Yanks sweep as bullpen backs Joba
Big seventh finishes White Sox after Aceves relieves early
NEW YORK -- Top to bottom, the Majors are more competitive than ever. Yet it's inevitable that, at this point in the season, certain teams around the league are already playing for next year.
Count the Yankees among them. Though they are not some lopsided number of games out of first place -- quite the opposite, actually -- the Yankees are spending the late summer months conditioning Joba Chamberlain for 2010. They are sprinkling a bit of Spring Training into August, knowing full well that these games count a heck of a lot more than anything they could cook up at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla.
On this day, it didn't matter. Although the Yankees were not close to completing their 8-3 win over the White Sox when Chamberlain finished his allotted three innings, manager Joe Girardi said he was not tempted to keep Chamberlain in the game, despite the fact that he had thrown just 35 pitches.
"That's why we draw it up, so you don't get tempted," Girardi said. "Temptation is dangerous."
And the Yankees maintain that, despite Chamberlain's nearly 23 years of age and three seasons of big league experience, innings, too, are dangerous.
Chamberlain has thrown a career-high 133 2/3 of them this season, already crossing what many teams consider a critical threshold -- a year-to-year increase of more than 30 innings for pitchers under 25 years old. Originally, the Yankees attempted to combat that by using Chamberlain sporadically, limiting his starts down the stretch.
The result of that was some sloppy pitching, and so the Yankees changed their plan -- call it "Joba Rules 2.0." Now, he will pitch every five days for a predetermined number of innings, regardless of pitch count and regardless of result.
Unveiling that experiment on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, the Yankees watched Chamberlain fire three of his most efficient innings of the season, allowing two runs on four hits, but needing only 35 pitches to do it.
Rather than continue what might have become a successful outing, Chamberlain instead walked to the weight room to work "until your legs can't take it anymore." And the Yankees sat, secure in the belief that they are protecting Chamberlain's future.
"You've got to realize what they're really trying to do, and that's to protect me for a long time," Chamberlain said. "You've got to understand that they're doing this for me -- not necessarily for this year, but they're doing it for a lot of years. That's humbling for me to know that they care about me that much to take those precautions, especially at this point in the season."
The Yankees enjoy two luxuries that make such an arrangement possible: a comfortable late-August lead in the division, and a bullpen with some of the best arms in baseball. That relief corps was on display throughout Sunday's game -- most notably Alfredo Aceves, who pitched three shutout innings for the win, and Phil Hughes, who extinguished a possible game-changing threat in the seventh.
A half-inning later, the Yankees blew the game open on Mark Teixeira's three-run homer, Melky Cabrera's RBI double and Jerry Hairston's sacrifice fly. All that after Derek Jeter racked up two hits and scored two runs off White Sox starter Freddy Garcia earlier in the game, the second of them on Johnny Damon's two-run homer in the third.
On the strength of Aceves, Hughes and the offense, the Yankees put the finishing touches on a three-game sweep of the Sox, who have tumbled this week from postseason contention to life support.
Asked about his thoughts on the weekend, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said simply, "Well, we came to New York and visited the new Yankee Stadium. It is a very nice ballpark. We also stayed at a very nice hotel. That's all I can really say about these past three days."
Chamberlain could say more. Though exiting after merely 35 pitches did not please him -- how could it? -- the former bullpen phenom did see the plan's merits.
Arguments can be made in both directions. Still young, Chamberlain has a history of arm injuries both in college and the Minor Leagues, and he has not yet lived up to his lofty potential. He is, however, burly and strong, seemingly able to handle the rigors of 30-plus starts.
"I know how I feel, and I feel great," Chamberlain said.
Consider reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, Chamberlain's junior by three inches and roughly 65 pounds, a slight build that belies his violent delivery. Last season, Lincecum threw roughly 50 more innings than ever before in his career. This season, he is in the hunt for a second straight Cy.
The Yankees, however, are not interested in such counterexamples. They are interested in Chamberlain's long-term health, and had they not intervened, he might have exceeded his previous high by 80 or so innings -- and that's not including the postseason.
The Yankees -- at last check still very much on track to play in October, with their six-game lead on the Red Sox the same as it was going into the weekend -- are now on pace to win a league-best 102 games. All Sunday's game proved was that this developmental phase should not affect them too much down the stretch.
"We knew what we had coming in, and we drew it up," Girardi said, "and everyone did a good job."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.