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A Silver Lining in a Series Loss

Rafael Soriano's return should strengthen what's already become a strong bullpen in his absence. (AP)

If you stuck around until the bitter end of Sunday night's four hour and 15 minute sufferfest, it's not hard to get worked up about the Yankees snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, with Mariano Rivera blowing a 3-2 ninth-inning lead and Phil Hughes coming out of the bullpen to lose the game in the 10th. The loss cost the Yankees a series win at Fenway Park — it would have been their first since May 2010 — as well as a share of first place in the AL East. Furthermore, it enabled the Red Sox to clinch the season series; they now hold a 10-2 lead with six head-to-head games remaining. All in all, this was not a result that bolstered the Yankees' self-confidence, even given the eight-game winning streak — five of them on the road — that preceded Saturday and Sunday's losses.

Most curious was Joe Girardi's decision to pull Rivera after the ninth. The 41-year-old closer, whose four-batter, 14-pitch save on Friday night constituted his only work in the previous five days, had thrown just nine pitches when he got the hook. Marco Scutaro, who hit a walk-off homer against Rivera back in 2007 but was just 3-for-15 against him lifetime, bashed a double off the Green Monster. "It wasn’t the pitch that I wanted it to be," Rivera said later. "It was a little bit down and it should have been a little bit up. I can’t blame nothing but myself. I didn’t get it done."

Jacoby Ellsbury sacrificed Scutaro over on the next pitch, a play that turned out to be closer than expected given the quality and placement of the bunt as well as Ellsbury's speed. Two pitches later, Dustin Pedroia plated him with a sacrifice fly, and on the next pitch, Adrian Gonzalez grounded out weakly to shortstop.

It wasn't the most impressive inning in Mo's season by any stretch of the imagination; blown saves seldom are. But given that the following day was an off day, it shouldn't have been out of the question for him to return for another inning of work. Rivera has worked just one other two-inning stint this year (against Texas, on June 16) and three last season, all of which went smoothly. Then again, it's clear that Girardi is shying away from using his aging closer for more than three outs these days. Where he did so 15 times in 2008 and 10 times in 2009, that number shrank to five times last year, and just three this season.

Instead, Girardi brought in Hughes for his first relief appearance of the season. The 25-year-old righty was on four days' rest, coming off six shutout innings against the White Sox; it would have been his turn to start on Sunday were it not for the Yankees' overcrowded rotation. Girardi had kept him available out of the bullpen all weekend in case the Yankees needed some long relief, but tabbing Hughes in this spot felt as though it was done out of a sense of obligation, as though the manager were saying, "Jeez, I appreciate you sitting around down there for three days twiddling your thumbs and trying not to choke to death on sunflower seeds. Let's try to get you some work." Not helping matters was the fact that after righty Kevin Youkilis, the next three hitters he would face — David Ortiz, Carl Crawford, and Josh Reddick — were all lefties, and lefties hit Hughes a whole lot better than righties do (.269/.349/.443 vs .234/.284/.361 for his career, and .370/.417/.510 vs .259/.348/.466 this season), while Rivera has actually enjoyed a reverse platoon split over the course of his career.

Hughes retired Youkilis on a flyball, but once Ortiz poked a ground-rule double down the right field line, the rest of the sequence felt inevitable. Ortiz was replaced by pinch-runner Darnell McDonald, Crawford was intentionally walked to set up the double play, and Reddick poked the first pitch he saw into the right field corner for the walk-off single. Game, set, match, frustration.*

That ending aside, the Yankee bullpen had a pretty good weekend against Boston. Friday night's win featured 4.1 innings of scoreless relief after Bartolo Colon got an early hook. Boone Logan struck out Adrian Gonzalez with the bases loaded to end the fifth, and got the first two outs of the sixth before yielding a double to Crawford, whom Cory Wade stranded by getting Jarrod Saltalamacchia to ground out. Rafael Soriano and David Robertson both threw 1-2-3 innings, and Rivera worked a scoreless ninth for the save. Saturday's loss featured a scoreless inning from Luis Ayala, though Hector Noesi was plugged for three runs in the ninth to turn a 7-4 deficit into a 10-4 one. The messy work of Rivera and Hughes on Sunday night was preceded by fractional innings from Logan and Wade, and scoreless frames from Soriano and Robertson; the three hits that quartet allowed included two cheapos, one a seeing-eye single by Crawford, the other an infield single by Scutaro.

Logan has now allowed earned runs in just three of his last 18 games, this while compiling a 20/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13.2 innings. He has allowed six of 21 inherited runners to score in that span, but two of those were via unearned runs keyed by a Robinson Cano error. He has yielded two homers in that span — both to lefties, alas, and his overall numbers against them are worse than against righties (.257/.325/.459 vs. .222/.300/.244). that said, his peripherals are overall slightly better than they were last year with the Yanks, and he's been better at stranding inherited runners. All in all, as lefty specialists go, he's been solid.

Wade continues to impress, posting a 1.80 ERA with a 13/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 20 innings since being plucked away from the Rays; he's allowed just one out of 11 inherited runners to score. Ayala, who had been rocked for a 5.68 ERA with four teams in 2008-2009 before disappearing from the major league scene last year, has posted a 1.51 ERA and a 22/9 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio in 35.2 innings of mostly low-leverage work. Soriano has started to look like the guy in the catalog, retiring all 12 hitters he's faced since coming off the disabled list, five of them by strikeouts; his two appearances against Boston were his first high-leverage appearances since May 13, and they both came in the seventh inning, not the eighth, which offers some hope Girardi can get away from his desire to label his relievers. Robertson remains nearly unhittable. In his last 20 outings dating back to June 13, he's allowed hits in just six of them, and walks in just five of them (two of those games overlapped); in that time, batters have hit .132/.224/.206 against him, and just one out of eight inherited runners have scored. Rivera has now blown five saves, but for the most part he continues to dominate hitters, with a 39/4 strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio and just one homer allowed in 43.1 frames.

Add it all up and the Yankee bullpen now has the AL's lowest ERA at 3.08, its second-best strikeout rate at 8.1 per nine (the Red Sox are .0024 behind them in that department), and its fourth-best strikeout-to-unintentional walk ratio at 2.6. Furthermore, the bullpen has allowed just 23.9 percent of inherited runners to score, the league's second-best mark, and they've taken the loss a league-low 10 times, for whatever that's worth. The Yankees are 59-6 (.908) when leading after six innings, 2.5 wins better than the average AL team under such circumstances.

So despite the loss of Soriano for an extended spell and Joba Chamberlain for the remainder of the season, despite the annoying presence of Hamburger Helper in the form of Amauri Sanit, Buddy Carlyle, Sergio Mitre, and Lance Pendleton, the Yankees have once again emerged with a quality relief corps. We can quibble with the tactical tics that have earned Girardi his "Coffee Joe" moniker, we can holler about the choice of personnel in the 10th inning of Sunday night's loss, we can make stale jokes about his binder. Still, the Yankee skipper has once again shown a knack for finding order in the chaos of his bullpen; it has become one of his signature traits, and it's a big reason why this team enjoy a seven-game cushion in the Wild Card race while trailing the Red Sox by just a game in the AL East. The Yankees are positioned to waltz into the postseason, and there's no sense in overlooking that silver lining despite a tough series loss.

*Here I should add that the use of Hughes also necessitated a reordering of the rotation, since he had originally been Tuesday's scheduled starter. The current plan has A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, and Bartolo Colon lining up against the Angels on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with CC Sabathia in line to face the Rays on Friday. The rest is up in the air; Hughes or Freddy Garcia figures to start on Saturday. You'd think the Yankees would be eager to get the former back on the mound to build upon last week's strong start, but he seems to be number six on the depth chart at the moment.