- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- Ladies and gentleman, this concludes the feel-good portion of the Joba Chamberlain Comeback Story.
The pitch-good portion will commence. Or else.
That was made abundantly clear by a near-sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium on Thursday, which greeted Joba like a savior when he entered the game in the sixth inning and booed him like a pariah when he left it in the seventh.
The message was obvious: We're glad you're back.
Now get lost until you start pitching like the old Joba again.
In some ways, it's a cruel dynamic, the love-hate relationship that develops between a player and the fans. And in others, it is a perfect example of society in microcosm.
Do well and we'll love you.
Do poorly and we'll show you the door, and not always politely.
Chamberlain understands this perfectly -- or at least he gave a pretty good impression of understanding it, after another discouraging outing in which he came into a close game and turned it into a veritable rout.
Trailing 4-0 after 5½ innings, the Yankees had rallied to take a 5-4 lead over the Texas Rangers, and stood just nine outs away from pulling off a rare four-game sweep over a team that came to New York with the best record in the American League.
When Joba came in, with one out in the seventh, the score was tied at 5. When he left, with two outs in the eighth, the Rangers led 9-6. They would go on to win, 10-6, to salvage the final game of the series.
And Joba Chamberlain, who used to set this place on fire, left the mound with the boos of 47,000 people ringing in his ears.
Or not, since Joba claimed not to hear them, although he performed a gesture that looked suspiciously like touching the brim of his cap on the way to the dugout.
"I would boo, too," he said afterward. "I sucked. I was there. It wasn't good. They paid to see a good game, and I didn't throw well."
He even tried to make a joke of it: "My own son's booed me. When your son boos you, 50,000 people ain't gonna hurt your feelings. At the end of the day, they're not going to love me any less. I'm not gonna throw chairs and kick rocks or whatever. You keep it in perspective."
Still, it's got to sting. The story of Chamberlain's comeback -- from elbow surgery, ankle surgery and, oh yeah, did I mention an appendectomy in between? -- was a feel-good story for precisely two weeks.
On Aug. 2, the bullpen door at Yankee Stadium swung open and Joba stepped through for the first time in 14 months. The crowd of 44,593 cheered as if it were 2007 all over again.
On Aug. 16, an even bigger crowd -- 47,645 who came hoping to see an unlikely four-game sweep over the Rangers -- cheered even louder, because the game was on the line and Joba was in a position to save it.
And when he couldn't, there was no forgiveness and no understanding. There was only displeasure and disappointment.
"The comeback is one thing, just the first step in this whole process," he said. "To get back to where I want to be is gonna take work. It's not easy up here."
But this is where he is, and it is at this level that he is expected to perform. Is it asking too much? Perhaps. But there really is no other way.
Joe Girardi raised the prospect that the Yankees had rushed Chamberlain through the rehab process, to fill a void in their bullpen when they traded Chad Qualls at the deadline to obtain Casey McGehee, who was needed to replace the injured Alex Rodriguez.
"We said all along when we brought him up that we thought he'd be a factor by the time September rolled around and he got innings under his belt," Girardi said. "He hadn't had a lot of work. We were forced to do it a little bit, but we felt pretty good about the way he was throwing the baseball. Sometimes it takes time."
The manager also, with a minimum of prodding, raised the specter that perhaps both Joba and the team would be better served by working out his problems somewhere other than Yankee Stadium. Somewhere like Scranton, or Tampa.
"Those are decisions that we talk about internally, if we feel he needs more work to be ready," Girardi said. "Right now, I don't have any plans to make changes. I talked about putting him in some low-leverage situations, but today I was forced to [use him]. That's going to happen. In my mind, I'm not planning any changes."
Joba, of course, doesn't want to be pitching anywhere but here. "I thought I was ready," he said. "I didn't think there was anything more that we had to work on. You can get your rehab starts and get your innings in, but you can't mimic pitching in the big leagues."
Although the radar gun says Joba has lost little off his fastball -- he hit 97 miles per hour on Thursday -- your eyes and the results tell a different story.
In six innings spread over eight appearances so far, Joba has allowed 13 hits and six earned runs, for an unsightly ERA of 9.00 and a WHIP of 2.67. He has walked four batters, two intentionally, and struck out only three.
Most disturbingly, he was one strike away from getting off clean in the seventh -- he got ahead of Craig Gentry 1-2 before leaving a fastball over the middle of the plate for a two-run single -- and had Elvis Andrus 0-2 leading off the eighth before allowing a double that Nick Swisher muffed into a three-base error, leading to two more runs.
"There's some inconsistency," Girardi said. "He makes some really good pitches, and then he'll make one where he misses his spot, and that's probably part of not throwing a lot in the last year. He just needs to continue to throw and be a little more consistent."
The Yankees are fortunate to have a 5½-game lead in the division, which affords them the luxury of allowing Joba to work out his problems on their time, for now. But if things tighten up, they're not about to jeopardize their position for the benefit of one middle relief pitcher.
"I don't ever believe that any lead is comfortable," Girardi said. "Until we clinch what we want to clinch, I never take my foot off the pedal."
Which means that at some point, Girardi might have to think about when and where he uses Joba Chamberlain, who five years ago was the heir to Mariano Rivera and just two weeks ago was like a prodigal son returning home.
Now he's just another middle reliever who has to be used with care, if at all.
"There's really no way to sugarcoat it," he said. "I wasn't good. But at the end of the day, it's only a game. It's not the end of the world."
Only the end of a particularly happy chapter in a story that has suddenly taken a rather dark turn.