Commentary

Changing of the guard in Yanks bullpen

Joe Girardi goes to David Robertson -- not Joba Chamberlain -- in the eighth inning

Updated: July 27, 2010, 2:25 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CLEVELAND -- Two hours before the first pitch of Monday night's New York Yankees-Cleveland Indians game at Progressive Field, a direct question was put to Yankees manager Joe Girardi: All things being equal -- meaning both guys are healthy, well-rested and ready to pitch -- who is your eighth-inning guy, Joba Chamberlain or David Robertson?

"I'd probably lean towards Joba right now,'' he said. "We'll look at matchups and how it equates to certain guys, but I'd probably lean towards Joba.''

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
AP Photo/Amy SancettaThe Yankees await the arrival of David Robertson, not Joba Chamberlain, in the eighth inning Monday.

Approximately four hours later, in the eighth inning of a game in which the Yankees led by one run -- thanks to Curtis Granderson's third homer in two games -- but still needed to get six more outs, it was time for Girardi to make his biggest decision of the night.

The Indians had a runner on first, no one out and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera -- a .280 hitter with all of one home run and seven RBIs -- coming up. Girardi was about to take the ball from Javier Vazquez, who had pitched seven fine innings, and hand it to whom?

Well, he might have been leaning toward Chamberlain before the first pitch was thrown, but now, with the game on the line, he called for Robertson.

"I looked at the charts and I looked at everything and I liked the matchup,'' he said. "So I thought I'd go to Robby there.''

Nevermind that the numbers actually said Chamberlain was the way to go -- that Cabrera was 0-for-5 lifetime against him with two strikeouts, but was an entirely unknown quantity against Robertson, never having faced him. Maybe along with the numbers and the charts and the matchups, Girardi read the tea leaves and the tarot cards. But something made him go with Robertson, and chances are it had very little to do with Cabrera, very little to do with Robertson and everything to do with Chamberlain.

"I went with what my gut told me,'' Girardi said.

It turned out the manager's gut was telling him the truth, because on the fifth pitch he threw, Robertson induced a grounder to short that, with the help of a neat backhand stop by Derek Jeter and a brilliant turn by Robinson Cano, became a double play that pretty much stuck a knife into whatever hopes the Indians retained.

[+] EnlargeJoba Chamberlain
Al Bello/Getty ImagesIt's been a disappointing 2010 for Joba Chamberlain.

Girardi then came out to collect Robertson and brought in lefty Boone Logan to throw to lefty Shin-Soo Choo, and four pitches later, the inning was over and the all-important and all-elusive bridge to Mariano Rivera was complete.

It was a fine call by the manager, a tidy outing by both pitchers and, if nothing else, a wake-up call for a pitcher who once was thought to be the eagerly sought heir to Rivera but now is just one more arm in the Yankees' bullpen.

In the very ballpark in which he faced his postseason Waterloo on the infamous Night of the Midges back in 2007, Chamberlain faced another kind of exile -- to the purgatory of middle relief, the realm of the Chad Gaudins and the Sergio Mitres, the repository for pitchers a manager isn't quite sure what to do with.

After the game, another direct question was put to Girardi: Was his use of Robertson and Logan in the eighth an indication that he had lost faith in Chamberlain?

"I think that would be a misinterpretation of tonight's events,'' he said. "I'm not saying I'm handing it over to Joba every time we go to the eighth. I'm gonna look at things. That's my job. I liked the matchup of Robertson versus Cabrera and I liked the matchup of Boonie against Choo.''

And if that didn't work out? "Then I had Mo up and ready to go,'' Girardi said.

In short, Chamberlain -- a phenom in 2007, a sensation for most of 2008, a favorite for the starting rotation in 2009 and a washout in the spring training competition for the fifth starter job this year, was never in the mix Monday night.

Now it's tough to determine where he fits on this team anymore or whether he fits at all.

For a manager who has been open about his desire for his relievers to have definite roles, one of which was Chamberlain pitching the eighth, it is a remarkable change of heart -- and for Chamberlain, a most disturbing change of status.

"I still have my job," Chamberlain said, sitting placidly in a folding chair after the game, either blissfully oblivious or willfully in denial. "I'm still ready to come out and help this team win. It doesn't matter what day it is or what the situation is. You gotta be ready from the sixth inning on for any situation that may happen.''

When the eighth inning started, Chamberlain went through his normal pregame stretching routine, expecting the phone to ring for him, just as if it was 2007 all over again. But in 2010, the call is just as likely -- and now probably more likely -- to come for Robertson, who after a shaky start to this season has settled down to become the shutdown righty Chamberlain once was. After the game, it was Robertson who was talkative and lively, Robertson who seemed as if he had a future with this team and knew exactly what it would be. He said many of the same things Chamberlain said, some even in the same exact words, but he said them with a smile, as if he knew that the next time the bullpen phone rings in a tough situation, the call will be for him.

"I'll do whatever Joe [Girardi] wants me to do,'' Robertson said. "If he wants me to go in the sixth inning, or the seventh or the eighth or the third, like he did the other day [when Andy Pettitte went down with a groin injury], I'll do it. I'm ready. I know what my job is, and I'm ready to do it.''

That job used to belong to Joba Chamberlain, but now it belongs to David Robertson. About that, there can be no dispute, even if the manager refuses to acknowledge it.

GAME NOTES: Vazquez (9-7) pitched seven innings of five-hit, two-run ball, striking out five. … Alex Rodriguez's pursuit of membership in the elusive 600 Club continues into Tuesday, after an 0-for-4 game that ran his homerless streak to 17 at-bats since he hit No. 599 on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium. He was robbed of one hit when third-base umpire Jerry Meals appeared to blow the call on a sinking liner in the fourth that left fielder Trevor Crowe looked to have short-hopped. Meals ruled it a catch, and Crowe fired to second base to double off Mark Teixeira to end the fourth … Said A-Rod: "I'd rather not hit a homer and win than hit a homer and lose. But I'm not concerned about it. It'll come whether it be this week, next week or next month.'' … Nick Swisher hit his 18th homer in the fourth inning to tie the game at 1 after Travis Hafner had given the Indians a 1-0 lead in the second with his ninth homer of the year. … Tuesday's matchup: former Indian CC Sabathia (13-3, 3.18) versus RHP Josh Tomlin, making his major league debut.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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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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