A-Rod, Coke Spell R-e-l-i-e-f for Yanks

A-Rod certifies that he’s back.

For the first five weeks of the new season, Yankee manager Joe Girardi has been reaching for the Rolaids but getting no relief. His bullpen has pitched to a collective era over six; bridge men Damaso Marte and Brian Bruney are on the disabled list; and closer Mariano Rivera has already relinquished a season’s worth of home runs, including two in a row for the first time in his career.

To make matters worse, in the early going, Yank starting pitching was averaging slightly more than five innings per start. This means that the bullpen was taking over in the sixth inning, rather than the seventh or eighth. That’s a bridge too far to closer Rivera.

In the championship seasons, the Yanks’ formula for success was not to outslug the opponent but to take a tight lead into the seventh inning and rely on the bullpen to shut the door. In most cases, the lead was built by adequate to good starting pitching from the likes of Pettitte, Clemens, El Duque, and Jimmy Key. In 1996, the young Rivera provided the bridge to closer John Wetteland. When Rivera became the closer in 1997, Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson, and Ramiro Mendoza provided a seamless link to the impeccable Mariano.

But it hasn’t been that way for years. The Yanks have brought in lefty specialists who couldn’t get lefthanders out (Alan Embree, Ron Villone, Mike Meyer). They’ve signed free agent relievers to big contracts who failed (Steve Karsay, Tom Gordon). They made a big splash when they signed hard-throwing Ryan Farnsworth for the purpose of pitching the seventh and eighth inning of close games; but they, and the rest of the league, came to realize that Farnsworth’s 98 mph heater had no movement.

This year, the Yank bullpen has been downright incendiary. Already, opponents have scored ten or more runs against them eight times, including Cleveland’s 22-4 romp April 18th. No less than 13 hurlers have been employed in relief roles already this season. Rivera has been solid, but the bridge to him has been in need of structural repair.

But after this weekend’s two of three series victory over the Orioles at Camden Yards, which included the heroic return of A-Rod and a four-hit masterpiece Friday night by C.C. Sabbathia, the bullpen is showing signs that it is no longer leaking fluid.

In Monument Park of the new Yankee Stadium, there exist stone tributes to the careers of many Yankee greats. Most expect that the next admittee will be Derek Jeter when his glorious career ends in the next several years or Rivera if he retires first. But a strong candidate for admission is lefty Phil Coke, who yesterday became the first Yank reliever all season to pitch a scoreless seventh and eighth inning of a close game.

It may be too soon to anoint Coke as the next Rivera. Consider that the bottom of the Orioles line-up consists of Ty Wigginton (.198), Geoff Zahn (.210), Felix Pie (.183) and Robert Andino (.261 in 23 at-bats). But Coke didn’t walk anybody, he didn’t hit anybody, and he didn’t give up any runs.

Even more thrilling than Coke’s performance Sunday was the Friday night spectacle provided by A-Rod. who was returning to play for the first time this season after hip surgery and the disclosure that he took steroids. On a beautiful night before a packed stadium, the teams led with their aces – Sabbathia for the Yanks and Jeremy Guthrie for the Orioles. There was a buzz in the air and most of it was coming from A-Rod.

Just before the national anthem, he was the only player warming up, engaged in long toss from varying distances with Yank sub Ramiro Pena. When he finally entered the dugout, he was met with fist bumps by several players. Oriole fans were not so generous. In addition to the numerous “A-Roid” fingerpointers, one prominent sign displayed a needle and syringe aimed at a butt labeled “A-Roid.”

In the top of the first, Guthrie put himself in an early hole with walks to Damon and Teixeira. The first pitch to A-Rod was 97 mph right down the middle, and A-Rod met it with a ferocity that belied that he had not played in a major league game in eight months. Bernard Malamud couldn’t have scripted it better. This wasn’t just A-Rod’s first game back, or his first at-bat. It was the first pitch.

The ball arched on a high, mighty, trajectory toward the State Farm Insurance sign in dead left-center field. Any doubt that it was going was eliminated by A-Rod himself, who flipped his bat discourteously a couple of steps out of the batter’s box. His trot around the bases was measured, almost stylistic, and when he crossed homeplate to a cheering dugout, Yankee fans felt goose bumps. The only thing missing was a bolt of lightning destroying the light system.

A-Rod was quiet the rest of the night, and the Orioles were lifeless, as if the electricity generated by the A-bomb had sapped them of strength. They succumbled quietly to Sabbathia’s mixed offerings. The Big Fella, who looks every gram of his three-bills-plus tonnage, utilizes four pitches at speeds varying from 98 to 78. He seems to be rounding into the form the Yanks anticipated when they signed him to a 161M, 7-year contract during the off-season. In fact, when Sabbathia huddled at the mound briefly with A-Rod, Jeter, and Teixeira, it was the first official gathering for the most expensive infield in baseball history. Between them, these four stars earn just under one hundred million per season.

Whether they are enough to launch the Yankees to the playoffs is problematic. As good as they are, A-Rod, Jeter, and Teixeira can’t pitch the seventh and eighth innings. And Sabbathia, as good as he is, pitches only every fifth day.

Does anybody know a good bridge repairman?

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