David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The most lethal weapon a bullpen can possess is the strikeout. It removes any element of chance, the bad bounce, the fallibility of the human defender.
In those situations, the only person on the field that needs to be wearing a glove is the catcher. The other seven players? Bored spectators, basically. They might as well be eating popcorn.
So in looking ahead to the Yankees' playoff scenarios, the most likely one beginning with an Oct. 6 wild-card game in the Bronx, the Big Three of their relief corps remains the reason to believe.
The Royals did it a year ago, rallying to beat the A's in the wild-card game before riding their own shutdown bullpen all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. The formula works. It's why Brian Cashman acquired Andrew Miller and Justin Wilson last offseason to combine with Dellin Betances.
With those three anchoring the back end, the Yankees' bullpen broke their own record for strikeouts in a season Saturday when Miller whiffed Trayce Thompson for No. 572. He also fanned Adam LaRoche with a nasty slider to close the Yankees' 2-1 victory over the White Sox and seal his 36th save.
The blueprint is proceeding as planned. It was just a matter of getting all three to the finish line in one piece, and aside from Miller's forearm strain in June, the Yankees have accomplished that.
In retrospect, that month off probably benefited Miller, who got a midseason breather, a break that Betances (792/3 innings) did not share.
We've been assured that Betances is fine, that a few hiccups this past week were nothing more than that -- bugs in the system. While it would be understandable if Betances is somewhat fatigued at this stage, he quieted some of those concerns Saturday with a quick eighth inning.
No strikeouts, but Betances needed only eight pitches for a fly ball to center and two routine grounders. With only a week left in the regular season, that type of outing is fine for now. The goal is to stay sharp through next Sunday, then rely on the postseason adrenaline boost to get you through to November.
"I wasn't worried about him," Joe Girardi said. "I wasn't. Pitchers are going to go through funks. Even Mo wasn't perfect. Pretty darn close, but even Mo wasn't perfect.
"So I think the expectation on Dellin sometimes is really really high. When you're 6-8 and you've got all those moving parts, you can get a little out of whack. But he got back on track today. I got a lot of faith in him, I can tell you that."
As well he should. Betances' 1.36 ERA is a smidge lower than his 1.40 of last season, even if his WHIP (1.017) is noticeably higher than a year ago (0.778). Again, the strikeout has a way of wiping clean a number of mistakes, and Betances' K/9 rate is better now (14.2) than it was at the end of last season (13.5).
The Yankees also have protection on either side of Betances, with Wilson locking down the seventh inning and Miller dominant in his first year as a closer. Wilson whiffed two of the three White Sox he faced in the seventh, and he's merely the appetizer of what awaits opposing hitters later on.
"I don't think any of us go out there trying to get ground balls," Wilson said. "Especially Dellin and Andrew. They punch out everyone, it seems like."
Only the 2012 Rockies' bullpen struck out more (589) in one season, and the Yankees still have eight games for a shot at the all-time record. But it will be interesting to see how much they're used down the stretch. Catching the Blue Jays seems unlikely, so with the top wild-card spot pretty much in the Yankees' back pocket, Girardi doesn't necessary need to go full throttle.
Then again, that doesn't mean he won't. While Girardi does a good job managing his bullpen, he can get a bit antsy at times, and we'll see how he handles the days leading up to the wild card.
"There's no way we have this opportunity without those three guys," Girardi said. "There's just no way. These guys have been consistent, they've been durable, and it's a luxury to have that."
A priceless one come playoff time.