NEW YORK – The look on New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s face screamed disaster Thursday as he sat down, took a deep breath and said with the solemnity of announcing a death in the family: “I’ve got bad news.”
The bad news originated in the form of a dye that was inserted into the strangely stiff elbow of his relief pitcher, Joba Chamberlain(notes). Once the dye ran through his arm, Chamberlain was slipped into an MRI machine where images were made and handed to team doctors, who looked at them and came back with an obvious conclusion. There was a tear in a ligament.
This was something they were not expecting. Usually ligament damage is obvious, the pain immense. But Chamberlain didn’t feel any soreness in his arm. There was a mild discomfort that the pitcher described as more an awkward feeling than screaming soreness.
Girardi said when pitchers have ligament damage there are certain things they aren’t able to do. They can’t open bottles without wrenching their face in agony. They can’t make a fist and put it against their head. Chamberlain could do both of those things. He could do them without a hint of trouble.
So the MRI was basically a precaution, the kind of thing teams do just to make sure the stiffness is merely stiffness and not something significantly larger.
Only it was larger. Much larger. And now Chamberlain is almost surely out for the year, which in most New York seasons would be a sad but hardly cataclysmic story. If a franchise has ever historically built itself to handle a relief pitcher heading for season-ending Tommy John surgery, it is the Yankees.
These are different Yankees, however. The Yankees of recent years didn’t need great relief pitchers as long as they could buy themselves a better starting rotation than everyone else and fortify it with Mariano Rivera(notes) at the other end.
But you can’t always buy everything. Suddenly these Yankees are unable to spend their problems away. They tried to lure Cliff Lee(notes) to New York in hopes he could stand next to CC Sabathia(notes) to form a top of a rotation as good as anyone’s. They prayed Andy Pettitte(notes) would return. They trusted A.J. Burnett(notes) could get better and they figured Phil Hughes(notes) would grow even more.
Instead Lee went to Philadelphia, Pettitte retired, Burnett has shown improvement but also ineffectiveness and Hughes mysteriously lost speed off his fastball and is currently hoping to start a game in the low minor leagues. Their salvation is the miraculous revivals of Bartolo Colon(notes) and Freddy Garcia(notes). But how long can that last?
It’s not like the Yankees didn't prepare for calamity. They spent $35 million on Rafael Soriano(notes) to get them through the eighth inning, but Soriano has walked more batters than he's struck out and is currently on the disabled list. They hoped signing Pedro Feliciano(notes) and pairing him with Chamberlain would be a bridge between a potentially struggling rotation and Rivera. But Feliciano has shoulder problems and hasn’t thrown an inning this year. Now Chamberlain is gone probably for the rest of the season.
This is why Thursday’s pregame had an air of a wake. Girardi sat behind a table in the Yankee Stadium press room and tried to rationalize how a pitcher who felt no pain is suddenly lost for the season.
“One thing I do take through this is Joba must have a high pain threshold,” Girardi said. He kept shaking his head and saying things like “the body is an interesting thing.”
Outside, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman sat in the dugout and wondered much the same thing. Above him, dark, angry clouds massed and a heat wave was about to break in an explosion of thunderstorms that eventually pushed the start of the series finale against the Boston Red Sox back 3½ hours.
“Just shuffle the deck,” Cashman said, the look on his face seeming to say that he knew it would not be that simple. His current bullpen is now largely a collection of unknowns, Rule 5 pickups and grabs off the scrap heap. It is not a bullpen that will control Boston or hold down Tampa Bay.
The AL East has become the game’s most competitive division again with Toronto and Baltimore surging. Suddenly, the doomsday scenario where the Yankees tumble toward last place rather than surge for a division title isn't so implausible.
Almost as if to prove the Yankees are indeed still the Yankees, Cashman looked toward the dugout of the Red Sox – a team that had already beaten his club seven out of eight times this year – and said: “We are certainly capable of beating those guys that's for sure.”
It would not happen on Thursday. Long after the rain moved on and the clock above the left field stands crept toward 1 a.m., Sabathia faltered. For six innings he held Boston to two hits, but in the seventh he labored. His pitch count rose into the 90s, his curveball lost its sharpness. He needed help but the Yankee bullpen was empty. There was no saving him. When the dust settled, he was on the hook for six runs and eight hits, a late 2-0 lead spoiled.
Less than an hour after he departed the game the Yankees slumped defeated through their dugout and toward the clubhouse. It is only June and a long season still awaits, but as the Red Sox celebrated their second Yankee Stadium sweep this year it was obvious the gap between these two teams is much larger than the ligament tear in Joba Chamberlain’s right arm.
“We’ll be back,” Girardi promised after the game.
If only he could be so sure.
- Joe Girardi