When heat is on, Yanks can find relief

May 07, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

NEW YORK — Not to take anything away from New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, but it must be nice, lifting future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens after seven innings and knowing that a one-run lead is safe.

Torre managed as he always managed yesterday, removing Clemens after 99 pitches, using Mike Stanton in the eighth, then Mariano Rivera in the ninth. Two scoreless relief innings, precious little drama, a 3-1 Yankees victory over the Orioles.

Like Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, the Yankees' bullpen is an anomaly in this offensive age, giving the two-time defending world champions a decided advantage even when they're not operating at peak efficiency.

Entering this series, the Yankees had received inconsistent starting pitching, played erratic defense and scored fewer runs than every American League club except the Detroit Tigers.

They were the worst 18-8 team you ever saw, but their bullpen continued to dominate. And even though the Orioles scored twice off Stanton in the series opener, late-inning relief remains the biggest difference between these teams.

Pat Rapp outlasted Clemens yesterday, just as Scott Erickson outlasted Orlando Hernandez the previous night. But the Orioles lost both games, and to avoid a sweep they today must beat Ramiro Mendoza, another impressive reliever who recently moved into the Yankees' rotation.

It doesn't seem fair, does it?

While virtually every other AL manager suffers daily nervous breakdowns trying to keep his bullpen from coming apart, Torre relaxes in his dugout, using Stanton and Jeff Nelson to set up Rivera, the best closer in the game.

"I've said all along that if the Braves had Mariano Rivera and a couple of our bullpen guys, they may have three or four titles at this point," David Cone said. "They are the difference. Mariano has been the difference for us."

Rivera actually struggled by his standards yesterday, allowing a hit and a walk. But with runners on first and third, he struck out Greg (1-for-15) Myers on three pitches to earn his major-league leading 11th save.

Perhaps, as the Yankees' announcers for the MSG Network pointedly suggested, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove should have saved Brady Anderson to hit for Myers rather than using the outfielder to run for Harold Baines.

Hargrove countered that Myers was batting .429 (3-for-7) off Rivera, but the counter to that is that the catcher had been out of the AL since 1997. Whatever, the debate is so much wasted breath. The Orioles weren't about to score twice off Rivera, anyway.

Frankly, Hargrove's more revealing decision came in the eighth, when he declined to insert struggling left-hander Chuck McElroy to face the left-handed hitting Tino Martinez with runners on first and third and two out.

The previous night, Hargrove removed right-hander Mike Timlin for left-hander B.J. Ryan against Martinez. But this time, the manager stuck with Rapp, and Martinez sliced an opposite-field double to give the Yankees their insurance run.

"Martinez is hitting fairly well (15-for-45) off left-handers this year," Hargrove said. "Pat had handled Martinez pretty well in the game. He [allowed] that one double. But other than that, he struck him out and got a groundball. I felt like the matchup was better with Pat."

Translation: Hargrove didn't like the matchup with McElroy, the freshest left-hander in the bullpen with Ryan having pitched the night before and Buddy Groom the previous two games.

The Yankees' bullpen isn't perfect - ever heard of Todd Erdos and Darrell Einertson? - but the nucleus of Stanton, Nelson and Rivera has been together since 1997, and John Wetteland closed for the '96 championship team.

Consider:

The Yankees' bullpen was the first in major-league history to go undefeated in April (7-0), and is now 9-0 with a 2.60 ERA.

In their past 14 games, Yankee relievers have surrendered 10 runs in 44 1/3 innings for a 1.61 ERA.

In 83 innings this season, Yankee relievers have allowed only two home runs. The Orioles' bullpen allowed three in a span of 12 batters Friday night.

Rivera actually has blown one save, ending a streak of 27 straight successes dating to last July16. But he recovered to pitch 2 2/3 innings - his longest outing since Sept.6, 1996 - and earn the win.

"You give him an opportunity to pitch with a one- or two-run lead, and from the other side, it's a little demoralizing," Torre said. "You don't quit, but they know it's an uphill battle once he gets into the game."

Hargrove didn't disagree.

"It is tough," he said. "You end up trying to keep Rivera out of the game, you lose sight of doing what you're trying to do. You almost have to divorce that thought from your mind.

In a sense, Hargrove helped create the monster - Rivera has been nearly perfect since allowing a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. in Game4 of the 1997 Division Series against Cleveland, managed by you-know-who.

That was Rivera's first season as closer, and the only one of the past four in which the Yankees have failed to win the World Series.

The Orioles won the AL East that year with Armando Benitez setting up Randy Myers. The Indians defeated them in the ALCS with two pivotal homers against Benitez, and lost Game 7 of the World Series to the Marlins when Jose Mesa blew a save.

Such is the value of a quality bullpen and a quality closer.

The Yankees have both. No other AL team compares.

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