There he was, all 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds of Aroldis Chapman, looking like the $86 million man. The fastballs were flying in at warp speed.
Whoosh! 100.5 mph! The hot-hitting Joe Mauer looked at Chapman’s first pitch for a strike.
Boom! 101 mph! Mauer foul-tipped it.
Zoom! 102 mph! Mauer swung and missed.
Chapman followed by dialing up 100.8 mph heat to force Byron Buxton to fly out to right.
Just like that — with just four pitches — Chapman cleaned up setup man Dellin Betances’ bases-loaded, eighth-inning mess and began what turned out to be a five-out save. Chapman ended a one-two-three ninth with a 103.7 mph fastball to strike out Minnesota Twins third baseman Eduardo Escobar swinging, and the New York Yankees defeated the Twins 2-1 Monday night in a possible American League wild-card preview.
The win didn’t clinch home-field advantage for this postseason’s opening do-or-die game, but it would take an epic collapse to prevent it. The Yankees have a five-game edge on Minnesota and have their eyes focused on a bigger catch, the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox, who lead New York by three games after beating the Orioles in 11 innings on Monday.
While Chapman is back, Betances is a little lost. Yankees manager Joe Girardi sounded like a man who might temporarily demote Betances, an All-Star in each of his four full seasons, to try to get him right. It worked when Chapman struggled a month ago.
Girardi moved Chapman down in the bullpen pecking order, to lower-leverage situations, to find himself. He has, and now Girardi is leaning on Chapman to pick up Betances. The manager did run the risk of overextending Chapman with an inning-plus save.
Girardi could use David Robertson and Chad Green instead of Betances, but the manager has carved out Andrew Miller-type bridge roles to snuff out the opposition in the middle innings for both Green and Robertson.
“You like to have roles, but if you have to make some adjustments, you make them,” Girardi said. “That’s the bottom line. It is the time of year that if you have to make some adjustments, you make them.”
Betances has been so good for four years, but Girardi can’t let his wildness cost the Yankees a game as they try to catch the Red Sox in the AL East with the regular-season calendar running out. On Monday, Betances walked two batters and a hit another while recording just one out before he left to boos.
“Today, we were lucky,” Betances said “Chapman did an unbelievable job. I put him in a tough situation. I can’t keep doing that. I have to be better.”
Betances said he has felt better of late, but on Monday he was “yanking” his pitches, just throwing his 6-foot-8 frame off enough to make him wild.
“My timing was off,” Betances said.
Betances is as much a New York guy as anyone in the Yankees’ clubhouse, so he knows what to say and how to say it. Betances is the rare person who grew up in New York, a fan of the Yankees, and then went on to star for them. He is a Bleacher Creature at heart, even attending David Wells’ perfect game in 1998. Betances knows what the people in the seats demand. Even with his past success, this is no time for him to complain about where he might be used.
“I’m going to pitch whenever my name is called upon,” Betances said.
A month ago, it was Chapman who needed to be better. The demotion worked to help him get right.
At the moment, Chapman is much better. With Robertson and Green pitching well, the Yankees currently have a three-headed bullpen monster. If they get Betances back on the right form, they will really have something dangerous going into October.
On Monday, as the Yankees put a little more distance between themselves and the Twins, all they really needed was Chapman, the man who once again is back on top of the Yankees’ bullpen pecking order.