Getting the Job-a Done

Published on: 28th February, 2010

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NEW YORK – Joba Chamberlain was only ten years old in 1995 when the New York Yankees began their incredible run of American League playoff appearances — a streak that has now reached its 13th consecutive year with Wednesday’s wild-card clincher in Tampa. Their playoff entry in ’95, after an absence of 14 years, was often predicated on the pitching arm of Mariano Rivera to protect leads in the seventh and eighth innings as a bullpen bridge to John Wetteland — one of the best closers in the game at the time.There are those who believe these last 13 years of Yankee excellence began with the installation of Joe Torre in the manager’s office. However, this Yankees streak coincided directly with the decision to convert Rivera from a starting pitcher into a reliever in 1995, and then a year later, into the closer role. The Yankees haven’t looked back since. Call it, if you will, the Rivera Era. 

With all due respect to the great Rivera, we may be embarking on another decade or so of bullpen excellence in the Bronx with a young man who has also been groomed to be a starting pitcher, but seems naturally suited to close out games. Perhaps, someday, we will refer to the next decade or so as the Joba Years.

This past Sunday at Yankee Stadium, in front of another sellout crowd infected with pennant fever, Chamberlain — on his 22nd birthday — not only gained the first save of his career, but also gave us a glimpse of what the future may hold for the Yankees.

If history has taught this franchise anything at all, the Yankees will apply their experience from the Rivera experiment 13 years ago to Chamberlain, the new kid with the electric arm. It’s time to let Joba close out games, starting next year.

“He is very, very special,” Torre has said. “I don’t discount that Chamberlain can be a great closer. His mental capacity plus his physical ability make that easy to see. Until the organization makes that decision, though, we have to proceed as if he will be a starting pitcher next year.”

The way the game has changed, the seventh and eighth-inning setup role is just as important as the closer position. The great Yankee teams of the 1990s perfected the art of shortening games to six innings because of the strength of their bullpens. Rivera will be 38 years old next season, and though he’s thrown exceptionally well since his early-season struggles, sharing the closer’s load next season with Chamberlain will keep the veteran fresh. The bigger question is: will Rivera be willing to remain a Yankee under this scenario?

There are many parallels between the way the Yankees developed Rivera and how they are bringing along Chamberlain. In both cases, the organization recognized the talent, control, poise, and mound presence both pitchers possessed as youngsters in the Minor Leagues. Both were brought up to be starting pitchers, but instead of throwing them immediately into the fray of a tight pennant race, the Yankees opted to ease them into the Major Leagues with bullpen appearances.

A funny thing happened to Rivera back in 1995. With his 97-mph fastball and pinpoint control, he took to his new role setting up Wetteland as if he was born to do it. The crescendo of Yankee fans cheering in anticipation of the slender Panamanian’s mound appearances exploded into deafening roars as he blew away opposing batters. Rivera grew to love his new job. The Yankees grew to understand that Rivera was too much of an asset as a relief pitcher — with the capacity to impact upwards of 70-80 games per season — to move him back to being a starter.

Consider the importance placed on having great closers by baseball’s best teams. Last year’s world-champion St. Louis Cardinals would not have made the playoffs if not for the late-season heroics of Adam Wainwright. Interestingly, as a starter this year, Wainwright is a very mortal 13-11, with an ERA that’s hovered over 4.00 most of the year.

The Red Sox decided to move last year’s closer, Jonathan Papelbon, into their starting rotation this season. After watching several of their spring training games end in blown saves by the likes of Mike Timlin, the notion of using Papelbon every five days seemed less attractive. Papelbon went back to his old job and has been a primary reason for the Red Sox’s dominance for most of this season.

Make no mistake, though: Chamberlain, with his 100-mph fastball and his nasty slider is a phenomenon. Since he made his Major League debut on August 7, 2007 in Toronto, he has been dominant in every respect. He has allowed one earned run in his 18 appearances, giving him a microscopic 0.38 ERA. He has pitched 23.2 innings, striking out 34 batters while walking only six in that span. He has allowed only twelve hits. Roger Clemens calls his stuff “electric”.

When he faced the Red Sox for the first time, he got David Ortiz — perhaps the league’s most feared slugger — to pop out on one pitch at a crucial moment of the game.

“Against Boston, there’s certainly a lot more electricity, and he handled it,” Torre said. “He’s certainly not afraid out there.”

Then there was his August 19 appearance against the Detroit Tigers. Chamberlain was called in then to start the seventh with the Yankees leading, 4-3, and the heart of the Tigers’ lineup due to bat. Gary Sheffield? Pop-up on two pitches. Magglio Ordonez? Strikeout on three pitches. Carlos Guillen? Fanned on four. Chamberlain had stamped himself as a force to be reckoned with in the American League.

Three nights after his heroics against the Tigers, Chamberlain struck out the side in a victory against the Angels, hitting 100 mph on the radar gun and fanning Vladimir Guerrero on three pitches. The Chamberlain legend grew.

Chamberlain may also have a bit of a mean streak on the mound, similar to that of Clemens. On the day he threw two 99-mph fastballs over Kevin Youkilis’ head — leading to his immediate ejection — he may have planted the idea firmly into the psyches of American League hitters he was not going to be a cupcake out on the mound. It’s a very good makeup for a closer.

How many championships and pennants would the Yankees have won since 1995 without Rivera? The one piece of the puzzle that has separated the Yankees from all other teams in baseball since 1995 is Mariano Rivera, a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer. A former Yankee teammate of Rivera’s once described him as the “ultimate security blanket.” Chamberlain looks to have the talent and personality to be the same kind of player.

“It’s all kind of happening fast, but it’s been a great run,” Chamberlain says. “It seems like every day I’m adding another chapter to a book of things I never thought I’d experience.”

If Chamberlain keeps pitching like he has to this point, he’ll be adding more than just chapters to his book of experiences. He’ll be helping to raise additional pennants above (the new) Yankee Stadium for years to come. If the Yankees are smart, Chamberlain will be doing his best work with a fireman’s hat on.

Scott Mandel is a special contributor to SNY.tv.

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