The season moves forward, still unpredictable and still not ready to dismiss the New York Yankees. But for all their late-inning comebacks, all their youth and all their renewed muscle, they remain a team with a curious foundation: relief pitching.
Without it, the Yankees might be sharing last place with the Cleveland Indians. With it, they are within three games of second in the American League East. The race is still within their reach, as much because of the bullpen as the brawn.
They are still relatively anonymous, but Steve Farr and Steve Howe, John Habyan and Lee Guetterman, Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk have undeniably been the most important reason the Yankees began their final push toward the break for the All-Star Game with a sense of clinging optimism. They have not given up hope that by September they can be contenders.
Offensively, they do not score as many runs as the the Detroit Tigers. Defensively, they have more errors than every other team in the league but Oakland and Toronto. Statistically, their starting staff is one of the worst in the majors. But their relief pitching? It's exceptional.
"In my five years here," said pitching coach Mark Connor, "this is the best bullpen we've ever had."
"We had a pretty good bullpen last year," Manager Stump Merrill said. "I think we've got a better bullpen this year."
The numbers prove it. The Yankees' bullpen ranks first in the league, with a 2.84 earned run average, a 12-10 record and 18 saves. The starters are 13th among 14 teams: a 5.01 ERA and 22-28 record. Opponents are hitting a cumulative .236 against the relievers, compared with .281 against the starters.
"We know we have a good bullpen, and that's the way it should be," said left-hander Greg Cadaret. "We're not cocky enough to say that when we come in the game is over, but we know that we're capable of shutting down teams.
"You can't mess up this bullpen. You can make a wrong decision and it still comes out right."
On Saturday night in Milwaukee, for example, Habyan staggered through an unusually erratic seventh inning, facing three batters and giving up three runs. But while the Yankees rallied from an 8-3 deficit for a 9-8 victory, Cadaret, Guetterman and Farr combined to retire eight successive batters.
The next day, Cadaret, Howe and Farr worked seven and two-thirds innings in relief of Tim Leary and allowed just one run as the Yankees came back from a 6-0 hole to win, 8-6.
"We have guys who can come in and pitch at any time," said Farr, who leads the team with 10 saves. "It's not a bullpen with somebody like a Dan Quisenberry, but we have several guys who can come in and save games and who can also pitch five or six innings at a crack."
The relievers survived their own small controversy last week after Guetterman publicly expressed unhappiness over a lack of work and an unidentified player was quoted as criticizing Howe -- whose past substance-abuse troubles have not been forgotten -- for having moved to the front of the left-handed bullpen line.
But a team meeting Friday in Milwaukee cooled hurt feelings, and Guetterman said later: "I'm content again, although not necessarily with my contributions to the club or my role. I'm content with myself."
The difficult part has been finding enough work for all six as the starters begin to pitch deeper into games. Early in the season, Merrill needed a bullpen capable of working as many as five and six innings every night.
But now, because rookies Scott Kamieniecki, Wade Taylor and Jeff Johnson have been able to pitch into the seventh and eighth, there are fewer innings to spread around.
"We've got a difficult situation right now," Connor said. "Obviously, somebody is going to be unhappy. Guetterman has done yeoman's work here and has been very successful.
"Early in the year, he was the left-handed closer, but we didn't have a whole lot of save situations. It's taken some innings from him, and he needs to work to make his sinker effective."
Guetterman has essentially lost his late-inning job to Howe, who was called up from Class AAA Columbus in early May and has been almost unhittable. Howe, 33, has come into games with 17 runners on base and allowed just one to score, and he has held left-handed hitters to a .103 average (3 for 29).