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Bullpen problems bringing down Yankees, who expected relievers to be even better than they were last year

Chad Green of the Yankees walks to the

Chad Green of the Yankees walks to the dugout after the eighth inning against the Tigers at Yankee Stadium on April 3. Credit: Jim McIsaac

This caveat, of course, must come first. It is beyond early in the season, two weeks old exactly.

Still, as the Yankees (5-7) have gotten off to a ho-hum start — as they did last year, going 9-9 before taking off to a 100-win season — an area that was supposed to be an overwhelming strength has mostly been underwhelming.

A bullpen that was perhaps the best in the majors last season and was supposed to be at least as good and maybe even better this year has not been anywhere close to that.

The collective numbers are far from awful, but they’re not what was expected, either. After Wednesday night’s 8-6 loss completed a three-game sweep by the Astros, the Yankees’ bullpen ranked eighth in the AL in ERA (3.97). It ranked sixth in strikeouts per nine innings (9.93), 10th in WHIP (1.41) and ninth in batting average (.239). A group from which strikeout after strikeout was expected has allowed 43 hits and 21 walks in 45 1⁄3 innings with 50 strikeouts.

Having Dellin Betances start the season on the injured list hasn’t helped, but the reality is that several relievers who were expected to be stalwarts haven’t gotten going.

“Look, the bullpen, when we look back on this all, will end up being a strength for our club,” Aaron Boone said.

Eight of the Yankees’ 12 games have been decided by one or two runs, and they are 2-6 in those games. Their 5-7 record isn’t completely on the bullpen, but the Yankees have led in 11 of 12 games.

Though the Yankees are 5-2 when leading after six innings (they were 76-5 when leading after six in 2018), they are 0-4 when tied after seven, a direct reflection on the bullpen.

The sweep resulted from a variety of factors, but the bullpen’s struggles were front and center.

The Yankees lost the first two games of the Houston series despite leading after six innings in each. Zack Britton blew a 3-1 lead Monday by allowing two seventh-inning runs, and Adam Ottavino, by far the best of the group to this point, allowed a run in the eighth that led to the 4-3 loss.

Jonathan Holder (5.40 ERA) and Chad Green allowed four runs to blow a 3-2 lead in Tuesday’s 6-3 loss.

Wednesday didn’t bring a blown lead in the late innings, but it did involve more uneven relief work. Tommy Kahnle, who looked poised for a bounce-back year after a terrific spring training, replaced an ineffective James Paxton with one on and none out in the fifth and immediately allowed a two-run homer to Carlos Correa and an RBI single to Max Stassi that made it 7-2. Kahnle has a 4.50 ERA in four appearances.

Green, among baseball’s better relievers the previous two seasons, has been tweaking his mechanics and has a 9.00 ERA in five games. Lefthander Stephen Tarpley, who won a spot with a brilliant spring training, has a 6.00 ERA in four games. Britton, who has struggled with his command and allowed eight hits and four walks in 5 2⁄3 innings, has a 4.76 ERA in six appearances. After the Yankees closed to within 7-6 with a four-run eighth Wednesday, Britton allowed a run in the bottom half (Gleyber Torres assisted with a throwing error).

Ottavino, a free-agent signing in the offseason (three years, $27 million), has been the only reliever living up to his power reputation, posting a 1.29 ERA in six games and striking out 11 in seven innings.

Boone, not incorrectly, stressed the time of year.  “A couple of guys have had some hiccups, have had some struggles,” he said. “But the track record, where they are, there’s some tinkering, some adjustments that a couple of guys are working to make. And when they do, they’ll take off, and we’ll look back and this will be one of the strengths of our club in the end.”

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