By Ernie Palladino
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The way Joe Girardi has gone about his business recently, one might half expect Luis Severino or Masahiro Tanaka to come strolling out of the bullpen to save the day.
Sticking an ace with relief duty is the stuff of the postseason, where every game in a best-of-seven series could tip the scale toward a title or an early vacation. Take last year’s NLDS, for instance. Dave Roberts trotted the Dodgers’ inimitable Clayton Kershaw out there with one out in the ninth of Game 5. Never one to disappoint, Kershaw got the final two batters to record his first-ever save and move his team to the NLCS against the Cubs.
Girardi hasn’t gone that far yet. But it has become obvious from a couple of his bulllpen moves of late that he is treating this final stretch of the season as a playoff of sorts. In a dual effort to protect the now-three-game wildcard lead the Yanks hold over Minnesota and continue to chip away at Boston’s four-game division lead, the veteran manager has traded roles for pragmatism with both long and short relievers.
We’re not talking about Aroldis Chapman’s short stint as a supporting actor, either. Chapman was demoted for cause — his inability to throw a 102 mph fastball past opposing bats in the ninth inning, a malady from which he only recently recovered.
No. This is about Chad Green and, most recently, David Robertson. Girardi’s creative use of both men is part of the reason the Yanks have gone 8-4 since the Indians swept their three-game series at the end of August.
Green was the hero a week ago Monday when Girardi called on him to rescue Jordan Montgomery in Baltimore with two out in the fifth. Seeing Green in the fifth is not unusual, considering he’s normally used in middle relief. But it was certainly odd to see him come in with Montgomery clinging to a 5-3 lead, even after the starter walked Manny Machado.
But Girardi wasn’t about to chance the lead dissipating into a tie or worse. In came Green for the final out. And then the right-hander stayed in and threw another two innings of scoreless ball in an eventual 7-4 victory.
Had this been the middle of July Girardi might have left the young Montgomery in there, if for no other reason than to give him more experience in tight spots. But with the schedule growing shorter and the Yanks looking at closing the division gap to 2 1/2 games from the 5 1/2 that existed just three days prior, that one was just too important to jeopardize.
So on came Green and the fastball that helped him mow down four Orioles in 2 1/2 innings.
One week to the day later, Girardi was at it again. CC Sabathia had thrown just 88 pitches and the offense had just put up a five-spot in the fourth for a 5-1 lead over Tampa Bay. But the southpaw found himself in a two-on, one-out jam in the fifth with Evan Longoria coming up.
It should be noted that Longoria owned a .421 lifetime average with eight homers against Sabathia coming into the game. But even a dinger would not have gotten the Rays even at that point.
Girardi wasn’t willing to chance it, even though Sabathia had gotten out of a similar situation in the third. So in came Robertson — setup man, closer, seventh-inning guy. Down went Longoria looking. Down went Lucas Duda swinging.
And then Robertson, so used to working an inning at a time, went two more scoreless frames for the win in his longest-ever outing.
It’s not exactly like sending Kershaw in for the ninth. But one can see how hard the Yanks are going after it.
Tight leashes on starters. Creative usage of the bullpen. It all plays into how badly Girardi wants to snatch the postseason benefits of an AL East championship from the hated Red Sox.
Perhaps the starters should prepare themselves for a pre-playoff bullpen cameo.
The games are just that important now.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino