At first, only two Yankees knew that Aroldis Chapman had been stripped of his closer’s title in the hours before Saturday night’s game against the Red Sox.
That was Chapman and manager Joe Girardi, who told him of the decision. The rest of the bullpen was kept in the dark. Sort of. “I found out on social media,” Dellin Betances said. “Like everything else these days.”
Eventually, word trickled down, but there was a crucial detail left out, as in who exactly would replace Chapman if the Yankees were fortunate enough to be in a save situation later that night. Girardi informed both Betances and David Robertson that he planned to pick one of them, but he didn’t specify which.
It wasn’t until the bullpen phone rang for Robertson with two outs in the seventh inning that Betances said he “put two and two together.” By process of elimination, this save opportunity belonged to Betances, and he filled Chapman’s vacancy with a hitless ninth to nail down the 4-3 victory.
“For me as a fan and as a player, I know we need Chapman to be Chapman,” Betances said. “We need him to win this whole thing. It’s a tough spot for him, but everything’s temporary.”
For all the pregame drama, with Girardi having to explain Chapman’s demotion — a drastic step to take with an $86-million closer — the Yankees could have used a one-sided win to catch their breath and reboot the bullpen. Instead, Girardi had to navigate through a tight three innings, going from Adam Warren to Robertson to Betances.
As for Chapman, Girardi said “I will use him at any point, similar to what we’re doing with our other relievers.” But on the first day of this new arrangement, there seemed to be some confusion.
Betances assumed that Robertson would close, based on his seniority — and 132 career saves. In this case, however, Girardi chose Robertson to set up because he was available to pitch more than one inning, and he wrapped up the four-out assignment by whiffing Xander Bogaerts on three pitches with the bases loaded to end the eighth.
Most relievers want to know their place in the world. But Girardi is fortunate to have two who don’t seem to mind.
“I don’t worry too much about it,” Robertson said. “That’s not my job. My job is to throw strikes, get guys out and keep runners off the bases. Sometimes that’s hard for me. That’s when I was needed to pitch and it worked out.”
It was that kind of day for Girardi, who was pushing buttons all afternoon, starting with the Chapman stunner. Have to admit, we didn’t see this one coming. A DL trip, to us, seemed to be the obvious course of action. The Yankees, however, took the direct approach. They didn’t punt on the problem. Ultimately, the manager reasoned, something had to be done.
“I tried to stress to him how important he is to us,” Girardi said before the game. “And that we believe in him and he’s just going through a hard time and we need to get him right. The law of averages is he’s going to get right.”
Maybe Girardi is correct in that assumption, because Chapman can’t pitch any worse. In his last four appearances, Chapman has allowed seven earned runs in 4 1⁄3 innings for a 14.54 ERA. During this season, as a whole, Chapman’s numbers have been way off his career benchmarks with a 4.29 ERA (2.27), 2.54 strikeout/walk ratio (3.61) and 12.6 K/9 (15.0).
After the win, Chapman was fine with Girardi’s verdict.
“I accepted the decision,” Chapman said through his translator. “I’m here to pitch wherever they need me.”
We’ll see how soon that ends up being the ninth inning again. Girardi made no promises that Chapman will automatically get his job back if the current system works out well, and Chapman seems to understand that his situation remains up in the air. “I really don’t know,” he said. “It’s up to the manager.”
That’s a common reply among Yankees relievers these days.