The image of Mariano Rivera shagging fly balls in Kansas City must come to New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi in nightmares constantly. On May 3 of this season, Rivera put his marvelous career on the line when he tore his ACL during batting practice at Kauffman Stadium.
Since then, Girardi has had to endure waters uncharted for the Yankees, at least since the 1994 players strike: A bullpen without Mariano Rivera.
And now the ripple effect of that injury is coming to roost at a time when the Yankees can least afford to have it.
For most of the season, Girardi has actually done a fine job juggling the bullpen. Maligned free agent signing Rafael Soriano stepped into the closer role and did a solid job. And after David Robertson came back from injury, Girardi was able to mix and match with Boone Logan, Clay Rapada and Cody Eppley.
After August 19, the Yankees defeated the Red Sox in two out of three games and had a five-game lead in the Division.
They have lost 13 out of the next 20 games. The bullpen has lost five of those games.
David Robertson alone has been the losing pitcher in three of the last eight games the Yankees have played, including last night's 4-3 nail-biter in Boston.
And in games where the starter has lost, the bullpen has not been doing its job in keeping the game close. And sometimes Girardi gets too drawn into left-right matchups.
On August 31, the Yankees were losing 4-0 at home to Baltimore. Hiroki Kuroda had one on and nobody out in the ninth when Girardi pulled him for Clay Rapada. He got one batter out and inexplicably the Yankees went to their third pitcher of the inning, Derek Lowe.
Lowe let up four straight hits including a home run and the lead was expanded to 6-0, which was the final.
On September 6, the Yankees pulled off a dramatic five-run rally to tie a critical game against Baltimore. The next inning David Robertson and Boone Logan faced four batters and three of them homered, taking the wind out of the sails of the great rally.
Not being able to rely on the bullpen could be leading Girardi towards making odd managerial decisions. It can also contribute to the lineup pressing, knowing that no lead is safe in the late innings.
And with CC Sabathia no longer going as deep into games as he used to, Girardi has to use the bullpen more often than he would want.
Which brings everything back to Mariano Rivera. His value has always been greater than his ERA and save totals.
He was the center square of a bingo card. He was the reliable late inning presence that caused opposing teams to press in the seventh or eighth innings to press.
And if the team needed a four out save or to keep a ninth inning close at home, Rivera could deliver.
Without that weapon, Girardi has had to mix and match like a chef on one of those cooking shows desperately putting a meal together with the clock winding down.
And what worked in the summer with a big lead is not working in September with no lead. And if the Yankees manage to hold onto their playoff spot, which is not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination, the grab-bag bullpen would be tested in October.
The bullpen is not necessarily a bad one, although it has been recently. The problem is the team is designed with Rivera as the anchor and now they seem adrift.
All the while Girardi continues to wake up screaming, thinking of Mariano Rivera chasing a fly ball in Kansas City.
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