David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Joba Chamberlain was treated to a hero's welcome when he first returned to the Yankee Stadium mound on Aug. 1, the type of rock-star adoration that made those long 14 months of rehabilitation feel as if it was worth every grueling minute.
This was the first time Chamberlain had been called on with the game in the balance. It was tied at 5 and the bases were loaded in the seventh when Craig Gentry hit a two-out, two-strike fastball for a two-run single off Chamberlain. But the boos didn't really start until the eighth, after Chamberlain had been nicked for three more hits and two more runs that essentially iced the game.
Joba isn't quite Joba yet -- not the one everyone fondly remembers from his debut in 2007 -- and that wasn't good enough for the 47,645 fans who watched the Yankees' chance at a four-game sweep dissolve in the late-afternoon sunlight. Everyone wants the rock star back. They want Bruce Springsteen. And what they're getting right now is Bruce Hornsby. That's why they were so upset Thursday.
Chamberlain was upset, too.
"You expect it," Chamberlain said. "I was there. You guys were there. It wasn't good. There's really no way to sugarcoat it.''
Even Joe Girardi, who protects his players from the media like a one-man Secret Service detail, couldn't deny that Chamberlain needs work. But the manager took it a step further by saying that he was "forced" to use Chamberlain in a critical situation -- meaning, of course, that Girardi didn't want to.
Girardi remains on board with the plan to let Chamberlain shake off the rust from his extended layoff, even with the Yankees still a few weeks away from ticking off wins from their magic number. But he's also reluctant to stick him in any more "high-leverage" situations before Chamberlain is ready to handle the additional responsibility.
"Those are decisions that we would talk about internally," Girardi said, "if we feel that he needs more work to be ready. Right now, I don't have any plans to make any changes. I've talked about putting him in some low-leverage situations. But [Thursday] I was forced to, so that's going to happen."
Before the game, Girardi made it sound as if he had planned to stay away from the newly acquired Derek Lowe, who threw four innings in Monday's win, and Cody Eppley already had been burned in the sixth inning. So Chamberlain was called in to clean up Boone Logan's mess in the seventh -- and nearly did.
With one out and runners at second and third, Chamberlain whiffed Geovany Soto on three pitches: a 95-mph four-seam fastball followed by two nasty sliders in the high 80s. He then intentionally walked Mitch Moreland to load the bases, and after getting ahead 1-and-2 to Gentry, he threw a 94-mph fastball that caught too much of the plate.
"These guys are too good to make a mistake to, especially in that situation," Chamberlain said. "It's frustrating. Obviously, the velocity is there and stuff-wise. It's just consistency. I've got to keep grinding."
Chamberlain has thrown only six innings, but he's been tagged for 13 hits and six runs, with four walks and three strikeouts. As Girardi suggested, that's not the resume of a reliever who's ready to walk a late-inning tightrope.
Maybe believing that Chamberlain could be that type of pitcher again -- or even be trusted with a lead -- was too much to wish for this season. The Yankees still have another five weeks or so to determine if he can be a competent piece for the playoff roster.
"We said all along when we brought him up that we felt that he would be a factor by the time September rolled around as he got innings under his belt," Girardi said. "Sometimes it takes time."
And a few lumps, or boos, along the way. Chamberlain, to his credit, feels strong enough to handle that, too.
"I didn't come back just to come back," he said. "Physically, I know I'm there. Mentally, I've got to keep fighting."