The Yankees were down three high-leverage relievers, and starting a Triple-A call-up on an 80-pitch limit for Wednesday night’s series finale against the Orioles. But what could have been a nightmare scenario turned into one of the smoother rides all season for manager Aaron Boone, who should hope to stay this lucky with a depleted bullpen going forward.
The Ron Marinaccio-Lucas Luetge-Miguel Castro trifecta isn’t the typical one you’d expect to bridge a five-hit shutout from Scranton lefty JP Sears to new closer Clay Holmes in the Yankees’ 2-0 victory. But the plan went so seamlessly Boone couldn’t have imagined the night any better.
“Really good,” is how Boone summed it up. “It’s been a tough couple of days for us. Just really excited to see those guys step in and play key roles.”
That’s going to need to keep happening, however, and the level of difficulty jumps considerably Thursday when the Yankees open a four-game series against the second-place Rays at the Trop. Before Wednesday’s game, the Yankees added Jonathan Loasiga to the 15-day IL with what the team stated simply as “shoulder inflammation.” Considering that the shoulder is a complicated joint, the term could mean any number of things, all of them varying degrees of bad.
Which is how someone might describe the Yankees’ once-vaunted bullpen these days. Loaisiga -- who many had talked about as the heir apparent to Aroldis Chapman -- became the third high-leverage reliever to land on the IL in the span of five days, joining Chad Green (Tommy John surgery) and Chapman (Achilles tendinitis).
I know what you’re thinking. The Yankees typically have a deep bullpen. Don’t they have the coverage to handle these losses? Well, it’s not that easy. For one, teams begin the season with a finite number of high-leverage relievers, which is a fancy way of saying the bullpen guys they trust the most.
If we’re going by the 2022 blueprint the Yankees drew up in spring training, they just crossed three off the list, technically leaving them with one: the nearly-invincible Holmes. For the glass half-full crowd, the Yankees got lucky in that their last functioning back-end reliever also happens to be the best of the bunch. Holmes extended his scoreless-inning streak to 23 with Wednesday’s save, the longest in the majors, and his ability to pound the strike zone (25 pitches/23 strikes combined in his back-to-back appearances) makes him the anti-Chapman.
Problem is, when you start removing bullpen pieces, like blocks from a Jenga tower, things get shaky. With the Yankees moving Holmes to closer for the immediate future -- there is no timetable for Chapman’s return -- the set-up roles now turn into more of a scramble, with Michael King the next most effective reliever.
Also, the Yankees can’t try to lean on a quantity-over-quality approach to make up for their losses because MLB rosters will go to a 13-pitcher limit by Monday’s deadline. Entering Wednesday, the Yankees’ bullpen ranked fifth in the majors with a 3.17 ERA (the Astros are first at 2.61) and 19th in innings pitched with 156.0 (the Rays are first at 199 1/3).
Despite being the first team to 31 wins, the Yankees aren’t blowing people away. They’ve had 32 of their 44 games this season decided by three runs or fewer, tied for the second most such games in the majors. The Yankees’ 21-11 record in those tight games was third-best overall; they also are 23-2 when leading after six innings this season and 24-0 with a lead beyond the seventh.
Only Green’s TJ surgery is an obvious season-ender. The details surrounding Chapman and Loaisiga are a bit murkier. Something clearly was wrong with Chapman, who hasn’t looked the same after last year’s sticky-stuff crackdown, and the average velocity on his four-seam fastball (his most used pitch) has dropped significantly. It’s at 96.8 mph this season, down from 98.3 a year ago.
Of course, the only surefire way to alleviate the pressure on a banged-up bullpen is to lean on the rotation, and the Yankees have excelled in that area. Their starters have combined for a 3.00 ERA, which is tied for second in the majors with the Astros, and were averaging 5.37 innings per start (only the Padres and Brewers are pitching deeper into games).
But that formula isn’t guaranteed to hold up over a prolonged stretch, especially when no one knows the long-term consequences of this year’s condensed spring training. Those abridged routines already may be a factor in causing this recent flurry of injuries, and the Yankees currently are getting hammered in the health department.
Now it’s a matter of trying not to let that show up on the scoreboard.