When you watch Joba Chamberlain enter a game with the tying run already on base, it makes you understand how foolish it would be to convert him to a starter this year.
Six pitches. Five swings. Five misses.
A runner dances off third base, the count on Joe Crede swollen to full. The crowd rises, knowing full well that this is the game. Never mind that 13 outs have to be made before the game is in the books.
Ball four tails inside, walking in a run. The lead is cut to two runs. Perhaps the inevitable pressure has finally found a chink in the armor of the young Nebraskan.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi is at a crossroads in only his 21st game. The future of the Yankees’ starting rotation has underperformed. His offensive minded team has struggled to score runs. Injuries have kept five perennial All-Stars from finding their rhythm in the young season. And now the voice from above has decreed that Chamberlain is a waste as a setup man.
The onus is on Girardi to produce yet another AL East title. To any other collection of fans, it would be acceptable (if disappointing) to miss the playoffs in a year like this. Prospects Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes could use the time to develop into a formidable pitching duo. Also, the expiration of a number of astronomical contracts would give the Yankees the leeway to make a major free agent signing in the off-season.
But this is New York.
Twenty-one games in, and the Yankees already trail the Red Sox by 4 games in the standings. Boston has won 10 of 11, threatening to jump out to the same kind of lead that last year resulted in their first division crown in a dozen years.
Girardi is bound to face challenges in the next five months. But thus far, when his guys are leading after 7 innings, the challenge subsides. Chamberlain and closer Mariano Rivera have yielded just one run over 15.1 innings, all but one in Yankees victories. Last April, Rivera had no Joba, and only one save. The difference is clear. Joba as a setup man is as integral to winning games as Rivera, the bats, and that days’ starter.
Chamberlain finishes his duties by allowing a single and three lazy fly balls in the eighth. It helps that Johnny Damon boosted the lead to 5 with a three-run home run, effectively draining all drama, and most of the crowd from the stadium. Joba’s dominance is not nearly as impressive in such an arena (although maligned reliever Kyle Farnsworth reminds us all what could be in a shaky ninth).
In the first game since Hank Steinbrenner called for a change in Chamberlain’s role, Joba came to the rescue. He got Billy Traber and Brian Bruney off the hook in a game that was tight throughout. Joba is built for big moments, thriving on the electricity that tends to fill stadiums in the late innings of close games. Like future Hall-of-Famer Mariano Rivera, Joba brings an air of confidence to his appearances, a calming presence for the habitually high-strung Yankee fan.
Joba Chamberlain is only 22 years old, and will most likely be an excellent pitcher in this league, be it as a starter or a closer. He has certainly shown to have the mentality to handle high-pressure situations. For 2008, he belongs in the bullpen. If the Yankees have any chance to make a run at the Red Sox this year, it is imperative that Mariano Rivera has an opportunity to save games. The clearest road to that is on the Joba Express.