Then, suddenly, the bullpen without Bruney righted itself. Alfredo Aceves and David Robertson demonstrated they could pitch key innings. Phil Hughes went from being a struggling starter to a seemingly unhittable reliever. It wasn't that they didn't need Bruney. Instead, he would fit in as just another cog in a sturdy machine.
It hasn't been quite that easy. Bruney has struggled of late in the eighth and has not slid back into the bullpen the way the Yankees hoped. True, they won on Tuesday, beating the Mariners, 8-5, in front of 46,181 at Yankee Stadium for their sixth straight victory. But in many ways the contest raised more questions than it answered.
On a night Melky Cabrera picked up another clutch game-winning hit and Alex Rodriguez showed his hip is inching closer to 100 percent, the theme in the clubhouse afterward was about Bruney. He surrendered a two-run lead in the eighth on three hits. The pitcher who for weeks was considered the missing link on the ever-important bridge to Rivera once again almost sunk it.
"I let the team down tonight," Bruney said. "They picked me up."
Indeed they did. Bruney entered with a two-run lead, after Rodriguez launched a two-run home run into the left-field bleachers off Seattle reliever Chris Jakubauskas to break a 3-3 tie. He promptly allowed three straight singles to begin the frame, including a run-scoring hit by catcher Kenji Johjima.
After a sacrifice bunt by Ronny Cedeno and an intentional walk to Ichiro Suzuki, Russell Branyan knocked in the tying run with a sacrifice fly. Three outs would have gotten the game to Rivera, who has blown just one save all year.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi's decision to bring Bruney in at all on Tuesday was questioned during his postgame press conference. Hughes, who just hours earlier had been proclaimed a "full-fledged reliever," threw only nine pitches in a 1-2-3 seventh. He again looked dominant, regularly touching 95-96 mph on the radar gun.
It seemed like the perfect opportunity to let Hughes work another inning. Nevertheless, Girardi chose to go with Bruney because of his track record -- to nearly disastrous results.
"It'd be terrible if you lose your job after blowing one game," Bruney said. "It's kind of a ridiculous question, I think."
Considering changing Bruney's role after one poor outing may be premature, but it hasn't been just one poor outing. Bruney has now struggled in three of his past four appearances. He lasted just two-thirds of an inning on Sunday against the Mets and had to be bailed out of trouble by Rivera. He allowed a run in two-thirds of a frame on a hit and two walks on June 24 in Atlanta.
Girardi stressed there are currently no plans to demote Bruney, even as Hughes continues to impress.
"Bruney's our eighth-inning guy," Girardi said. "We need to get Bruney going, there's no doubt about it. We expect big innings out of him, and he's done it before. He was doing it early in the year. He's had an injury, and he's been shut down for a while, and we have to get him going."
Fortunately for Bruney, his disappointing inning did not hurt the team because the Yankees wound up winning. Sean White came in to pitch for the Mariners in the eighth and allowed a leadoff double to Hideki Matsui, who was able to DH after nine games in National League ballparks.
Nick Swisher bunted in a sacrifice attempt but beat it out for a base hit, putting runners on the corners. That set the stage for Cabrera, who been has perhaps been the Yankees' most clutch player this season. He lined a double into the right-center-field gap, scoring pinch-runner Brett Gardner from third. Derek Jeter followed with a looping single over a pulled-in infield to plate two key insurance runs.
"Melky's had some big hits all year," Rodriguez said. "He's really worked hard to put himself in the position to come through for us."
Despite the win, the top half of the eighth became the story and made Cabrera's hit almost an afterthought. It overshadowed a monster home run by Rodriguez, which on another day would have been the focus of the inquiring media. It even put Joba Chamberlain's start on the backburner -- a feat difficult to accomplish for a pitcher so closely scrutinized.
Chamberlain again could not go deep into the game, working just 5 1/3 innings while allowing three runs. He exited with the go-ahead run on second with one out, but reliever Phil Coke came in and retired Suzuki and Branyan to escape the jam. Though Chamberlain has only worked past the sixth three times this year, the Yankees are 10-5 in his starts.
"There's going to be days when you don't have the greatest stuff," Chamberlain said. "You've got to go out and compete and keep your team in the game, whether you've got your good stuff or you don't."
Sitting by his locker shortly after the game, Bruney said he would be able to rest easy Tuesday night because he felt like he threw the ball well. More importantly, the team immediately scored three runs to render the bad inning irrelevant.
But that's only for the short term. There is no doubt Bruney is the eighth-inning guy for now. If he continues to struggle and Hughes keeps dominating, who knows if and when that will be reevaluated.
Bruney knew he got away with one Tuesday night and that on other days, he may not be so lucky. This time, the Yankees were able to pick him up.
"Bruney has been very strong for us," Rivera said. "When I saw the guys pick him up, I was grateful."
Jared Diamond is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.