CLEVELAND — After his team’s second straight victory Friday night, with the offense again showing signs of the potency expected of it, Aaron Boone said of the group: "I think we’re going to be a juggernaut on offense."
It will take more than two games to make that declaration true, but three weeks into the season, another aspect of the club certainly can be described as such without qualification — the bullpen.
The unit has far and away been the most consistent and best part of a team that has disappointed in just about every other facet while lurching out to a 5-10 start before improving to 8-11 entering Saturday night’s game against Cleveland.
And while there were signs across the board of offensive improvement Thursday and Friday — including five home runs — the victories still might not have been possible without more standout work by the relievers.
On Friday night, for instance, Lucas Luetge, Darren O’Day, Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman combined to allow one hit and one walk in 4 1/3 scoreless innings in the Yankees' 5-3 victory. The bullpen didn’t allow a run in 7 1/3 innings in the first two games of the series, holding Cleveland batters to a .087 batting average (2-for-23) with two walks and seven strikeouts.
"We’ve got a little bit of everything," said Luetge, a 34-year-old lefthander with a wicked slider who was a non-roster invitee to spring training but forced his way onto the club with a dominant Grapefruit League season. "We’ve got guys who throw hard, O’Day’s a sidearmer, I’m kind of a soft-tosser. So they’re [opponents] not getting the same look out of the bullpen every time we bring somebody out."
The Yankees expected to have a good bullpen going into spring training, but the degree of dominance has been at least a tad surprising because of a couple of contributors who have produced more than expected.
Aroldis Chapman has been his usual electric self — even more so because of the splitter he’s been throwing with more regularity to go with his slider and 100-mph fastball — as have Chad Green and, in his own way, O’Day.
But even with lefty setup man Zack Britton out until at least June after undergoing surgery in mid-March to have a bone chip removed from his elbow, the Yankees' bullpen corps has been bolstered by the likes of Luetge, Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa, a hard-throwing righty who has pitched more consistently than ever before (a 0.93 ERA in seven games).
Entering Saturday, the Yankees owned the lowest bullpen ERA (2.08), opponents' batting average (.178) and WHIP (0.96) in the majors. With 100 strikeouts, their relievers were tied with the Cubs for second in the majors behind the Padres (114).
O’Day, a part of some good bullpens in his 14-year big-league career — especially in Baltimore and Atlanta — said "top to bottom," every pitcher he’s seen has been impressive. He singled out Loaisiga (a 1.50 ERA with 13 strikeouts and one walk in 12 innings).
"It’s pretty obvious his physical gifts are amazing," said O’Day, who brought a 1.29 ERA in eight outings into Saturday. "And we need him to believe that. And, really, the sky's the limit for a kid like that. We have a few guys like that in our bullpen."
The unit’s collective performance has been especially crucial because of how little length has been provided by the rotation, excluding Saturday night’s starter, Gerrit Cole.
"They’ve been great," Aaron Boone said by way of understatement. "I think what’s been critical, down there, to their success has been that all of them have contributed and all of them have had to contribute to not overuse anyone. We’ve had eight, nine guys down there that have played a role for us in what’s been a good start for them."