Bombers' bullpen is burning

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
2:12
AM ET


ARLINGTON, Texas -- You can smell it now, and it doesn't smell like victory.

It smells like the odor of arms burning out from overuse.

That is really the only way to explain what went on with the New York Yankees' bullpen Tuesday night, when normally reliable and even dominant relievers such as Adam Warren, Dellin Betances and David Robertson suddenly all become ineffective on the same night, in the same game, and in much the same way.

[+] EnlargeDavid Robertson
Tim Heitman/USA TODAY SportsCloser David Robertson notched his 27th save of the season in Texas but not without drama in the ninth.
All three of them had trouble with mechanics, command and control. All three suffered through terrible, and almost disastrous outings.

All three, along with their manager, wanted to shrug it off as a one-night hiccup, with no connection to the past and no implications for the future.

You would love to believe them, because if it is something else, if it is what you fear it might be, then whatever playoff hopes the Yankees still harbor are about as realistic as Joan Rivers' cheekbones.

Because if there is one unit of this club that has yet to let them down, and in fact has kept them afloat, it has been the bullpen, specifically the back end, anchored by Warren, Betances and Robertson, and helped out to some extent by Shawn Kelley and Matt Thornton.

But that unit, which should have had a breeze of a night after having been entrusted with an 8-4 lead after 5½ innings, systematically imploded to the point that what should have been a laugher was a white-knuckle job right up until Adrian Beltre's bases-loaded drive to the warning track settled into Brett Gardner's glove to finally put an end to a 12-11 Yankees victory.

The Yankees' offense hasn't had many nights like this, but wouldn't it be bitterly ironic that just as the bats seem to be breaking out, the bullpen starts to break down? Earlier in the season, you could generally count on the Yankees' pen to protect a lead, no matter how slim. Tuesday night, you had to beg and pray for them to hold on despite having a six-run cushion heading into the bottom of the seventh.

"I don't know if it's the workload," Robertson said. "Usually we feed off each other and do real well; today just wasn’t our day. We weren’t clicking and the offense was. We managed to not let them down. We had a bad day, an off-night. Maybe we’ll be better tomorrow.”

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Robertson came away with his 27th save in 29 chances, but had a horrific ninth inning, walking three batters, allowing a two-run single to Elvis Andrus and coming probably a fraction of an inch from taking the loss in what surely would have been the worst defeat of the season.

"I feel like the luckiest guy on Earth right now for escaping that inning as bad as I pitched," Robertson said. "That’s about as bad as you can suck out there and still get lucky enough to get one of the better hitters in baseball out and not lose the ballgame. I just fell apart out there.”

Robertson found himself in that position because Warren left the bases loaded in the seventh inning on two walks and a single, and Betances -- called in to pitch to J.P. Arencibia, who was enjoying a career night -- left a 3-2 fastball, clocked at 97 mph, up in the zone, where Arencibia could crush it into the left-field seats for a grand slam that turned a 10-4 blowout into a 10-8 squeaker.

Warren said his mechanics felt out of sync, and Betances could not get his curveball over the plate, which is why he was throwing a fastball in that situation in the first place.

But both have already worked more, way more, than they have ever worked in the major leagues before, and there is still one-third of the season yet to be played. Already, Warren -- who got into 34 games last year in mostly low-leverage situations -- has worked in 48 games this season, usually as the seventh-inning man preceding Betances and Robertson.

Betances, of course, is a rookie who came into this season with less than eight innings of big league experience. And it should be recalled that until last year he was a starter, accustomed to working every five days. Now, even though he has worked just 64⅓ innings, the routine of a reliever is taxing in a different way, with pitchers sometimes warming up several times in a game and often working in back-to-back games.

[+] EnlargeDellin Betances
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesReliever Dellin Betances kept the Rangers in the game, surrendering a slam in the seventh inning.
As for Robertson, he may be finding that the transition from setup man to closer is not as easy as everyone thinks -- despite his impressive conversion rate, many of his saves have been difficult -- and that getting the last three outs of a game is nowhere near as easy as Mariano Rivera made it look for 17 years.

Throw in the fact that the Yankees' starting rotation is injury-depleted, creating a need for a lot of relief pitching, and that their bullpen leads the league with 385 strikeouts, and you have a unit that has thrown a lot of pitches and worked in a lot of games, with a lot of games still to come.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi acknowledged that the workload placed on his relievers could be becoming an area of concern.

"I do [worry] a little bit, and I'll have to watch them as we go down the stretch here," Girardi said. "The good thing is we have an off-day Thursday and some of the guys probably won’t pitch tomorrow. So that’ll give 'em two days off and it should refresh them a little bit."

Girardi said he "wouldn't make too much" of Betances' meltdown because after allowing the grand slam -- as well as a triple to Leonys Martin -- he was able to sandwich two strikeouts around a walk to Rougned Odor to end the inning with "only" four runs allowed, three of which were charged to Warren.

Mark Teixeira, whose eighth-inning, two-run homer looked like window dressing at the time but turned out to be a game-winner, also chose to believe that the bullpen's meltdown was an aberration.

"You know, give them one hiccup," he said. "Let them have a hiccup because they've been picking us up all year long. We haven't been picking them up. It was kind of our night for the offense to pick those guys up."

You have to hope he's right, and Girardi is right, and Warren, Betances and Robertson are right.

And that your eyes, and that acrid smell in your nose, is wrong.

Because if the Yankees' bullpen is burning out, the rest of the team is soon to come tumbling down.
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
13 2.77 141 136
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .271
HRB. McCann 23
RBIB. McCann 75
RB. Gardner 87
OPSB. Gardner .749
ERAH. Kuroda 3.71
SOH. Kuroda 146