Bauman: Yanks' bullpen a puzzle

Bauman: Yanks' bullpen a puzzle

BOSTON -- Game 2 of the 2010 season between baseball's biggest rivals evolved, after just five innings, into a battle of the bullpens. This was the kind of game that, based on conventional wisdom about bullpen depth, the Boston Red Sox were supposed to win.

Conventional wisdom was wrong. The New York Yankees were right.

And a large part of the reason that the Yankees prevailed, 6-4, on Tuesday night was a once-familiar phenomenon -- Joba Chamberlain pitching with great success in the eighth inning. It is far too soon, manager Joe Girardi indicated, to declare that the eighth inning once again belongs to Chamberlain. But it is not too soon to imagine Chamberlain once again being a major success in this role.

You could see how this one might shape relatively early. Both starters -- Jon Lester for the Red Sox and A.J. Burnett for the Yankees -- departed after five innings. Neither had been torched, but neither had been at the top of his form. The pitch counts for both mounted quickly.

With a 4-4 tie and four innings of regulation play remaining, a true and equal test of the bullpens beckoned. Five Yankees relievers combined to accomplish the best that could be done with those innings, shutting out the Red Sox, leading directly to victory.

Alfredo Aceves stabilized the pitching situation for the Yankees with two innings of relief that were not only scoreless but nearly perfect, the only runner against him reaching on an error.

"It was good, because we needed two innings out of him," Girardi said. "He can do a lot of different things, and he was very valuable for us last year. If I'm not mistaken, he got the win tonight, so he's right where he left off."

Aceves and Chamberlain were both candidates in Spring Training for the No. 5 spot in the Yankees' rotation. That role was eventually claimed by Phil Hughes. Based on Tuesday night's result, the Yankees have both Aceves and Chamberlain in the right spots.

The winning New York run came in the eighth inning -- an unearned run off lefty Hideki Okajima, driven in by a walk to designated hitter Nick Johnson. What would the Yankees do now, in the eighth? They do not have a definitive eighth-inning setup man at the moment. Earlier in the day, Girardi, discussing the unsettled situation, said: "It has to iron itself out -- the sooner, the better."

Presumably, Tuesday night helped in the "sooner" category.

"We were going to do what we had to do to get through that inning," Girardi said. In a simpler world, that would have meant giving the ball to reliever David Robertson and letting him pitch the entire inning. In the Yankees/Red Sox world, Robertson surrendered a leadoff single to Kevin Youkilis. So lefty Damaso Marte was summoned to face David Ortiz.

Marte promptly produced a pickoff throw/lob to first that threatened the world record for coming up short. The inadequate toss bounced far from first and proceeded through first baseman Mark Teixeira's legs. Youkilis went gratefully to second.

Marte at least got Ortiz on a harmless fly to center. But with a right-handed hitter, Adrian Beltre, due next, Chamberlain was summoned. Order was soon restored.

Chamberlain struck out both Beltre and J.D. Drew to end the inning and renew the debate: Shouldn't Joba be the eighth-inning guy?

Chamberlain is all for it.

"Of course, of course," he said on Tuesday night. "It's something I take pride in.

"Joe does a tremendous job of challenging people, and that's what makes him a great manager. This is a challenge, and I'm ready to embrace it."

You can feel the worldwide momentum building behind this notion, but Girardi is not going to be rushed. If a similar eighth-inning situation presents itself in Game 3 of the season on Wednesday night, Girardi said he is not certain that he will go to Chamberlain again, given that the right-hander threw 33 pitches in Sunday night's 9-7 loss and then worked again in Game 2. Patience, rather than a rush to judgment, appears to be next up for the Yankees' manager on this issue.

"[Joba] was prepared as a starter [in Spring Training]," Girardi said. "We need to get him back to relieving form. And I'm not a guy who believes that happens overnight."

Meanwhile, back at Fenway Park, the Yankees added a ninth-inning run on a solo homer by Robinson Cano that came off Scott Atchison. Of all the relievers used in this game, Atchison might be the most unlikely. He's a 34-year-old right-hander who, before this season, had amassed only 53 Major League appearances. In 2007 and '08, he had pitched successfully in Japan. But for this particular Cinderella story, Cano's home run was the other side of midnight.

That made the score 6-4, and that's the way it ended, because -- of course -- it became Mariano Rivera's turn to pitch. The bottom of the ninth on the road is precisely where the Yankees, carrying a lead, are supposed to prevail. Here, both history and conventional wisdom are on the Yankees' side of the argument.

Rivera remains in a class by himself as a closer. (All right, Trevor Hoffman, the all-time saves leader, is in the same neighborhood and should go to the Hall of Fame also. But only Rivera as a closer has had both the opportunity and the ability to succeed time after time after time in the postseason since the middle of the last decade of last century.)

Rivera gave up a double to Marco Scutaro, but nothing else, and it was over after three hours and 48 minutes. The Red Sox, thought to have the deeper, more settled bullpen, lost to the Yankees, because New York found four shutout innings in its bullpen.

Girardi has said that he believes his bullpen will be better than it was in 2009, even though some of the roles remain unsettled. On Tuesday night, in a marquee matchup, the Yankees got a very good look at how well this all might work.

Mariano Rivera is a ninth-inning given. Joba Chamberlain still looks like a very solid alternative for the eighth. Alfredo Aceves quietly throws strikes, gets results and was 10-1 last season for good reason. The fact that all of this useful evidence was presented in one night in Boston against the Red Sox is both a bonus and positive reinforcement for the Yankees.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.