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How the Yankees bullpen successfully defied skeptics in the ALDS opener

Jonathan Loáisiga, Wandy Peralta, and Clay Holmes all offered encouraging signs in Game 1 against Cleveland.

Division Series - Cleveland Guardians v New York Yankees - Game One Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Injuries have throttled the Yankees‘ bullpen this season, especially in the second half. Just imagine how nasty the unit would be with Chad Green, Michael King, Stephen Ridings, Zack Britton, Ron Marinaccio, and Scott Effross for example. With all those players, it would be nearly unhittable.

But injuries happen to all teams, and those players simply aren’t available at the moment. Effross was the last to go down, as the team announced a Tommy John surgery date for him only a few hours before their 2022 playoff journey began. As a result, the Yanks’ relief corps has been under so much scrutiny lately that we were led to believe that it would be their downfall, their Achilles’ heel. While that fate may yet come to pass, the unit may not be in such bad shape after all.

During Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Guardians on Tuesday, Gerrit Cole was steady for 6.1 innings, allowing just one run in a sterling performance. Once Cole departed, the divisive bullpen took over with a small lead. So what happened from there? Not much, and that’s a great thing: Yankees relievers pitched 2.2 scoreless, relatively stress-free innings.

Jonathan Loáisiga, who was bad in the first two months and then got hurt, has been showing in the last few weeks that he is rounding into form at the right time. On Tuesday, he allowed a couple of hits but induced a crucial double play. Changeup artist Wandy Peralta had been out for a couple of weeks with a lower back strain, but showed no signs of rust and got four key outs with one via the strikeout. Clay Holmes, also returning from a shoulder ailment (not to mention a second-half skid), induced a groundout and a flyout to end the game with no drama.

If those three pitchers are indeed back, the Yankees bullpen will be in fine shape for the ALDS, at least. The calendar allows the team to use them a lot because there are several rest days to keep them fresh (though the weather tonight threatens to wash one away tomorrow). Fortunately, more than a couple signs indicate that they are good to go on the mound.

Let’s start with Loáisiga. Immediately after coming back from his lengthy absence related to a shoulder injury on July 14th, he conceded three runs in his first outing. Since then, he has shaken off the rust and appears close to his peak 2021 form. Loáisiga’s strikeouts may not be there in the second half (17 in 29.2 innings), but his sinker appears to be back. It has late break and a lot of run.

Here is the pitch with which he induced an inning-ending double play to get out of a jam:

With that run, at 100 mph, and located at the hands, that Loáisiga offering will generate quite a few ground balls like that one, and that’s a positive with the Yankees’ great infield defense.

Generally speaking, Loáisiga has been able to gain more consistency with his release point, and his command improved as a result. His pitches did, too.

It was fair to classify Wandy Peralta as a minor gamble because he hadn’t pitched since September 18. He has been steady and consistent all year, as his 2.72 ERA and 2.86 FIP attest, but there were no guarantees of him being effective against the Guardians after missing more than just a couple of weeks.

Peralta was efficient and effective, throwing eight pitches in total and seven for strikes (two whiffs). His changeup was as good as ever:

Despite those aforementioned mere eight pitches, Peralta recorded four outs — including the first in the ninth. That kind of economic pitching comes in handy in October.

Holmes’ release point was, like Loáisiga, affecting his command to the point he had an ugly run in late July and early August, in which he lost the strike zone completely, walking seven and surrendering seven runs in seven games. He went to the IL with a back issue and was a bit better upon returning … until he hurt his shoulder in late September.

The All-Star’s availability for the postseason was in question, but he recovered in time and actually closed out Tuesday’s victory with two quick outs. The second half has been rough for him in every front, but his release point looked pretty consistent on Tuesday:

Our own Sam Chapman wrote in mid-September that “in his limited time back so far, [Holmes has] been able to keep his primary pitch to the run side, maximizing both the movement the pitch has, as well as the effect his slider can have moving in the other direction.”

That skill helped Holmes succeed in the first half, when he had a 1.31 ERA and 2.00 FIP, earning his first career Midsummer Classic honors. That pitch right there to Straw is where he wants his sinker to be at his best; batters will instinctively swing because they think it’s in the middle, but will find it at the hands in no time.

As usual, Holmes’ success is probably tied to his release point, and it was relatively consistent on Tuesday.

The rest of the bullpen is not exactly a Dave Dombrowski Era Tigers creation by any stretch. Lucas Luetge has been steady all year (2.67 ERA, 3.03 FIP and more than a strikeout per inning), Lou Trivino has a 1.66 ERA in a resurgent run with the Yankees, Clarke Schmidt has a 3.12 ERA in a swingman role, Domingo Germán had a solid 3.61 ERA in 15 games (14 starts), and the Yankees were confident enough in No. 4 starter Jameson Taillon out of the ‘pen that he was warming up behind Holmes to face the potential tying run in the ninth if needed. Even Miguel Castro found more success once he started featuring his slider more, though like Peralta and Holmes, his recent injuries have made him a wild card.

Marinaccio (2.05 ERA, 30.9 K% in 44 innings) is nursing a stress reaction on his right shin and has a chance to be back for the Championship Series should the Yankees make it that far. That could prove a bigger challenge for the Yanks’ relief corps especially if they face the Houston Astros, but overall, the team is fielding a competitive relief corps. Although this is not the intimidating ‘pen of the mid-to-late 2010s, this crew can absolutely still get outs. They offered reason for hope in Game 1; the next step is to offer more certainty throughout the duration of the Division Series.