The Yankees can overcome the hurdles of an erratic Michael Pineda. Maybe even survive with someone like Ji-Man Choi at first base.
But it is foolhardy to expect them to remain in arm’s reach of the Red Sox, or anywhere near a playoff spot, if the Yankees are unable to fix Dellin Betances.
Joe Girardi knows that, as does the rest of his pinstriped-wearing crew. And deep down, Betances realizes it to be true, a pressure that could be contributing to what is looking more like a snowballing sense of insecurity each time he takes the mound.
After a dazzling 2 1⁄2 months, Betances is falling fast, at bowling-ball-from-the-top-of-the-Empire-State-Building velocity. In keeping with analogy, the Yankees’ once-invincible set-up man slammed into the sidewalk during Wednesday’s 7-6 loss to the Blue Jays, a defeat made more demoralizing by Betances’ eighth-inning meltdown.
Rather than the Jays’ swiftly knocking Betances to his knees, he sabotaged himself by loading the bases with three consecutive walks, then forced in the winning run by issuing a one-out free pass to Russell Martin.
At one point, Betances missed the strike zone with 10 straight pitches, eliciting loud boos from the 38,691 fans that couldn’t figure out what the heck was going on with their All-Star reliever. Even worse, when Betances finally snapped that torturous streak, with a 100-mph fastball to Jose Bautista, the crowd erupted with a deafening sarcastic cheer.
If that wasn’t rock bottom, Betances’ toes were touching it. He had reached Tyler Clippard territory. His own fans mocking him.
“Obviously you hear it,” Betances said. “But when you’re in a tough spot like that, you try to block it out.”
Unlike Clippard, however, the Yankees can’t simply dabble in trying to correct Betances, demote him to lower-leverage situations, than replace him with a Chad Green if necessary. Betances is part of the bullpen bedrock. The Yankees spent $86 million on Aroldis Chapman knowing they had Betances to insure those leads got to the closer.
Now they don’t. That once unbeatable bridge is gone, obliterated. Betances has walked 11 of the last 22 batters he’s faced, and the four in Wednesday’s outing matched his career-high, a glitch that hadn’t occurred since his major-league debut in 2011.
Here’s some more ugliness. Since June 22, a span of seven appearances, Betances has a 17.36 ERA, with 12 walks and eight strikeouts in 4 2⁄3 innings. Now compare that to how Betances earned his All-Star invitation in the period before that, when he posted a 0.40 ERA with 14 walks and 43 Ks in 24 games over 22 2⁄3 innings. During that same stretch, Betances held opponents to a .117 batting average and .378 OPS.
The walks had been a creeping concern, but Betances still was getting the job done. No longer. The Yankees trusted him to preserve a 6-6 tie for three outs Wednesday and he proceeded to rapidly implode, with the Blue Jays doing nothing but watch his slider spin uncontrollably and his fastball zoom outside the strike zone.
Over in the Yankees’ dugout, Girardi couldn’t believe his eyes. Betances had been bad, but not this helpless, and the manager finally got him after the fourth walk to Martin. Afterward, Girardi couldn’t deny the obvious.
“In the short-term, I’m concerned about him,” Girardi said. “In the long-term, I’m not, because he’s too good for this to continue. We have to get him back on line.”
Girardi blamed the misfiring reliever’s troubles on mechanical issues, as did Betances, who talked about being too quick to the plate. With the timing off on his delivery, Betances can’t lock onto the strike zone, and his pitches are flying wildly.
The solution, Betances said, is more video study and he’s confident it can be solved. Maybe so. But listening to him after Wednesday’s loss, it also sounds like Betances is worrying so much about preventing hitters from reaching base — or panicking once they do get on — that he can’t focus on the task at hand. Those turbulent factors seemed to reach critical mass Wednesday.
“It’s frustrating,” Betances said. “I know I can get anybody out.”
Thinking that is one thing. Doing it is another. And if Betances doesn’t start, the Yankees could be finished.