitcher cruises through five innings, what are you going to do when you experience more turbulence?
“I see where they’re going with it,” Montgomery said. “We won. We’ve got a bunch of guys back there. Whatever it takes.”
Last year’s Indians rode this aggressive style of bullpen use all the way to that Game 7. Yet Terry Francona fired up his engines only once the postseason began.
The Yankees already burned out their bullpen to the tune of a 10-22 slump earlier this season. Just because the unit has been upgraded doesn’t magically inoculate it from overuse. It just means that Girardi would have to work harder to hit such a threshold. And Girardi is well-conditioned enough, we know, to make as many walks to the mound as he desires.