NEW YORK – Joba Chamberlain idled behind the mound at Yankee Stadium, exhaled with the force of a whale clearing its blowhole, shrugged his shoulders and licked his fingers. He was ready for his first major-league start. And then something utterly mystifying happened.
Almost everyone inside the ballpark Tuesday night stood up and started cheering. Never mind that it was a good minute before the game against the Toronto Blue Jays even began. Joba, now a tenured member of the first-name-only camp, had done nothing special. He had not turned the Powerade in the dugout into wine, nor had he excavated a David Ortiz jersey from the new Yankee Stadium's cement with his bare hands, and he certainly hadn't lifted the New York Yankees out of their last-place malaise.
He had breathed.
And, by god, that was enough. Because this was the day that for so long had been teased, the one where Joba, master of the seventh and eighth innings, instead began a game. So the Yankee Hype Machine was grinding in full force, and somehow a 70-pitches-max start turned into an event, one worthy of a sellout crowd and a heavy din and the first pre-emptive standing ovation Yankees manager Joe Girardi had ever seen.
What came, of course, was a letdown, though let's be honest: Anything short of brilliance would have left a sour taste. Chamberlain happened to be Eddie Gaedel short, lasting 2 1/3 innings, walking four, giving up a pair of runs and sitting on the bench as the Yankees took the business end of a 9-3 beating from Toronto.
"I expected more of myself," Chamberlain said. "As much as you guys put it on me, as much as anyone else, it's little compared to what I put on myself."
Maybe so, though Chamberlain has to understand, he was the Yankees' fine wine, the one they knew needed time to mature and yet still carried the temptation of opening early anyway. And finally, they were ready to twist out the cork, and when they did, damn if it didn't smell a little musty.
Which made the end of Chamberlain's start so … anticlimactic. At the 62-pitch mark, Girardi marched out to the mound and asked for the ball. Chamberlain had just issued a four-pitch walk. He didn't want to leave that way. No one did. Chamberlain had no room to argue, though, so he slogged off the mound, acknowledged a far-less-robust ovation with an equally faint tip of his cap, entered the dugout, threw his glove, removed his hat and sat there, catatonic.
"Joba expects to be perfect every time," Girardi said. "And that's what you want from a competitor. You don't expect to give up runs. And you expect to make your pitches all the time."
Chamberlain missed more than he made, the first inning a 38-pitch special that exceeded his previous high inning in the big leagues by 14 pitches. Chamberlain's fourth hit 101 mph on the generous Yankee Stadium radar gun. His final one in the inning clocked in at 99. In between, there were three walks, a balk, a single and plenty of teeth-gnashing.
Had Chamberlain lost Rod Barajas, the No. 7 hitter, he wouldn't have lasted the inning. Girardi said anything over 40 pitches in the first would have called for a hook, and Dan Giese, summoned from Triple-A to spell Chamberlain in the bullpen, was already warming up.
"I get in trouble when I think too much," Chamberlain said. "It's something that I pride myself on – not thinking too much."
Ignorance worked in the second inning, when Chamberlain worked primarily with his fastball and escaped with 16 pitches, and Bobby Abreu accounted for the only out in the third, robbing an extra-base hit with a catch against the wall.
And that was it. Chamberlain's father, Harlan, had traveled from Nebraska to see the start, and other members of the Chamberlain clan came, too, because, remember, this was big – no, huge – and no one wanted to miss it, not with what Joba was hoping to accomplish.
"It wasn't 2 1/3," he said. "Yeah, I'd have liked to get three or four. It just didn't work out that way."
First starts have been finicky for Chamberlain. At Nebraska-Kearney, the small school where he began his collegiate career, Chamberlain didn't make it out of the first inning, sandwiching one out in this dandy line: walk, home run, walk, walk, balk, walk. A year later, at the University of Nebraska, he fared better, giving up one run in 4 1/3 innings, and last year, with the Yankees' Class A team in Tampa, he yielded one run in four innings.
So the Yankees fell back on the comfortable notion that, hey, this is Joba's first start, right? In dissecting Chamberlain, Girardi used the word "process" four times, and it sounded surgical and mechanical and not at all reassuring for a team that carries a $200 million payroll.
"I'm also looking at bottom line," Girardi said. "Because the games count now."
The bottom line, actually, is this: New York entered the top of the seventh inning, Chamberlain's usual territory, down one run, and exited trailing 9-2. The non-Mariano Rivera division of the Yankees' bullpen consists of Kyle Farnsworth, LaTroy Hawkins, Edwar Ramirez, Jose Veras, Chris Britton, Ross Ohlendorf and Giese. Infer from that what you may.
Moving Chamberlain to the rotation was in the plans all along, and, his arm's structural integrity willing, it is a good maneuver for the future. Unfortunately, the Yankees find themselves in a bizarro world in which Tampa Bay carries the best record in the American League, and with owner Hank Steinbrenner a sort of human Chinese water torture, they can't wait for Chamberlain to work out his kinks. The Yankees need the Joba everyone knows and loves.
The one who gets standing ovations because he earns them.