BALTIMORE — Is it too soon to make Aroldis Chapman the closer again? Joe Girardi seems to be leaning in that direction, influenced by the lefthander’s strong outing on Tuesday night and perhaps Dellin Betances’ blown save as well.
It’s a tricky situation, because ideally the Yankees’ bullpen is at its best with Chapman on his game in the closer role, but I can’t forget how lost he looked in August, to the point where Girardi demoted him during the now-famous sign-stealing series in Fenway Park.
So, yes, it does feel like the Yankees might be rushing this move a bit — if indeed the manager makes that decision.
On Wednesday, Girardi said that Chapman probably would have closed that night had the game not been rained out, but indicated the move would have been partly due to the recent workloads for Betances and David Robertson.
He did make a point of saying that Chapman’s 1-2-3 outing Tuesday was “as good as we’ve seen in a while” from him but hedged directly if he would use him the next time he needs a closer.
“That’s not something we have sat down and talked about,” he said. “We will. But I would not be afraid to use him at any point.”
In Girardi-speak, that sounds to me as if he’s ready to make Chapman his closer again, something he said he has had in mind all along.
“I’ve said that I really believe Chapman is going to play an important role down this stretch,” the manager said. “We need him. So he’s going to be important.”
And when asked if these Yankees are at their best with Chapman in the closer role, Girardi said:
“If he’s your closer that means he’s throwing well. That means everybody’s throwing well, so that’s probably your best team, yes.”
Agreed, but is he ready? Chapman has made five appearances since being moved out of the closer spot on Aug. 19, and only two of them were high-leverage situations in which he pitched with a lead or the game tied.
In one, on Aug. 25, he gave up the game-losing home run to the Mariners’ Yonder Alonso — the second long ball he’d given up to a lefty hitter in the space of two weeks, and only the third ever in his career.
Then there was Tuesday night, when he got two groundouts and a strikeout while throwing 11 pitches, and reached 102 mph on the radar gun.
Impressive, yes, but is that enough to think he is suddenly cured of the command problems that have haunted him all season, as he has struggled to get swings and misses at any velocity?
Before throwing the weight of the closer’s spot on his shoulders again, I think he’d benefit from continuing to build confidence in a set-up role.
But maybe the Yankees have their own concerns about Betances, who on Tuesday night blew a 6-5 lead, giving up a walk-off two-run home run to Manny Machado in the bottom of the ninth.
In fact, the problem with Betances this season is that for all of his game-over dominance when he’s right, you never know when he’s going to lose the feel for his fastball and suddenly become all too predictable.
Even then he often gets the job done because he buckles knees with his killer curveball, whether hitters know it’s coming or not.
But when Betances hangs one, well, that’s what happened against Machado, perhaps because he couldn’t throw his fastball for a strike.
Simply put, the 6-foot-8 righthander’s mechanics can go haywire at times, and this season he has allowed 38 walks, 10 more than all of last season.
On Tuesday night he was yanking the fastball wide of the plate, and so catcher Austin Romine kept calling the curveball — even on a 3-1 pitch to Tim Beckham that resulted in a walk.
That was crucial because, with two outs, it allowed Machado to come to bat, and after a first-pitch fastball missed outside, everybody in the ballpark knew a curve was coming.
By then, in fact, Betances had thrown 19 pitches in the inning, 15 of them curve balls, but this one was a hanger and Machado crushed it.
In retrospect, Betances was too predictable, though as he said, “That’s a pitch I rely on. I just hung one. If I throw a better one, maybe it’s just a fly ball.”
Maybe, but both Romine and Betances gave up too quickly on his 100-mph fastball on this night, and ultimately it cost them a game the Yankees will look back on as pivotal if they fall just short of winning the AL East.
For that matter, for a team that everybody, including myself, continues to tout as having a tremendously deep bullpen, this was their 23rd blown save, the third-highest total in the majors.
So the Yankees need to get this fixed, but for now I think Betances or David Robertson remain the best options to close. There is still time to ease Chapman back into that role. I just wouldn’t rush him.