Can you win a division title by bullpening your way through a 162-game schedule? The Yankees apparently are going to try.
For the second straight night, the Yankees had a short start and dominant relief in a victory over the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium.
On Friday, J.A. Happ pitched five innings and the bullpen went four scoreless in a 4-1 win.
On Saturday night, Domingo German pitched 3 2⁄3 innings and the bullpen went 5 1⁄3 scoreless in a 5-3 win that dropped the third-place Red Sox 9 1⁄2 games behind the Yankees in the AL East.
How long can the Yankees keep this up? All the way to October and beyond, if manager Aaron Boone can continue to steer his bullpen group as he has for the season’s first 57 games.
Boone knew coming into Friday that he had a rested bullpen after Thursday’s would-be series opener was rained out. He deployed his top weapons in both victories, even though he knows he has CC Sabathia returning from the injured list Sunday night and is going to get another short start.
Win today, worry about tomorrow tomorrow, all while not overusing and burning out your top relievers. It’s the juggling act that Boone is trying to master as he waits for his starters to give him more innings — if they can.
“That’s going to be key over time, to get some length,” Boone said. “And I’m confident we will . . . I think over the long haul, we’ll have patches where we start to get — or weeks where we start to get — good length out of our starting pitching and we’ll protect [the relievers].”
Look at the Yankees’ rotation: the fading German, whose ERA has gone from 2.35 on May 5 to 3.66 after he allowed three runs Saturday; Happ, who serves up home runs like Arby’s serves up roast beef sandwiches; Sabathia and James Paxton, both of whom are trying to pitch with balky knees, and Masahiro Tanaka, who is the stud of the group with Luis Severino still on the injured list.
Maybe Severino comes back from the injuries and retakes the spot as staff ace. Maybe German recovers from the wall he seems to have hit and pitches like an ace before an innings limit swallows him up. Maybe Happ finds his mojo and Paxton keeps his knee from buckling and Sabathia finishes his final season as an effective five-inning starter. Maybe Dallas Keuchel signs with the Yankees next week.
It’s a lot of maybes, though. The bullpen is a lot of sure things, and there’s another one on the way as Dellin Betances is only a couple of weeks away from making his 2019 debut.
“I’ve never been part of a bullpen like this,” said Zack Britton, who pitched the eighth inning in both wins.
Saturday’s parade of pitchers after German started with Chad Green, who worked out of a two-out, two-on jam to end the fourth and then a more difficult one in the fifth (second and third, one out) to keep the score tied at 3.
After the Yankees took a 5-3 lead on Gary Sanchez’s two-run homer into the Yankees’ bullpen in the bottom of the fifth, Tommy Kahnle allowed two singles and got two outs in the sixth. Boone called on Adam Ottavino, who struck out J.D. Martinez with a vicious slider to end the inning.
Ottavino is a great example of how the Yankees have used their monetary might in ways other teams can’t or won’t. When’s the last time a middle-inning guy signed for $27 million over three years? That’s no slight on Ottavino, because Boone usually saves him for the opponent’s best hitters.
Ottavino hasn’t pitched in an eighth inning since May 8 and hasn’t seen the ninth since April 27, but he’s quite possibly the Yankees’ most valuable reliever.
After Ottavino, Jonathan Holder threw a 1-2-3 seventh, Britton worked around a one-out walk in the eighth and Aroldis Chapman overcame a walk and single in the ninth to get a double-play grounder from Martinez and a groundout to first from Rafael Devers for his 17th save.
“That was kind of the recipe for success tonight,” said Green, the winning pitcher.
Can it be all season? Unless something changes, the Yankees are going to find out.