Bullpen Keeping Bombers In The Fight

You'd probably think that a baseball team's losing its young, hot right-handed starting pitcher and three-quarters of what was being touted as the best bullpen in baseball would hurt any chances it has of staying in contention. But after a rare sweep of the A's in Oakland, capped by a 2-0 shutout Sunday, the Yankees are now 26-21, just 2 ½ games behind the Orioles and Rays.

The Yankees' starting pitching is still dismal -- 11th out of 14 teams in ERA. But the stat that may escape you at first glance, as it's been escaping me for the last week or so, is bullpen ERA. We haven't been looking at the Yankees relievers because many of us just assumed that when Dave Robertson went out with a strained left oblique the Yanks were finished. C'mon, that's what I thought, and I know you did, too.

We all forgot what Girardi's main reputation is for: putting relief staffs together.

So far, the 5-arm combination of Rafael Soriano (performing very well in his new role as closer, saving his 5th game Sunday against Oakland and protecting the win for Hiroki Kuroda), Cory Wade, Cody Eppley, Boone Logan, and Clay Rapada have combined for 73 games and 64 innings and a collective ERA of 2.92. Overall, the Yanks' bullpen is 4th best in the league.

More than just their overall effectiveness, the relievers are effective because of the way Girardi uses them: Wade and Eppley are righties, Logan and Rapada are southpaws, and the Yankees can, in the words of Girardi, "do more mixing and matching against hitters' weaknesses."

The real bargain-basement buy for the Yankees is Eppley, who was picked up on waivers after getting released by -- of all teams -- the Texas Rangers, who have been known in the past couple of seasons to squeeze every last ounce of value from their pitchers. But after Eppley posted and 8.00 ERA in 10 games last season, the Rangers gave up.

The secret of his revival seems to be that he's returned to pitching with a sweeping side-arm motion that for some reason he had abandoned (as he told some reporters at Yankee Stadium last week after a Yankees win in which he earned a "hold," "I stopped throwing the side-arm pitches because I thought I might make it as a starter. I lost two things: the fast off my fastball and the sink off my sinker." Both have returned since he started throwing those pitches with a sidearm motion.

Watch below as he wipes out a Red Sox batter -- while wearing a vintage 1912 New York Highlanders uniform to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park.

So far this season, in 19 games he's pitched 21.2 innings with a 2.08 ERA, same as Soriano.

There was some thought given to trying Wade in the rotation, but everyone pretty much agreed that his side-arm pitches wouldn't have the same effectiveness against left-handed batters as right-handed. So, at least for the time being, the Yankees are the only team in the major leagues with a matching set of right-handed and left-handed side-armers with Clay Rapada the specialist against lefty hitters.

The Yankees may just be one puzzle piece away - maybe a return to by Joba Chamberlain - from having the best bullpen in the majors.

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