NEW YORK -- It only took him 30 games, 13 saves and string of 15 2/3 scoreless innings, but Joe Girardi finally broke down on Friday night and admitted what we already knew to be true: That Andrew Miller is definitely, indisputably, and now, officially, the New York Yankees closer.
It seemed silly to even have to ask him the question once again after Miller pitched a Mariano Rivera-type ninth inning in the Yankees' 5-4 win over the Baltimore Orioles -- nothing spectacular, just a strikeout, a routine flyout and a ground out, efficient and deadly -- but with Girardi, no question is ever too silly to ask because the manager approaches every question as if it is a ticking time bomb.
If you ask him if tomorrow is Saturday he would consult a calendar before answering -- and then make sure it was this year's calendar, not last year's -- and this was no different. Even prefaced by the admission that the roles in his bullpen have been clear for weeks -- Miller pitches the ninth inning, Dellin Betances the eighth, and sometimes part of the seventh -- Girardi hemmed and hawed and practically had to have the information dragged out between his clenched teeth.
"Well, is there a reason I have to?," he said, stalling, before acknowledging, "He’s been closing games for us. He’s our closer. Is that better? Is that gonna be the headlines tomorrow?"
Well, yes, but only because he made sure no one could definitively write that headline weeks ago.
For whatever reason, Girardi held out on this commitment for as long as he could, but in truth, the manager's verbal blessing was not necessary to consecrate this union. Even though Betances looked like the heir apparent to the heir apparent in his successful rookie season -- the successor to David Robertson, who was the successor to Mo -- Miller and the Yankee closer's job have seemed made for each other since his superior spring training.
And Miller has been even better in the regular season. Aside from not yet allowing a run, Miller has allowed an astonishing three hits all season. He has walked eight and struck out 26. Opposing batters are hitting -- wait for it -- .063 against him. In other words, a team coming into the ninth inning trailing against the Yankees has a much chance of winning the game as Girardi has of admitting the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
Miller and Betances -- who has not allowed a run either this season, in 17 2/3 innings -- are so far a deadlier combination than Mo and Robertson were. They're even beating out the combo of set-up man Mo and closer John Wetteland, the combo that originated the concept of the seven-inning game and was one of the biggest reasons the 1996 Yankees won the World Series.
"That’s a formula that’s been around here for a long time," Girardi said. "Ever since I can remember in 1996, if you gave us the lead after six innings there was a really, really good chance we were going to close the door. And our club feeds off that."
The Yankees (19-11) are now 15-1 in games in which they've led after 7, and needless to say, 18-0 in games in which they've led after 8. And even on nights in which the starter and middle relievers falter, the Yankees can prevail.
That was the case Friday, as starter Adam Warren couldn't get out of the fifth inning and Chris Martin -- who has assumed most of the right-handed middle relief work -- allowed both of the runners he inherited from Justin Wilson in the sixth inning to score (Wilson has now allowed 5 of 7 inherited runners to score). But as long as the Yankees cling to the slimmest of leads, there's a good chance the two-headed monster of Betances and Miller are going to slam the door shut.
Miller, a pretty low-key type, shrugged off the manager's official designation. Asked if it meant anything to him to finally have the title, Miller said, “Not particularly. They’ve been very honest with us the whole time and I think they’ve done a good job of putting us in situations to succeed. It’s worked pretty well. I was honest with them and I’ve been honest with you guys -- for what they’re paying me, I’ll do anything. They got me for a few more years. That’s the honest truth. I came here to win. I didn’t come here for saves or a certain role. I’m here to win."
Although it has taken him longer, in a lot of ways Miller's career has followed the arc of the incomparable Rivera's -- a failed attempt at starting followed by a young pitcher who found his niche as a setup man who now has slipped effortlessly into the closer's role. Miller kicked around with the Detroit Tigers, the Florida Marlins and the Boston Red Sox before finding his stride as an eighth-inning man in 2013. Last year, in 23 games with the Orioles, Miller was virtually unhittable, striking out 34 batters in 20 innings, allowing eight hits and walking just four. He followed that up with 7 1/3 scoreless innings for the Orioles in last year's ALDS and ALCS.
So he hardly seems surprised by his success as a closer so far this season.
"I had never been in this role before, but I felt like I could pitch at this level, in this division, in big situations," he said. "I feel what was asked of me specifically down the stretch last season is even greater than anything that’s been asked of me (here). I was pretty well equipped to have this role."
And now, he finally has it. Officially, that is.
Quick exit: Carlos Beltran's numbers have been atrocious this season -- he came into Friday's game hitting just .187 with no home runs and nine RBIs -- and even after getting what proved to be the game-winning hit, a bases loaded double that drove in two runs after the Orioles had walked Brian McCann ahead of him, the numbers stand at .191-0-11, and his OPS is a puny .539.
But, as he had with Stephen Drew on Thursday, Girardi said Beltran has hit better than the numbers indicate. In the case of Beltran, Girardi invoked "exit velocity," a fancy term for the speed the ball leaves a hitter's bat.
"I know there's a lot of stats out there, but his average velocity is second on our team," Girardi said. "He doesn’t have a lot to show for it, but that means he’s centering balls and things will change."
Who is the Yankees existing V-Lo champ, you might ask? None other than Alex Rodriguez.