TAMPA, Fla. -- At this point in spring training, everything counts, even if nothing counts. The situations are real even if the games are not, and the quality of work that is done here in tiny ballparks before small, mostly friendly crowds is assumed to be the same quality of work a player will do when the games move up north and the crowds get bigger, louder and often uglier.
That is why even though the Yankees lost 3-1 to the Blue Jays on Sunday, and even though Michael Pineda allowed his first three runs of the spring -- two earned -- and even though he took the loss, nothing he did on the field should persuade Joe Girardi that Pineda is anything but ready to open the regular season as part of the Yankees' starting rotation.
Same goes for Dellin Betances. He's a bit of a reclamation project, a big, strong kid who couldn't get the ball over the plate as a starter but slipped a hell of a curveball past Jose Bautista with the bases loaded in a key seventh-inning relief appearance.
It may not have been a real game, but anytime you face Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion back-to-back with the bases jammed in a close game and get both of them out, it's as real a situation as baseball can offer. All you had to see was Bautista slamming his bat down in frustration after he was punched out by plate umpire Mark Wegner to know that his anger was real, too.
"Those guys don't give at-bats away, not even in spring training," Girardi said.
And neither do the Yankees give away roster spots, unless, as Girardi says repeatedly, "we think it's going to make our team better."
Girardi maintains no decisions have been made, either regarding the rotation or the bullpen, and said Sunday that organizational discussions about those two matters will occupy him for much of Monday's off day. Those talks will either be a formality, or a farce.
Because this much is clear: The Yankees will be a better team with Michael Pineda in their rotation and with Dellin Betances in their bullpen.
In some respects, Pineda's outing against the Blue Jays was not as good as his previous one against the Red Sox. Early in the game, his breaking stuff didn't seem as sharp as it had been five days ago, and he did not help himself with a throwing error that led to one run and a wild pitch that led to another.
But just when it appeared he was about to unravel -- he had a difficult fifth inning, in which the Jays scored the two runs that would win the game for them -- he pulled it together with a strong sixth, working around a double by Melky Cabrera, one of only two hard-hit balls off him all game. Pineda ended his day's work by striking out Colby Rasmus with a slider that clocked in at 85 mph. His fastball was consistently clocked between 90 and 91, with an occasional 92.
More important than the numbers on the radar gun, however, was the number on Larry Rothschild's pitch clicker: 80. That total showed Pineda, and Girardi, that the 25-year-old with the surgically rebuilt right shoulder was ready to stand up to the rigors of regular-season, real baseball.
"He’s shown us that he’s healthy," Girardi said. "I think he’s proven that to us this spring with everything that we’ve seen. With a guy like that you’re a little cautious, but I feel really good about what we’re seeing physically."
As for Betances, he was called in to clean up a mess left behind by Cesar Cabral, who is vying for a spot as the second lefty out of the pen but allowed both lefties he faced, Maicer Izturis and Munenori Kawasaki, to reach base on a single and a walk. Cabral then walked Cabrera, loading the bases.
Betances was aware of what he was facing when the call came to the bullpen. He asked Scotty Aldred, his pitching coach at Triple-A Scranton last season, if he thought he should start Bautista off with a curveball. Aldred told him to trust in Brian McCann.
But all Betances needs to trust in is his own stuff, which is closer-caliber. He got ahead, 1-2, with a couple of 95 mph fastballs and then put Bautista away with a knee-buckler. Then he got Encarnacion to fly out harmlessly to left.
"When you come in with the bases loaded or a guy on, it’s definitely different," he said. "Adrenaline gets going. You just have to try to calm yourself a little, just make pitches to the best ability you can. Obviously for me, every time I go out there this spring it means something because I know I’m fighting for a spot -- at least in my eyes I’m fighting for a spot -- so I’m just trying to make the best impression I can.”
Here's the impression Betances has made so far this spring: 10 1/3 innings, just four hits and one run (0.87 ERA), nine strikeouts and four walks. As long as he can throw strikes, Betances will make you forget Joba Chamberlain ever wore the uniform. Or remember back to 2007, when Chamberlain was the kind of reliever that brought fans out of their seats.
"We’ve had some kids step up and throw the ball pretty well," Girardi said. "I have some tough decisions to make. We really do. It will get much clearer on Tuesday."
It's clear now. Pineda belongs in the Yankees' rotation and Betances belongs in the pen.
What both of them have done this spring is real, even if the games aren't.