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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Can lesser lights in Yankees' bullpen shine?

Zack Britton of the Yankees pitches during the

Zack Britton of the Yankees pitches during the ninth inning against the Phillies at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 3. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Yankees hope Gerrit Cole, their $324 million ace, or Masahiro Tanaka, their trusted playoff performer, will end up being the difference in this week’s AL East rematch against the Rays.

Deep down, however, they have to brace for the possibility that it could be someone like Jonathan Loaisiga, Luis Cessa or Nick Nelson.

Five games in five days is fine for the regular season. Happens all the time. Hence the Scranton shuttle. But this new Division Series wrinkle, the product of MLB’s desire to cram in these playoffs before a feared second COVID-19 surge, is going to be a challenge, to put it mildly.

For all the talk of the blood feud between the Yankees and Rays, this round figures to be a war of attrition. No days off. Last bullpen standing. And after what we witnessed from the Yankees during that two-game sweep of Cleveland, you have to wonder if they’re up to it.

We don’t say this about the Yankees often. Maybe never. But given the bullpen’s shaky moments in Wednesday’s Game 2, as well as Adam Ottavino never getting to the mound, they run a serious risk of being outgunned by the Rays’ relief corps if this series is stretched to five games.

At the top spots, the Yankees should be fine. Aroldis Chapman delivered a heroic effort in the wild-card clincher, and Zack Britton is one of the most reliable ground-ball producers in the sport. Chad Green got dinged Wednesday, but he’s the other high-leverage solution.

Based on the last series, it certainly seems as if Ottavino is outside Aaron Boone’s circle of trust. But looking ahead to this five-game gantlet, the manager probably won’t be able to just dial up his favorites. While it’s entirely possible to get solid length from the rotation’s front four, the grinding style used by both teams is going to take a toll on the pitching staffs.

"When we knew what the playoffs were going to look like, one of my first thoughts was that the depth of the rosters is going to play a factor," Boone said before Saturday’s workout at Petco Park. "Because in this series, and if we’re able to get to the next series where it’s seven games in a row, you’re going to have to lean on your 12th and 13th and 14th pitchers for some big outs at different points or big innings. So we’ll try and strike that balance as best we can."

Britton isn’t shying away from the workload. The Yankees as a policy don’t use relievers for three consecutive days during the regular season. But Britton cited the fact that he’s pitched four straight plenty of times in his pre-Bronx career and he’s ready to do so again coming off a 60-game season.

"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "It’s all about being efficient for me, my pitch count. But, yeah, no doubt in my mind that I could go four if needed."

Boone might take him up on that. As for the Rays, their versatile pen was a huge strength, ranking third in the majors in ERA (3.37) and fourth in WHIP (1.19). For what it’s worth, 12 different relievers had saves to account for their MLB-leading total of 23, so manager Kevin Cash is comfortable with interchangeable roles, giving the Rays more flexibility as certain guys get tired.

The Yankees’ depth was hurt by losing Tommy Kahnle to Tommy John surgery only a week into the season, and Ottavino’s recent swoon (8.22 ERA in September) has cast some doubt on another pillar of the relief corps. Overall, the Yankees were middle of the pack, with a 4.51 ERA (16th) and 1.43 WHIP (16th). But no matter how long Cole, Tanaka and the others can go, these games are likely to be close late. It just depends on how many of those high-leverage innings get stacked up, and for how many days.

Britton mentioned that the Yankees’ bullpen wasn’t quite as dominant this season "for whatever reason," but he still believes they have the ability to bounce back repeatedly in the Division Series. It’s just about being as efficient as possible — throwing strikes, getting early contact. Most of all, Britton fully understands what’s riding on their performances this October, regardless of how many times that phone rings.

"Most of the postseasons that I’ve been in, the bullpen decides the outcome of the game," he said. "You can look at it a couple different ways — it’s a lot of pressure on guys and you embrace it, and our guys are willing to embrace it.

"We have to match their bullpen. That being said, I think it’s not about matching their bullpen for us mentally. It’s about going out and just being as effective as we’re capable of being, and things will work out. We just have to keep our offense in the game, and we’re plenty capable of doing that with the arms that we have down there."

As for how many the Yankees may need, the fewer the better. If they can handle it.

New York Sports