There was a time when an injured Aroldis Chapman meant some anxious weeks for the Yankees.
That time has passed.
The Yankees already have moved into a post-Chapman world, even with the $48 million closer still on the roster. They have seen the future and it clearly is Clay Holmes, who has rapidly become one of baseball’s most dominant closers.
Holmes is nine-for-nine in save chances this season, and perfect in the five since taking over full-time for Chapman. But the stat that really pops is his 28-inning scoreless streak through Friday, the longest by a Yankees pitcher since Mariano Rivera went 30 2⁄3 innings in 1999 (according to Elias).
When the next guy up starts drawing Rivera into the conversation, for an accomplishment more than two decades ago, we’re not talking about some temporary substitute. Holmes, now in his fifth season, was made for this role, though bringing up Rivera’s name tends to be a little intimidating to someone currently pitching in pinstripes.
“He’s known for a lot more than a scoreless-inning streak,” Holmes said before Saturday night’s game against the Cubs. “But that’s always a cool thing — just to be mentioned in the same anything with Mariano. It’s an honor.”
Overall, in addition to Rivera, only two other Yankee relievers have put together a longer stretch of zeros in the past 50 years: Lee Guetterman, who also went 30 2⁄3 innings in 1989, and Goose Gossage’s 28 2⁄3-inning streak in 1980. Two of the four are Hall of Famers, and Holmes is quickly establishing himself among his contemporaries with a 0.31 ERA that ranks second among all relievers (the Rays’ J.P. Feyereisen has not allowed an earned run in 20 1⁄3 innings this season).
Based on his pre-closing performance, the Yankees were supremely confident that Holmes would make a seamless transition. But finishing games is a different animal, a situation that can spur unanticipated adrenaline spikes no matter how many big spots a pitcher has experienced.
Holmes admitted to seeing a slight uptick in velocity when he first took over but otherwise has settled in, handling the gig like his other high-leverage assignments. Different role, same dominance.
“It’s just knowing running out there that if you do your job, there’s a direct correlation to the team winning,” Holmes said. “It’s fun to be able to do that, to be out there for the last out and secure the win. It’s why we all play the game, but you just feel like you’re a little bit closer to getting there.”
As for Chapman, he took another step Saturday toward his return from Achilles tendinitis by throwing a bullpen session, his first since his IL stint began on May 24. How the Yankees handle his return will be interesting.
Chapman has struggled with command issues since MLB’s crackdown on sticky stuff last season, his velocity is down, and at age 34, his durability is suspect.
Chapman also is in the final year of a three-year, $48 million contract, and Holmes is beyond the apprentice stage at this point. Whatever boxes Holmes had left to check, if any, that’s been done.
“I look at the person, obviously the quality of the pitcher,” Aaron Boone said Saturday afternoon. “And I think there’s closing situations all the time within the course of a game that are as nerve-wracking or as intense as you can be. Sometimes that happens in the eighth inning, and he’s been in those situations. So for him to go out and close a bunch of games now for us, sure that’s nice. He’s shown he can obviously do that. But I wouldn’t say it was something I was concerned about even going in.”
Holmes has been the All-Star-worthy anchor of a nearly airtight bullpen — one that greatly benefits from a rotation that routinely pushes deep into games. It’s the formula every team wishes for and few get.
But since May 24, the Yankees’ relief corps not only has been among MLB’s best but the starters have averaged more than six innings each turn — trailing only the Padres in that category (even after factoring in Gerrit Cole’s five-homer, 2 1⁄3-inning clunker in Minnesota).
“That’s huge,” Boone said. “And you need that over the course of the year, to protect everyone.”
There shouldn’t be any early worry about burnout with this group despite being down three key pieces in Chapman, Chad Green (season-ending Tommy John surgery) and Jonathan Loaisiga (shoulder inflammation) for the past two weeks.
For many clubs, subtracting a sizable chunk like that would be disastrous. The Yankees haven’t flinched. Since those departures on May 24, through Friday’s 13-inning win, the bullpen was second in the majors in WHIP (1.01), third in opponents’ batting average (.178) and fifth in ERA (2.36).
“The guys in the pen realize it’s going to take all 26 of us,” Holmes said. “We’re buying into it.”
That mantra, from Holmes on down, is working.