SEATTLE - The Yankees' bullpen, already a major asset, got stronger Wednesday. Shawn Kelley, on the disabled list since May 7 with a strained lumbar spine, returned.
Kelley, the primary setup man for David Robertson, was 1-2 with a 3.52 ERA in 16 games before going to the DL. He struck out 16 in 151/3 innings, more than fitting in with a unit that has struck out its share. Entering Wednesday night's game against the Mariners, the Bombers' bullpen led the majors with 236 strikeouts, including 10.60 per nine innings.
On Wednesday, Girardi would not commit to returning Kelley to his job of setup man. Instead, Girardi said, he looks at Kelley, Adam Warren, who has done well setting up Robertson, and strikeout king Dellin Betances as "interchangeable.''
"It just gives me more versatility,'' Girardi said. "It gives me another late-inning guy with the two guys that we've been using a lot.''
One issue Girardi has run into the last month is the occasional game in which neither Warren nor Betances has been available because of overuse.
In a conversation yesterday with Kelley, Girardi spelled out his role, though not specifically.
"Joe just said, 'You're an important piece of this pen and my goal is to make sure I have somebody -- you, Dellin, Warren, whoever it is -- available every day,' '' Kelley said. "And not put himself in a situation where he doesn't have one of us.''
Warren has a 2.31 ERA in 29 games, striking out 32 and walking nine in 35 innings. Betances has put up absurd strikeout totals -- 63 (with 10 walks) in 371/3 innings. The 6-8 righthander has held opponents to a .147 average, third among AL relievers.
Betances, Warren and Robertson have been major reasons why the Yankees have been able to sustain the injuries to their rotation. They were 19-8 in games started by rookie pitchers -- Masahiro Tanaka (10-2), Vidal Nuño (5-5) and Chase Whitley (4-1). Tanaka hasn't needed much help, but Nuño and Whitley at times have struggled to last five or six innings, necessitating strong bullpen work.
"Obviously, there's nobody in this game coming in as the fireman like Dellin is,'' Kelley said in response to the kind of late-inning role he saw for himself. "I don't think anything's going to change about that, but for me personally, if we can keep Robertson to just one inning, then he can throw in more games. Having me is just going to help get to that ninth inning so that D-Rob doesn't have to come in too early.''
To make room for Kelley, Garden City High graduate Matt Daley (4.85 ERA in 12 games) was optioned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Also, the Yankees designated lefthander Wade LeBlanc for assignment after acquiring lefty David Huff from the Giants for cash considerations. Huff was 3-1 with a 4.67 ERA in 11 games last year as a Yankee, with a 2.73 ERA in nine in relief. He had a 6.30 ERA in 16 bullpen appearances for the Giants this season.
"I can use [Huff] different ways,'' Girardi said. "We had him, he did a good job for us last year. We're familiar with him and he's familiar with Larry [Rothschild] and things we expect here. I consider him more of a multiple-inning guy for us.''
Which would give Girardi even more of the versatility he craves with his relievers.