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Joba takes step back in Yanks' loss

Joba takes step back in Yanks' loss

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NEW YORK -- The book -- or the record book, rather -- is now closed on the first regular season at the new Yankee Stadium. The Yankees are done swatting regular-season home runs over the short porch in right, done out-pitching, out-hitting and generally out-playing all comers in their $1.5 billion home.

In many ways, their 81st and final game at the new digs was what's come to be known as a typical one -- the Yankees hit two home runs and had a chance to win late. The only difference -- and a big difference it was -- was that the Yankees instead lost, 4-3, to the Royals on Wednesday.

That much could be pinned largely upon Joba Chamberlain. Making a last-ditch effort to prove his readiness -- in one form or another -- for postseason play, Chamberlain instead submitted yet another forgettable outing. Walking two batters in the first inning and needing 91 pitches to complete 3 2/3 of them, Chamberlain stumbled through what may ultimately have been his final start of the year.

"It was not a good start," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said simply and flatly.

Chamberlain's outing soured quickly, when the right-hander walked two batters in the first inning and allowed the first of them to score. Though he escaped from a bases-loaded jam in the second inning, Chamberlain served up a Mark Teahen RBI single in the third and a Brayan Pena run-scoring hit in the fourth.

With two outs in that inning and already with 91 pitches to his name, Chamberlain then gave way to his bullpen. Sergio Mitre, on in relief of Damaso Marte, finally served up a go-ahead triple to John Buck in the seventh.

No doubt by that time, the Yankees' management staff was already looking ahead. What to do with a pitcher who has proven uncommonly inconsistent in the rotation, but whose bullpen abilities -- so heralded in 2007 and early '08 -- may no longer exist? Chamberlain almost definitely will not be a starter in the first round of the playoffs, but there is no telling if he can instead be a reliever.

The man who used to touch triple digits on the radar gun no longer exists. The man entrusted to pitch through swarms of midges in the Yankees' most recent postseason series is gone.

In his place is this Chamberlain, he of three runs, seven hits and four walks. He of mediocre fastball command. He of an uncertain future.

"At this point, I don't think there's any role where I could be in that I'm not comfortable with," Chamberlain said. "That's the advantage that I have."

The disadvantage, though, is a lack of trust. Assuming the Yankees choose the longer American League Division Series, which would allow them to carry only three starting pitchers, Chamberlain will not start in the first round of the playoffs. But can the Yankees really entrust valuable middle innings to him, considering he has not pitched in relief since last September, and considering he threw too many pitches Wednesday to even come out of the bullpen this weekend in Tampa Bay?

"I can't guarantee that when you put a guy in a situation, that he's going to revert back to his old form if we do put him in the bullpen," Girardi said. "But he does have a lot of confidence coming out of those gates."

At the least, Chamberlain's regular season ended Wednesday with a 9-6 record and 4.78 ERA. Coddled by the Yankees' staff all season, Chamberlain watched his infamous "Joba Rules" change multiple times during the course of the season, limiting his innings and presumably affecting his psyche along the way.

Wednesday was his final chance to impress.

Despite his woes, Chamberlain was able to avoid the loss on Wednesday thanks to Derek Jeter's leadoff homer and Nick Swisher's two-run shot to the second deck -- the only runs the Yankees scored off Royals starter Robinson Tejeda. Marte, a postseason roster hopeful who walked one of the two batters he faced, took the loss instead.

Swisher's blast was the team's 136th at Yankee Stadium this season -- 10 more than the club's highest total in 86 years at the old park. The Yankees and their opponents finished the season with a combined 237 homers at the park, 12 more than the old record, set in 2004.

The Yankees also, despite the loss, matched the 1912 Red Sox for most wins at a rookie stadium, finishing 57-24 in their first year across 161st Street.

"We love this ballpark," Girardi said. "This ballpark has been very good for our team."

The Yankees hope that it will continue to be when they open up their Division Series -- presumably but not definitely next Wednesday -- against either the Tigers or Twins. A victory lap this weekend against the Rays is all that stands between them and postseason baseball. But in the interim, decisions must be made.

What to do with Chamberlain ranks among the most difficult of them. It's a question with no easy answer.

"It's his first year as a full-time starter," Girardi said. "He had his ups and downs, there's no question about it. I think he's learned a lot this year, and there are some decisions that we have to make."

"If they want me to fold towels, I'll fold towels," Chamberlain said. "I don't really care. I'll do anything to win on this team."

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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