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Yankees' deep bullpen could be the difference in AL East race

Andrew Miller #48 and Brian McCann #34 of

Andrew Miller #48 and Brian McCann #34 of the New York Yankees celebrate after defeating the Washington Nationals at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, June 9, 2015. Credit: Jim McIsaac

CINCINNATI - Zach Britton knows good bullpens and the impact they can have.

The Orioles' lefthanded closer was part of a lockdown group that propelled Baltimore in the second half of 2014 to the AL East title.

And he likes what he sees from the Yankees' group that has been strong all season, a unit that is as big a reason as any that the Bombers enter the second half with a 3 1/2-game division lead. And the bullpen only got stronger two weeks ago when Joe Girardi added Adam Warren to a mix that already included Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances and lefties Justin Wilson and Chasen Shreve.

"It's pretty impressive," Britton said in the American League clubhouse before Tuesday night's All-Star Game. "You look at Dellin and being able to slot him with Andrew, it's just a deadly combo. You've got to get on them early, you've got to score early because you're not going to score late."

Britton posted a 1.65 ERA and 37 saves last season for the Orioles, typically preceded to the mound, in some order, by righty sidearmer Darren O'Day (1.70 ERA) and Miller, who posted a 1.35 ERA after the Orioles acquired him from the Red Sox before the trade deadline.

Miller now closes for the Yankees and is 18-for-18 in saves with a 1.53 ERA. The lefthander missed nearly a month with a flexor strain but returned just before the All-Star break.

The Yankees' bullpen leads all of baseball with 316 strikeouts, led by Betances, who has 77 strikeouts in 47 innings, and has a 3.6 WAR (wins above replacement), second-best in the sport. Wilson has a 2.73 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 33 innings and Shreve has a 2.02 ERA with 37 strikeouts in 352/3 innings.

"Bullpens are huge in all of baseball," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "There's very few starters that go really deep into games . . . bullpens are huge and our team has benefited from having a deep bullpen."

Outfielder Brett Gardner called the bullpen a "big advantage," but threw in a cautionary note. Yankees starters have struggled getting deep into games most of the season, causing Girardi to often dip into his reservoir of relievers by the sixth inning, sometimes sooner.

"You just don't want to overwork those guys," Gardner said.

Wilson leads the group with 42 appearances, followed by Betances (41), Shreve (32) and Miller (29). The hope with shifting Warren to the bullpen is the righthander, who had a 2.97 ERA in 69 relief appearances last season but has allowed one run in three of six outings since his move to the bullpen in late June, can contribute to spreading out the workload.

"You don't want Dellin and Andrew Miller and Willy [Wilson] pitching five days a week," Gardner said. "Hopefully we can get a little more length out of our starters. When we don't, we definitely have a big advantage with the bullpen we have, you just don't want to wear those guys out every day."

Britton watched the Orioles separate themselves from the rest of the AL East with a 44-24 record in the second half in 2014, allowing them to win the division over the Yankees by 12 games at 96-66. Their bullpen was terrific in a three-game American League Division Series sweep of the Tigers before Baltimore ran into an even better bullpen, that of the Royals, in the American League Championship Series.

"That's something, if you want to go deep in the playoffs, you've got to have that," Britton said of a shutdown bullpen. "We were fortunate enough to have three of us last year . . . they've [the Yankees] got the makings of a good team that can go far in the playoffs if they get there."

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