Commentary

Joba shows progress in Yanks' opener

Entering camp with a lot to prove, Chamberlain made a positive impression vs. the Phils

Updated: February 27, 2011, 2:13 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Joba Chamberlain was the best pitcher on the field in Saturday's Grapefruit League opener between the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, hands down.

Literally.

Working from his new set, hands clasped down near his waist rather than up near his chest, Chamberlain -- the Yankees pitcher with the most to prove this year whose initials are not A.J. -- showed flashes of the phenom he had been in 2007, setting the Phillies down on 11 pitches, nine of them strikes, in a dominant third inning.

It was the one moment of tidiness in a messy game, not unusual for the first one of the spring, that was ultimately won by the Phillies 5-4 before a full house at George Steinbrenner Field.

Chamberlain started his brief day's work with a strikeout of Wilson Valdez, the last strike on a nasty slider, then got Pete Orr to ground out and Russ Gload to pop out weakly to center.

He wasn't on the mound for five minutes, but he left an impression far stronger than the negative one he made two weeks ago, when he showed up in camp clearly heavier but not necessarily fitter than he had been at the end of last season.

In fact, he was so good that the issue of his weight never came up in the postgame interview, until some nudnik -- OK , it was me -- brought it up to point out that it had never come up.

"Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles, I guess,'' he said. And that's the way issues that seemed to be important at the beginning of camp magically disappear. By pitching them away.

The radar gun caught Chamberlain's fastball at up to 94 mph, and he mixed in one beauty of a slow curve that could add another dimension to his repertoire.

But what Joe Girardi liked the most about what he saw in Joba's cameo appearance was the kind of aggressiveness he hasn't shown much of since being chased off the mound by a swarm of midges in Cleveland nearly three years ago.

"He attacked,'' Girardi said. "To me, that's feeling comfortable as a pitcher. Basically it's trusting in your stuff and I think you learn to trust your stuff as you become more consistent.''

Consistency is a hurdle still to be cleared but, clearly, whatever "minor adjustment" Chamberlain made in his set during the offseason paid some dividends in his first appearance of the spring.

"My hands were at my chest last year so I moved them to my belt,'' he said. "Going back to when I first got called up, that's where they were at -- it allows my hands to catch up and be where they need to be. When I miss, I'm not missing over the plate and balls are up, so it's a pretty good sign.''

Asked why he made the adjustment, Joba was typically direct. "Because there were times last year I [stunk]. There was no getting around it.''

Joba certainly didn't [stink] on Saturday. He even outshone starter Bartolo Colon, who wasn't too bad either, allowing a run on two hits -- one of them a rocket to right by Ben Francisco that eluded Nick Swisher for a triple -- and hitting 93 on the gun in a two-inning, 36-pitch appearance.

"He looked pretty good to me,'' Girardi said. "He was pretty much the Bartolo I knew. A strike throwing machine, gonna pitch down in the zone and use his fastball a lot. That's the guy I remember.''

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
J. Meric/Getty ImagesJoba Chamberlain hopes to be a solid player for the next 10 years.

Still, Girardi cautioned, "I don't make too much out of the early going. But that doesn't mean you can't open somebody's eyes now.''

Colon, of course, is locked in a battle with Freddy Garcia, Ivan Nova and Sergio Mitre for the two remaining slots in the Yankees' starting rotation. Nova will go when the Yankees and Phillies play again Sunday afternoon in Clearwater. Garcia is slated to start against the Rays later this week. And Mitre is scheduled to be the first pitcher to follow Nova on Sunday.

Colon was generally pleased with his performance, although he said he had some problems keeping his two-seamer from straying over the middle of the plate to left-handed hitters, which is what happened on the pitch to Francisco.

"It's not quite there yet,'' said Francisco Cervelli, who caught Colon and drove in a run with a second-inning double down the left-field line off Cole Hamels. "He threw a lot of strikes, but his sinker went side-to-side a little bit. Maybe the next one, or the one after that, will be better.''

The Yankees took a 4-3 lead in the seventh inning on a two-run homer to dead center by Jorge Vazquez, but lost the lead when Dane Sardinha dropped a parachute in front of Colin Curtis in left to drive in two runs.

But like all spring training games, this one wasn't about results, it was about progress, and the Yankees could honestly say both Colon and Chamberlain showed signs of making some.

"I'm not asking these guys to go out and kill themselves right away,'' Girardi said. "We've got over a month before we have to make any decisions. Let's be smart about it.''

Notes

The first anxious moment of the spring came when Hamels hit Mark Teixeira on the right foot with a curveball. Afterward, Teixeira displayed a bruised and swollen big toe. Last season, he broke the little toe on the same foot in similar fashion. "I thought, what, already?" Girardi said. Teixeira said he's fine. ... Derek Jeter grounded out in his only two at-bats, Robinson Cano was hitless but reached on an error and scored a run, and Alex Rodriguez lined a double into the right-center gap. Andruw Jones drew a walk in his first Yankees at-bat -- and promptly got picked off. ... None of the Yankees' starting infielders will make the trip to Clearwater, although all three outfielders -- Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Brett Gardner -- will, as well as DH Jorge Posada. Rookie Jesus Montero will catch. Nova and Mitre will be followed by Boone Logan, Dellin Betances, and assorted others as needed. ... Russell Martin, whose catching drills have been limited due to lingering mobility issues in his surgically-repaired right knee, is expected to DH Monday against the Tigers in Lakeland. ... Andrew Brackman, shut down on Friday with some groin discomfort, will undergo tests with the training staff Sunday and could be cleared to resume throwing Monday. The game was preceded by a 30-minute ceremony honoring George Steinbrenner. Tino Martinez, Girardi, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage and Derek Jeter took turns reading the text of the inscription on the new bronze statue of The Boss that stands outside the entrance to the stadium as the Steinbrenner family stood by. All but Hank Steinbrenner, who was ill at home.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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