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July 27, 2004

by Larry Mahnken

Last year, the Yankees lacked quality options for getting the game to the ninth inning and Mariano Rivera.  At the start of the season they wasted their time with the likes of Juan Acevedo, then latched onto Armando Benitez's Wild Ride and former Knickerbocker Jesse Orosco, before settling the assaulterrific stylings of Jeff Nelson, with a helping of porn star Gabe White and pre-Run Fairy Felix Heredia.

All the while Joe Torre underutilized Antonio Osuna and Chris Hammond, though Osuna at least had the earned some mistrust by pitching horribly in the second half after a mid-season injury.  But Hammond was inexplicably buried by Torre late in the season, pitching only in blowouts, and being a changeup pitcher, pitching generally ineffectively after long periods of rest.

In the playoffs, it cost them.  They had to play a seventh game in the ALCS because the bullpen couldn't finish off the Red Sox -- although I'll place more blame on the 250mph windstorm that was blowing through The Stadium for that one.  In the World Series, Joe Torre was forced to go with Towelie in a tied game, making Alex Gonzalez a hero.  In the next game, when David Wells had to leave hurt, the bullpen pitched horribly (including Chris Hammond on a mere 27 days' rest).  Those two runs were the margin of the game, and that game cost them the series.

Wisely, the Yankees targeted the bullpen in the offseason.  They focused on the two best relievers available, and while they forfeited two first-round draft picks to get them, Paul Quantrill and Tom Gordon gave Joe Torre two reliable non-Rivera options.

Unfortunately, that's all he's been given.  Mariano and Gordon have been the best 1-2 bullpen bunch in baseball by a wholebunchalot, but excluding Sam Marsonek, the only reliever other than the three-headed monster with an ERA under 5.00 is Bret Prinz -- at 4.91.  When Tanyon Sturtze looks like he might be your best long-relief option, someone needs to get fired.  Or at least beaten savagely.

Last year they had depth but nobody great.  This year they've got somebody great, but no depth.  The result is that they're overusing Quantrill, Gordon and Rivera.  Torre brushed off questions about overusing Rivera a couple of weeks back by pointing out that Rivera was throwing the ball well.

Well, it's time to pay up.  On Saturday, an ineffective Rivera was hit hard by every batter and gave up three runs in the ninth to save the Red Sox's season.  Last night, against the Blue Jays, he blew another two run lead, this time only allowing the game to be tied.

He's done this before.  Last year, he blew four saves in six appearances at the end of July and early August.  In 2002 he blew two straight games against Cleveland in mid-July, the second by giving up six runs in the ninth.

Hell, all closers go through this every now and then, but it doesn't change the fact that Rivera is tired.  You can see it in his decreased velocity and poor control, he's been overworked -- he didn't even get the All-Star break off.  Maybe getting a few days off might help, but what he really needs is for his usage to be controlled more tightly.  By which I mean, controlled some.

Right now, if it's the ninth inning and a save situation, Rivera will enter the game.  Whether he's needed or not.  Take aways those outings, and you've taken half a dozen appearances away from him and as many innings without impacting the Yankees' record at all.  And indeed, that's probably the only thing that the Yankees need to do to sufficiently reduce the wear on Rivera's arm.

Gordon and Quantrill are also being terribly overworked, but it's Quantrill that's feeling it the most.  Gordon's been great, but Quantrill's been only a little better than average overall.  Perhaps he's being slowed by the knee injury he suffered in Japan, and maybe it's overwork.  Quantrill loves to pitch, and would like to be in every game if Joe Torre let him.  And while that's an admirable attitude, that doesn't mean Torre should use him every game.  Yes, the other options are as appealing as a night of passion with Bea Arthur, but with a 7½ game lead in the division, not every game is that important.  Sometimes you've gotta bite the bullet and hope that one of the Gascan Gang can get the job done.

Everyone talks about the Yankees' starting pitching woes, how they need Randy Johnson.  The bullpen situation would be a lot easier if the Yankees had starters who consistently went seven or eight innings, and who wouldn't want Randy Johnson?  But the more fixable problem is middle relief, and if the Yankees can add a couple of okay relievers, not even particularly good ones, they can get by with what they've got -- assuming Brown and Mussina come back healthy and effective.

That's not something they should have a problem pulling off after the deadline, and nobody's going to ask for great prospects for a middle reliever, so it's likely only a matter of deciding to do it, and choosing the right guy.

Anyway, the Yankees did ultimately win last night.  It looked like it would be easy at first, as Jorge Posada clubbed a Grand Slam in the first, but that was all the Yankees got until the ninth, as the Blue Jays were able to score three runs off of Vazquez and tie it off of Rivera.  They took the lead back on a Clark double in the tenth, and Rivera was able to hold it this time.

A win, I guess, is a win.