Joba's strong day keeps him firmly in mix

Joba's strong day keeps him firmly in mix

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- No matter what, the Yankees weren't about to torpedo Joba Chamberlain's spring based upon a St. Patrick's Day start. But by pitching well on Wednesday, he made a tough decision even more difficult.

Challenged to "pick it up" and show the Yankees something special, Chamberlain answered the call with four strong innings of one-run ball against the Phillies at Bright House Field, keeping in competition to serve as New York's fifth starter to open the season.

Chamberlain worked so economically, the Yankees had to ask the Phillies to come back to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, even though Philadelphia had already put the finishing touches on a 6-2 victory. Given three more outs, Chamberlain quickly dispatched those batters, too.

"That's me -- attacking the strike zone and being able to work on some things in certain counts," Chamberlain said. "I just felt really aggressive. It's one of those things where once you feel it, you continue to build from that. I think it's a good thing from a mental aspect to build on."

Chamberlain is battling not only Phil Hughes, but also Alfredo Aceves, Chad Gaudin and Sergio Mitre to stay out of the bullpen and the Minor Leagues to begin the season. While some might have considered him the early favorite, two rocky starts put that in serious doubt.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi told Chamberlain that the third start would be more important than the first two, and the results certainly improved.

After allowing a sixth-inning run on Brian Bocock's flare double and Dewayne Wise's RBI single, Chamberlain slammed the door, using his fastball, slider, curveball and changeup well to hold the Phillies down.

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Chamberlain walked one and struck out three in regulation, and when Philadelphia sent three more batters up in the unofficial ninth inning, Chamberlain swiftly retired them on two strikeouts and a groundout.

"I give [Girardi] a little bit of the credit, because sometimes you need a little bit of a kick in the rear," Chamberlain said.

Girardi called Chamberlain's effort "outstanding" and said that the right-hander used his fastball command and sound mechanics to get ahead in the count. That was what the manager had pushed Chamberlain to show in this third go-round, which will be given more weight than the first two.

"I told them I wasn't going to evaluate them a whole lot the first couple of outings," Girardi said of his pitchers. "I don't necessarily think that they had a lot of innings under their belt, and they don't have the arm strength that they have at this point.

"Their mechanics may not be as sound for some things that we're asking them to work on. Now we tell them to go pitch, and it means more."

Chamberlain said he tried to get as much feedback on his bullpen sessions as possible, utilizing the services of guest instructors Goose Gossage and Ron Guidry, among others.

"We've got a lot of eyes around that have been pretty good for a long time," Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain also leaned on his teammates, and Andy Pettitte -- who hurled four innings of two-run ball in his spring debut Wednesday -- said he understood what Chamberlain and the other hopefuls would be thinking.

"Every single one of us has been in that position before," Pettitte said. "This is a battle. I'm established and I know I'm going to be in the rotation, but I'm telling you, I approach every game as if someone is trying to take my job.


"I'm going to fight with all my heart and everything I've got to try to win that job and try to help this team win. That's something that I want to do, to get that opportunity to hopefully not have innings restrictions, and we'll go from there."
-- Joba Chamberlain

"Believe me, I know if I don't pitch well for the New York Yankees, they're going to find somebody to pitch well. We're all constantly worried about what we're doing and how we're doing, and how we're taking care of business."

After pitching in the rotation for all but one appearance in 2009, albeit with truncated starts, Chamberlain left little doubt that he has his eyes firmly set on the rotation and not a reprisal of the bullpen role he served in the playoffs.

"I'm going to fight with all my heart and everything I've got to try to win that job and try to help this team win," Chamberlain said. "That's something that I want to do, to get that opportunity to hopefully not have innings restrictions, and we'll go from there."

Had Chamberlain not pitched well Wednesday, it would not have meant a death sentence for his chances, though Girardi had allowed in a morning interview that the Yankees could have thought about beginning the season with Chamberlain in Triple-A.

That scenario seems unlikely, especially since Chamberlain's numbers are on the upswing -- his ERA dropped from 27.00 to 16.20 -- but Girardi has spoken often about wanting the 12 best arms, and Chamberlain might not have been considered one of them.

"It's something that we would have looked at," Girardi said. "We weren't going to totally evaluate guys on just numbers. We want to look at what they did last year and everything that they've done, but obviously you don't want to fall too far behind."

Chamberlain will have at least one more start before Girardi would like to iron out the fifth-starter mix by March 25 or 26, so that the pitchers who will be heading to the bullpen have time to get ready.

And as dusk fell on Florida's Gulf Coast on Wednesday, the race remained just as difficult to handicap as it was on the first day of camp.

"I'm glad these guys are making our decisions tough," Girardi said. "It's going to be a tough decision."

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