David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BALTIMORE - Back in December, when the Yankees lured Andrew Miller from Charm City with a four-year, $36-million contract that blew away the competition, Buck Showalter reacted to the news with a shrug.
Typical Yankees. Handing out bags of cash to the best players again, and this time, it was the star relief pitcher from his AL East champion team.
So this weekend, when we brought up the subject of Miller's elbow injury, and what should be a monthlong DL stint, we expected Showalter to describe a more level playing field with the Yankees. Perhaps a weakness for his Orioles to exploit while Miller heals.
Showalter, however, wasn't buying it. And a big reason, all 6-8, 265 pounds of him, is Dellin Betances.
"I'd love to have their problems," Showalter said.
Truth is, no Miller was no problem Sunday for the Yankees, who used Chasen Shreve, Justin Wilson and ultimately Betances to close out the series finale, 5-3, and avoid the sweep at Camden Yards.
After losing the closer's audition to the newly-signed Miller in spring training, based on his lackluster Grapefruit League performance, Betances has been among the most dominant relievers in the majors. To think anything would change by moving him back one inning seems foolish, despite the additional pressure that comes with that job.
Betances doesn't appear fazed by it. And despite a momentarily lapse in the ninth, when he walked Manny Machado with two outs to bring the tying run to the plate, Betances whiffed Matt Wieters on four pitches to end the threat.
Other than waiting a little longer for the phone to ring, Betances doesn't see the ninth as any drastic change to what he's been doing all along.
"The only difference is shaking hands after the last out," Betances said.
No offense to Betances -- and he's not a guy we want to have mad at us -- but that's an oversimplification. We've heard plenty of solid relief pitchers use the same line when assigned to fill-in duty as closer, then survive maybe two weeks on the job. When you're the last guy on the wall, there's no safety net, and for some pitchers, that can be a crippling thought to have ricocheting around inside your head.
Betances already had two saves this season, but Sunday marked the first time he was called on wearing the label of closer. And he's going to be sporting that title for a while. Removing him from the set-up role will have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the bullpen, and Wilson was great subbing in that spot Sunday. But Betances still has the toughest task, and it certainly didn't hurt converting that first post-Miller save.
"I think it was good to get to get this one under his belt," Joe Girardi said.
After losing the first two games, a pair of sloppy defeats, Girardi got the ideal situation for Betances in the series finale. He hadn't pitched since Tuesday, so Girardi probably had the luxury of using Betances for up to five outs if necessary.
But with Miller landing on the disabled list after 26 appearances in the first 58 games, and Betances at 29 himself, the manager will gladly take any opportunity to bank some bullets for the long haul. It doesn't happen very often with Girardi, which is why the Yankees basically make a transaction a day to restock the bullpen with fresh arms.
"These guys were rested," Girardi said of Sunday's relief corps. "I don't always have that option."
Betances made 70 appearances last season, and his 90 innings were the second-highest among relievers, behind only the Mets' Carlos Torres, who totaled 92. He's also had Tommy John surgery, back in 2009, and there's no telling how much of an issue that remains for pitchers in subsequent years.
We can say this -- there's no sturdier looking reliever in the sport than Betances, or more intimidating. And with a fastball that approaches triple-digits, paired with his gravity-defying slider, Betances is perfectly equipped to do the closer thing as well as Miller, if not better. Sunday's outing trimmed his ERA to 0.27 -- the lowest in the majors for a reliever -- and his 15.03 K/9 rate is the best.
Buck was right. As a Plan B, Betances is an A-plus.