John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
The Yankees didn't flex their financial muscles in the most obvious way last winter, passing on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but they nevertheless bought themselves a luxury item that few other teams in baseball can afford:
A $27 million sixth-inning reliever.
And a $39 million seventh-inning reliever, oh by the way.
In truth, the Yankees' bullpen hasn't been quite as dominant as expected so far this season, nor at full strength with Dellin Betances just beginning to throw again after a spring training shoulder injury.
But on nights like Monday at Yankee Stadium, the depth of that 'pen not only proved to be a difference-maker in a 7-3 win over the Mariners, but offered a glimpse at what could be the best reason to believe that Aaron Boone's team can win a championship this season.
It wasn't the whole story by any stretch. The "B-Bombers," as GM Brian Cashman calls this group of mostly fill-ins for injured starters, continued to play better than anyone expected, with Thairo Estrada being the latest to take a star turn, hitting his first big-league home run and making a nice play at shortstop at a pivotal moment in the game.
Throw in home runs from Luke Voit and Brett Gardner, and the Yankees won for the 12th time in 16 games, a remarkable run considering their depleted roster.
"We're showing grit," CC Sabathia said with a smile after going five innings to earn the win. "We're the gritty Yankees."
Yes, they're reveling in this underdog role that has lightened the huge expectations for the season and allowed backups to play freely.
Or, as Voit put it: "We're playing the game like a bunch of kids right now. Just having a lot of fun."
And after all the talk of taking advantage of a soft schedule, these Yankees have now won three out of four against winning teams, the Twins and Mariners, getting the job done every which way.
The offense struck early against Felix Hernandez, racing out to a 7-0 lead, but the Mariners lead the American League in runs scored, and they fought back to 7-3, leading to two crucial moments in the game.
Boone let Sabathia pitch his way out of the first one, with two outs and bases loaded in the fifth, as the big lefty busted ex-Met Jay Bruce in on the hands to get a weak ground ball to first.
Then in the sixth, with Sabathia gone, the Mariners loaded the bases with one out against Jonathan Holder, with the top of the lineup coming to the plate, and Boone decided this was no time to mess around.
So in came Adam Ottavino, he of the frisbee-slider and 95 mph fastball, and he promptly got a shallow fly ball to left and a weak ground ball to short that Estrada charged hard to make his dazzling play for the night.
Call it dominant relieving or Advanced Bullpenning 101. I.e., give Boone credit for going to one of his big guns early. As he explained it, ideally he would have preferred to avoid using Ottavino, who had pitched Sunday, but ...
"In a lot of ways, that might have been the game right there," he said, "so we went ahead and fired."
It's the beauty of the Yankee bullpen.
As Voit said, "It reminds me of what the Indians did with Andrew Miller a few years ago, when they'd use him whenever they needed to get big outs. That's how it is with Otto. I know guys don't want to face him. His stuff is disgusting."
Ottavino came back to rack up two strikeouts in the seventh before Boone turned to Zack Britton, who recorded four straight outs, throwing some nasty sinkers that were reminiscent of his Orioles days before he ruptured his Achilles tendon.
With a four-run lead, Boone was able to preserve his closer, Aroldis Chapman, and use Luis Cessa for the final three outs.
All because the pen is loaded with weapons, and guys like Ottavino and Britton are OK with whenever they pitch.
"We have a lot of talent in our pen, more than most teams," Ottavino said. "For me and Zack, we could have gone and been closers elsewhere, but we wanted to be part of a winning team. We knew what we signed up for."
Nobody knows where they're headed just yet, of course, but they're surviving the all the injuries better than expected, with the "B-Bombers" and their A-List bullpen.