Commentary

How Joba got his groove back

It was only one game, but maybe Joba Chamberlain has found the magic touch again?

Updated: April 7, 2010, 11:16 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- Hold off on the Jo-bituary. Reports of the demise of Joba Chamberlain as a dominant relief pitcher have been greatly exaggerated.

The Yankees beat the Red Sox 6-4 on Tuesday night at Fenway Park in your typical four-hour Yankees-Red Sox skirmish -- a game that was not won when Jorge Posada finally crossed home plate five batters after he doubled to lead off the eighth inning, nor when Robinson Cano lined a ninth-inning home run to provide a slight measure of insurance in a park where no lead is assured.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJoba Chamberlain showed a lot of emotion Tuesday night -- a great sign for Yankees fans.

No, this win was sewn up in the bottom of the eighth -- the hard-luck inning for the Yankees all spring, and the one frame that no Yankees reliever seemed particularly eager to step up and seize by the throat.

In fact, much like the preseason competition for the role of No. 5 starter, this one looked like it would be won by default, ultimately to be owned not by the last man standing but by whichever man succeeded in not falling flat on his face.

Then came the eighth inning of the second game of the regular season, with a runner on second, one out and a Yankees lead as slim as Mariano Rivera's silhouette. Manager Joe Girardi had started the inning with Dave Robertson on the mound, but his bid to make the eighth inning his own lasted as long as it took Kevin Youkilis to lash a hard single to left.

Then came Damaso Marte, who promptly threw the ball away on a pickoff attempt, allowing the tying run to move into scoring position before he retired David Ortiz on a fly to center.

At that point, the bullpen door swung open and out stepped Joba Chamberlain. But not the Joba Chamberlain we had seen most of last year or all of this spring -- the one who was tentative and unsure, groping his way cautiously through innings like a four-round fighter suddenly being asked to go 12 and not at all sure he could do it.

This Joba was the 2007 vintage, the pre-midge Joba, the one who came out of the bullpen breathing fire and throwing smoke, the one who could silence Fenway just as easily as he could electrify Yankee Stadium.

The assignment was no cream puff -- Adrian Beltre and J.D. Drew were practically licking their chops at the chance to bring Youkilis home. And considering Chamberlain's recent form, in which 91 mph on the radar gun was about as good as it got and 3-2 counts were pretty much the norm, there was no reason to believe Beltre and/or Drew wouldn't deliver.

But in the space of four pitches -- slider, fastball, slider, fastball -- Beltre was gone, swinging through a heater clocked at 96 mph. Then came Drew, a more patient and disciplined hitter who required a more measured approach. This one took five pitches -- the last two a pair of sliders that dived cruelly into the ground as Drew could only flail hopelessly over the top. A few moments later, Cano lost a baseball in the crowd, and the Yankees could deliver this one safely to the right hand of Rivera.

Rivera got the save. Alfredo Aceves, who pitched a spotless sixth and seventh, got the win. But the credit really belongs to Chamberlain.

"Joba was great, man -- I mean, his slider was nasty tonight," Posada said. "It was biting, it was hard, and he kept it down tonight. To me, he was very similar to the way he was in '07."

Girardi was less inclined to declare Chamberlain completely back from the purgatory of uncertainty, caused in great measure by the Yankees' lengthy and misguided attempts to rechannel -- and in the process, subdue -- his considerable fire in order to convert him from a reliever into a starter.

"Well, it's too early to tell, but I will say I really liked what I saw tonight," Girardi said. "I still think it will take time because of what his anticipation was all winter long and all spring training long that he was gonna be a starter."

Whether the Yankees will ever publicly acknowledge it or not, the constant yo-yoing of Joba Chamberlain -- is he starter disguised as a reliever, or a reliever masquerading as a starter? -- could not have done anything but confuse him and ultimately cause him to doubt his abilities as a pitcher.

Chamberlain virtually acknowledged as much after the game -- as well as admitting that as a starter he consciously changed his approach, ratcheting down his unique intensity and trading off a lot of his fire in exchange for what he thought would be a longer-burning flame.

"You really can't let it fly for five or six innings as a starter," he said. "You can't blow it out because you're not going to be able physically to do it. You train your body to be able to pitch, but you can't throw that hard for that long."

Or, as Posada said, "For me, there's a different attitude" between Joba the reliever and Joba the starter. He didn't have to explain which one he thought was better.

According to Joba, a pregame meeting with John Smoltz, a visitor in the Yankees clubhouse and one of Chamberlain's boyhood idols, helped him do what three years of Yankee tinkering failed to accomplish -- remember his true calling and how he got here in the first place.

"[Smoltz] told me, 'Just always trust your stuff, and create a game for yourself out there that you can succeed in. Know what works for you and what doesn't, and have fun,'" Chamberlain said. "He made me understand it's a one-inning game."

It certainly was Tuesday night, and that inning belonged to Joba Chamberlain.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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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