Unconventional and unheralded, sidearm relievers Cody Eppley and Clay Rapada have formed a daunting middle relief tag team for the Yankees.
The righthanded Eppley (2.49 ERA, 1.26 WHIP), claimed off waivers from Texas on April 5, had his best performance of the season in Saturday's 5-3 win over the Angels at the Stadium. Eppley, whom Yankees manager Joe Girardi called one of the biggest surprises of the first half during last week's series against Boston, allowed a hit in a scoreless sixth and retired the heart of the Angels' order in the seventh.
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"Those guys that throw sidearm or down under a little bit aren't comfortable at-bats versus righthanders," Girardi said of Eppley. "He's got the good movement for the lefthanders to get the ground balls . . . I think that sidearm doesn't make it a comfortable at-bat."
An undrafted lefthander, Rapada signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees in February and has become one of the most dominant lefty specialists in baseball this season.
While setup man David Robertson (2.45 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) and closer Rafael Soriano (1.51 ERA, 1.29 WHIP) have garnered more headlines and attention after the loss of Mariano Rivera, the E-R sidearm team of Eppley and Rapada has been retiring batters with nearly the same efficiency, though both admit they had no visions of such proficiency when they arrived.
"I knew I had a fighting chance [of making the major-league roster]," said Rapada, 31. "That's all I asked when I came here when I narrowed down the teams to sign my minor-league deal."
Said Eppley, 26: "From where I started at the beginning of the year with Texas to where I'm at now, I don't think I could have dreamt this up."
The two played together in the Texas minor-league system two years ago, and Rapada has had an enormous influence on Eppley's development of the sidearm technique. Both cited Orioles sidearmer Darren O'Day, who spent time with them in Texas, as a major influence.
"I started trying to learn as much and watch as much as [Rapada] did and how he went about his business," Eppley said. "I think the hardest thing is trying to throw strikes from down there because of the way you release the ball, you're coming more through the zone instead of at the zone. It's a difficult thing to master, but once I was able to actually get it down and feel comfortable with what I was doing and have an idea of what I was doing, it's when I think my career really took off."
The epitome of a lefty specialist, Rapada has come in to face one batter 15 times this season and gotten at least one out on 13 occasions with five strikeouts against foes such as Bryce Harper, David Ortiz and Carlos Pena.
"That's what I'm here for," said Rapada, who is having a career year with the Yankees, his fifth big-league team in six seasons. His ERA (2.55), WHIP (1.14) and strikeouts (23) are career bests, and he has pitched a career-high 242/3 innings. "When you come in for one hitter, you're being squeezed and judged on that one, and it's a lot tougher."
Rapada has not allowed an earned run in his last 18 appearances dating to June 9, a span of 10 innings in which he has held opposing hitters to a .118 batting average (4-for-34) and one unearned run with two walks and 14 strikeouts. He said a small mechanical adjustment he made in May has led to his recent stretch of success.
"Against lefties, it was just a matter of staying closed a little longer," said Rapada, who has limited lefty hitters to a .150 average (9-for-60) this year. "I felt like at the beginning of the year, I was flying open, everything was pulling off and my command wasn't very good. We dug deep in some video and made one little mechanical adjustment, and it's been paying off."
The E-R team may show up earlier in the game than their more heralded bullpen mates, but their triumphs are no less important to the Yankees.
Said Girardi, "They're a nice duo together."