By Ken Davidoff
The master plan made sense. It still makes sense.
It just happens to fall to pieces for three or so hours each day.
The Yankees let the nondescript Athletics bolt The Bronx without as much as a scratch. Joe Girardi’s group suffered a 7-3 loss Thursday night, and a three-game sweep to Oakland, that left the American League’s highest payroll with a 5-9 record and an increasingly comfortable spot in the AL East’s basement, five games behind division-leading Baltimore.
Many of us expected the Yankees’ offense to regress from last year, and boy, has the lineup delivered on those expectations in these first couple of weeks, struggling more with runners in scoring position than did Ted Cruz with New York voters. Age figured as an area to monitor, too, and this 14-game sample has only magnified that concern. The starting rotation remains a work in progress, although sophomore Luis Severino provided some encouragement Thursday with his best effort of the season.
The bullpen, though? For this team, the bullpen has to be the glue, the caulking that covers up the other blemishes. And this losing streak has extended because the Yankees’ relief corps has failed to clear that high bar.
“They did really good all year long. And it’s going to happen from time to time,” Girardi said of his second-tier bullpen guys. “It’s just tough when you’re playing the way we are and you’re trying to salvage a win out of the series.”
“That’s how it goes in this game. It snowballs,” losing pitcher Chasen Shreve said. “That’s what frustrated me about it is, we’ve been struggling and I wanted to go out there and put up a zero, especially in this situation. It just didn’t happen.”
Shreve, who entered the game with a perfect 0.00 ERA in six appearances covering 5 ¹/₃ innings, took over for Severino to start the seventh inning and saw his first two pitches of the night leave the yard, with Khris Davis and Coco Crisp each going deep to put the Yankees in a 4-2 hole.
After the Yankees closed within 4-3 on Starlin Castro’s RBI single in the bottom of the seventh, rookie Johnny Barbato, who also has excelled, served up a two-out, two-run, eighth-inning blast to Chris Coghlan. And just in case the Yankees held hope of a miracle comeback, Kirby Yates allowed another cushion run in the top of the ninth.
For this series, the Yankees’ relievers totaled 11 innings and permitted eight runs, a 6.55 ERA. It’s, of course, a tiny sample within the small sample of two weeks, yet in what figures to a very competitive race for AL playoff spots, such deviations from the plan can feel extra painful.
Speaking of that plan, Castro has been a success in his maiden Yankees voyage, and outfielder Aaron Hicks, after a quite sluggish start, exhibited his talents more in this series. He made a pair of fine defensive plays Thursday night, and he even produced the Yankees’ first hit of the night with runners in scoring position, a soft, second-inning single that fell in front of Burns and drove in Mark Teixeira from third base for an early 1-0 lead. Overall, the Yankees went 3-for-11 with runners in scoring position, an improvement from how they had been performing but still substandard; all three hits were singles.
Aroldis Chapman, the Yankees’ other significant offseason acquisition, prepares in Tampa for his May 9 return once he serves his 30-game suspension for violating baseball’s domestic-violence policy. None of the three new guys cost the club what it considered to be a serious trade asset — although pitcher Adam Warren, sent to the Cubs for Castro, would look pretty helpful right about now — and none seriously stretched the franchise’s payroll flexibility down the line. The Yankees clearly are not all-in this year, and their chance to actually win it all hinges on a dominant bullpen.
“We’re going to get better, and it should start [Friday],” said Alex Rodriguez, who looked better at the plate, and Brett Gardner said, “I’d rather lose 9-of-14 in April than September.”
Both veterans probably are right. Without a stellar bullpen, though? This plan has no chance.