Monday, June 1, 2009

Joba Rules On This Day

This is how it's going to be all season.

Every time Joba Chamberlain has a mediocre or poor start, the Joba-to-the-bullpen faction will let it be known that the righthander is built to be a reliever and should be in the bullpen.

Every time Joba has a strong or great start, the Joba should be in the rotation contingent will point to the outing as evidence of Joba's destiny as a starter.

All things come to an end ... except the great Joba debate.

Monday, the starters won out.

Joba allowed two runs on four hits and made a brilliant diving play in eight outstanding innings as the first-place Yankees beat the Indians 5-2 in Cleveland, taking 3 of 4 in the series, finishing the trip 5-2 and extending their lead in the AL East over the Red Sox to a full game.

In addition, the Yankees extended their errorless streak to 18 games, supplanting the 2006 Red Sox in the record books, and Mariano Rivera pitched the ninth for his 11th save of the season.

Joba on this night was dominant, walking two, striking out five and hitting 97-98 mph with his fastball from the first inning all the way through the eighth. He was also very efficient, throwing 66 of 106 pitches for strikes. It was his arguably best start of his young career, contending with his 1-0 victory over the Josh Beckett and the Red Sox last season.

He made one bad pitch all night that Victor Martinez turned into a mammoth homer with two outs in the fourth. Joba was momentarily shaken by that, allowing a single to Shin-Soo Choo and walking Jhonny Peralta, but he struck out Mark DeRosa looking to end the threat.

Then came the play.

Joba walked Ryan Garko to lead off the fifth and Jamey Carroll followed with a single to put runners on first and second. Indians manager Eric Wedge elected to have Kelly Shoppach try to sacrifice against Joba's high, hard heat.

Shoppach eventually popped up a bunt that looked like it would fall in fair territory along the third base line. But out of no where, Joba flew in, diving head-first and making the backhand catch. He then gathered himself and threw to Derek Jeter covering second for the double play.

I never knew Joba could move that fast or had that kind of athleticism. He was fast off the mound, though he landed so hard, tremors were reportedly felt as far away as Chicago and Green Bay.

The play deserved a pump-fist or three, thwarted the rally and was the turning point in the game. The inning ended when Carroll was caught stealing.

Joba was never really threatened the rest of the way, the second run scoring on DeRosa's groundout in the seventh.

What was more impressive was that when Joba got through the seventh at 95 pitches, Joe Girardi and Dave Eiland did the right thing and did not baby him. They took off the gloves, took off Joba's diapers and sent him out there for the eighth.

Joba (3-1, 3.71 ERA) responded by retiring the side on 11 pitches, getting three groundouts.

Chamberlain was brilliant on this night, and he had to be because the offense was, well, offensive, going 3-for-16 with runners in scoring position and stranding nine, while failing to score in the sixth when they loaded the bases with no outs.

Jeter, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira started the inning with consecutive walks to load force starter Jeremy Sowers from the game. Wedge brought in Greg Aquino to face the heart of the order and Yankees fans were confident of a big rally. Alex Rodriguez, however, struck out, Jorge Posada grounded into a fielder's choice with Jeter thrown out a home and Robinson Cano lined out to center to the inning.

It was disappointing. It was aggravating. Still there was plenty of reason for confidence because of Joba, who shut down the Tribe in the bottom half.

The Yankees finally got on track in the seventh, when with one out Hideki Matsui, Brett Gardner and Jeter all walked. This time the Yankees came through. Swisher launched a double that was an inch from leaving the ballpark, scoring two. Teixeira was walked intentionally to reload the bases and Rodriguez followed with a two-run single, giving the Yankees an insurmountable 5-1 lead.

The offense's trouble started in the first. Jeter led off with a single to extend his hitting streak to 15 games. Swisher then flew out to center before Teixeira singled to put runners of first and second. That's as far as they got. Rodriguez lifted a fly to center and Posada struck out to end the threat.

The Yanks were fortunate to scratch out a run in the third. Garnder led off with a walk, and after failing to run in a key spot in the ninth Sunday, stole second on the first pitch to Jeter, who then beat out a bunt for a single to put runners on the corners. Swisher followed by grounding into a double play, scoring Gardner, but ending any hopes for a bigger rally.

But on this night, the offense could struggle because Joba was that good. Not even the midges could bother him.

But here's the reality: the debate isn't going to end here. It's going to rage all season. It might even go into next season.

Yes, the Yankees are a much better team this season with Joba in the bullpen. There is no debate there.


But what about the future?


This is a departure in philosophy for the Yankees. The only starter they've developed since Andy Pettitte in the mid-'90s is Chien-Ming Wang. They are going to do everything they can to develop more top starting pitchers, and that can't happen with Joba if he is pitching out of the bullpen.

And no matter what Dave or that arrogant loudmouth Mike Francesca or anyone else says, right now, as we sit here today, no one knows for sure what Joba will become as a starter. He's only 23 with minimal seasoning in the minors.

He also had only a handful of starts in the majors, during much of which he's been babied. The numbers aren't great, but aren't terrible. He's allowed three runs or less in 19 of his 22 career starts. But he's gone at least seven innings just twice.

We know he has talent, but translating that to success as a starter is another matter. Will he become another Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett or John Smoltz? Maybe. Will he be another Scott Kazmir or Daisuke Matsuzaka? Again, we don't know that either. Is he destined followed the route of Rivera, Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon? Possibly.

The only way to find out is for him to pitch in the rotation, and I'm thrilled the Yankees are giving him every opportunity to prove himself ... and I'll still be thrilled, even if he flames out as a starter and it costs the Yankees a shot at the playoffs this season.

It's that important to find out.

Runners In Scoring Position
Monday
3-for-16 (.188)
Season
130-for-476 (.273)
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
64-for-208 (.308)

Up Next
Tuesday vs. Rangers, 7:05 p.m., YES
Vicente Padilla (3-2, 4.71) vs. A.J. Burnett (3-2, 4.78)

Burnett beat the Rangers his last time out, pitching six shutout innings for his first win since April 14. He'll be looking to establish some consistency and get on a roll.

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