Yanks not shaking over bridge to Mo
'Pen stays confident despite Hughes', Joba's struggles
NEW YORK -- Facing an 0-2 deficit to the Yankees in the American League Division Series, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was asked what was then the million-dollar question: How can opponents expect any late-game rallies given New York's strong bullpen?
Gardenhire didn't have the answer that morning for Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Mariano Rivera, a trio that allowed just two runs -- both charged to Hughes -- over 7 1/3 innings in the Yankees' ALDS sweep.
"They can make a start last about six innings now with that bullpen," Gardenhire said. "And then you go to those guys. They can shut you down."
But as the Yankees are quickly finding out in the AL Championship Series, when the "bridge to Mariano" starts to shake, the outcome of the game can change in a hurry.
Thursday's 7-6 Game 5 loss to the Angels, in which Hughes hung a 1-2 fastball to Vladimir Guerrero, was just the latest example. Hughes made the decision to try to throw the ball by the free-swinging Guerrero, and instead watched the ball sail into the outfield for a critical game-tying seventh-inning single. The next batter, Kendry Morales, singled in Torii Hunter for the go-ahead run. Hughes had walked Hunter on five pitches.
The blown save was hardly an anomaly. Hughes has allowed nine hits in 4 2/3 innings, posting a 5.79 ERA that pitching coach Dave Eiland says is largely the result of an old mechanical problem resurfacing.
"[It's] just a minor adjustment and he knows it," Eiland said prior to the team's optional workout on Friday afternoon. "It's just staying within yourself -- just trust it and not trying to make that good stuff you have even better. Because you do that [and] you get a little jumpy, you get a little quick through your delivery and you affect your command. And that's what is happening."
Although manager Joe Girardi's decision to go with Hughes instead of Chamberlain, who was already warming up and has typically pitched in the seventh inning, drew second guesses from media pundits and Yankees fans, Chamberlain's postseason numbers haven't exactly been comforting.
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Opposing batters are hitting .500 off Chamberlain, who has given up seven hits over 2 2/3 innings while posting a 3.38 ERA. It's a far cry from some of the relief numbers of Chamberlain's past. In 30 games out of the bullpen in 2008, the righty was a dominating presence, posting a 2.31 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 35 innings.
Meanwhile, Hughes' three earned runs are more than he allowed as a reliever in the entire months of June, July and August. Hughes allowed three earned runs in 14 games combined in September and October, and pitched his way to a 1.40 ERA in 44 games this season.
Still, Girardi preached confidence on Friday afternoon, both in the way he has used his bullpen and in the ability of his young relievers to step up in Sunday's Game 6.
"I know that we've had some struggles," Girardi said. "There's been a lot of teams that during the playoffs have had some struggles in their bullpen. But you have to bounce back. That's the bottom line.
"We've had struggles during the year in our bullpen and our guys have bounced back. I've actually seen Rivera blow a save before and he's bounced back. So this is just all part of the game. And everything is not going to go perfect for no matter who we put out there."
Considered the team's strength in the season's final months, each Yankees reliever has endured a speed bump somewhere along the way. But with each postseason pitch under a microscope, the margin for error -- and window for second-guessing -- increases significantly.
"When it comes down to it, the pitches that [Hughes is] making, you look at the tape, you look at 12, 13 pitches that he threw [Thursday] night and he made one mistake," catcher Jorge Posada said. "And [Guerrero's] ground ball just finds a way to get to the outfield."
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Although Posada denied that Hughes' confidence may have taken a hit, the veteran catcher planned on pulling Hughes aside for a pep talk sometime on Friday.
Eiland also didn't think Hughes, who was unavailable to the media on Friday, was down on himself, but rather anxious for redemption.
"He wishes we were playing [Friday night], so he could get back out there," Eiland said. "That's just how he's made up."
Chamberlain echoed the sentiment, saying the confidence in New York's bullpen hasn't changed one bit.
"We all get put in situations and we know what we are getting ourselves into," Chamberlain said. "We know how to pitch and what we have to do."
The Yankees' bullpen has been bolstered by the performances of right-hander David Roberston, who has thrown three scoreless innings, and lefty Phil Coke, who has tossed 1 1/3 shutout innings stretched out over four games.
Although Girardi has made some unconventional moves with his bullpen in his first postseason, it's hard to imagine that the Bombers will shy away from giving the ball to Hughes and Chamberlain in a big situation.
"You trust it, and you go with what got you here," Eiland said. "Don't change now. We've won, what, 109 games including the postseason? We are not going to change anything."
And if Hughes and Chamberlain can get back on track, the bridge to Rivera will look more like the club's Golden Ticket to the World Series. Rivera has been his usual All-Star self in the postseason, tossing 8 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing five hits and holding opponents to a .161 batting average.
"This is his time," Eiland said. "This is when he's at his best."
Brittany Ghiroli is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.