The Yankees have been living large off the back end of their bullpen for more than two decades, since before John Wetteland put on pinstripes in 1995 and handed the baton to Mariano Rivera two years later.
Even when the incomparable No. 42 went down for the year in late April 2012, Rafael Soriano provided aid and comfort through a season in which he converted 42-of-46 save opportunities. And then following Rivera’s retirement, The Bronx has been graced with bullpen permutations of David Robertson, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.
Personnel like that produce more than victories. They produce peace of mind. They produce security. In other words, the exact opposite of the nervous condition for which the relief corps has been responsible the last few weeks.
The early joyride when the Yankees bolted out of the gate and beyond expectations to a 21-9 record had come to a crashing halt over a stretch where the team won only five of 19 games while losing seven games in the standings, falling to second place in the AL East, three games behind the Red Sox.
Of course, it is true that one Yankee after another went on the disabled list with a raging case of communicable Mets Disease. But the fact is that the Yankees had blown five of the six games in which their bullpen had the opportunity to nail down a save. And entering Monday’s game at the Stadium against the Blue Jays, the Yankees had converted only 17-of-32 such chances, ranking 13th in the AL with a 53.13 percent conversion rate.
So here the Yankees arrived at their moment of truth in this one when Betances — who’d lost the plate, if not temporarily his mojo, walking seven men and surrendering eight runs on five hits in 3 ¹/₃ innings over five appearances — took the ball from a resurgent Masahiro Tanaka with a 2-1 lead to start the eighth inning.
The count went to 2-1 to leadoff batter Jose Bautista. Uh-oh. But Bautista went down on strikes. Three-and-two to Josh Donaldson before a called ball four that did not pass the smell test. Three-and-0 to Justin Smoak before climbing back to a full-count. Smoak swung and missed, Donaldson was pegged out trying to steal second base by Gary Sanchez, who’d thrown one into center field on an attempted steal an inning earlier.
And that was the decisive moment before the Yankees tacked on four runs in the bottom of the inning on their way to a 6-3 victory that enabled the team to finish its mathematical first half with a 44-37 record and a hold on the first wild-card spot.
“I thought [Betances] threw the ball extremely well,” manager Joe Girardi said after surviving a restless ninth inning in which a seemingly diminished Chapman surrendered two runs on three hits. “He went through the tough part of the order and did a tremendous job.”
Dellin Betances walked one and struck out two in one scoreless inning of work Monday.Getty Images
Betances said he had been working on adjusting his mechanics in sessions with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, focusing on his foot position when he comes set. Would-be base-stealers have been running wild on the 6-foot-8, 29-year-old. Thus, the need is critical for Betances not to be wild.
“I tried to be aggressive in the strike zone and strike early,” he said following a 20-pitch inning in which he was credited with just 10 strikes. “I’m trying to keep things simple and get back to where I started.
“I had a couple of rough ones. Walks have hurt me. Obviously I try to do my best every time. I have to believe the stuff I have can get guys out. I felt a lot better.”
Everyone would probably feel a lot better if Chapman resembled the pitcher he was last year before throwing 15 ²/₃ innings in the playoffs and 7 ²/₃ innings in the World Series for the Cubs. Everyone would feel better if Tyler Clippard had been pitching dependably out of the ’pen. But Adam Warren, an essential bridge-builder, should be off the DL on Tuesday.
And for the relief corps, Monday represented a start.
“As a bullpen — including myself — we feel some of those [losses] were on our hands,” Betances said. “I feel like we’re going to get better. The bullpen is very strong here.”
Rest assured — or don’t — but the next three months kind of depend on it.