Bullpen 'hiccup' could sink Yanks

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Manager Joe Girardi called it "a hiccup," but it was more like a hemorrhage: four pitchers, two innings, eight earned runs.

That was what the Yankees bullpen did Friday night after having strung together seven stellar games and 15⅓ scoreless innings.

A hiccup, of course, is just a momentary annoyance. A hemorrhage is often fatal. Girardi better hope he is right and that what happened to David Phelps, Matt Thornton, Adam Warren and, worst of all, Cesar Cabral in Friday night's 11-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays is something that can be cured simply by holding your breath.

Otherwise, it's too scary to contemplate.

After all, any relief pitcher can have an off night. But when just about every relief pitcher that enters a game has an off night, well, that means the entire bullpen has had an off night, and no team can afford to have many of those.

Yes, it's early in the season; yes, it's only one game; and, yes, the Yankees are still 11-7 and on top of the AL East by a game.

But for one night at least, all the preseason fears about the bullpen came true -- in living color -- and probably worse than anyone could have imagined.

Cabral was the worst of all. He faced six batters without getting a single out, allowing three hits, three runs, hitting three batters, throwing a wild pitch and getting ejected after the third hit batsman by plate umpire Joe West, who was probably acting to protect the Rays hitters. Certainly, Girardi had no such intentions; he fully planned to leave Cabral out there as long as possible so as not to have to use Shawn Kelley, his interim closer while David Robertson's groin strain heals.

Cabral was so bad he lost his job. The Yankees announced after the game he had been designated for assignment and would be replaced on the roster by Matt Daley, a right-handed reliever from Long Island.

But Warren, who had been so good Girardi was talking about him as a permanent late-inning reliever, wasn't much better than Cabral. He worked an inning and allowed three runs on four hits, including the back-breaker: Sean Rodriguez's long, two-run home run that turned a 6-5 game into an 8-5 game, effectively putting it out of reach.

In descending order, there was Phelps, who faced three batters and gave up a hit that turned into a run, and Thornton, who faced two hitters and allowed a single and got one out only because Yunel Escobar made a baserunning mistake that allowed Derek Jeter to throw him out at third. Thornton, too, got charged with one run in the Rays' three-run seventh.

But the real problem was that neither Phelps nor Thornton ever appeared capable of regaining control of the game once the Rays started threatening. And without Dellin Betances, who worked two innings on Thursday, and Vidal Nuno being saved for a spot start on Sunday, Girardi had no choice but to leave Warren out there longer than he should have, and to even bother going to Cabral.

In fact, that is probably why he stuck with Hiroki Kuroda as long as he did -- 5⅔ so-so innings that got worse in the sixth as he rapidly and noticeably ran out of gas -- because he knew his bullpen was short and what he had of it could be unreliable.

But this was the fear going into training camp, that with the retirement of Mariano Rivera and the losses of Boone Logan and Joba Chamberlain to free agency, the Yankees' pen would be short on arms and experience.

First of all, the loss of Rivera meant not only the loss of the greatest closer of all time, but also of probably the best setup man in the American League; with Robertson taking over for Mo, there was really no one to take over for Robertson.

Kelley was the closest thing the Yankees could muster, and he has done fine as the substitute closer with Robertson on the DL, but he has undergone two Tommy John surgeries and was markedly less effective in the final month of last season.

Betances, with his electric fastball and sharp, downward-breaking curve, has emerged as a contender for late-game work, but he still has the tendency to lose the plate at times. Phelps and Warren are starters who are still learning how to work out of the bullpen, and neither is accustomed to warming up several times in a game or working in back-to-back games, let alone back-to-back-to-back games, as relievers often must.

Cabral was a luxury -- a third lefty in the pen -- who became a necessity on Friday when Girardi realized he would need Nuno to start on Sunday.

Put it all together and you have a recipe for the kind of disaster that unfolded at The Trop on Friday night.

"It's going to happen every once in a while," Girardi said. "Obviously, our bullpen has been very, very good for us, and today we had a hiccup. We had two strikes a number of times, and we couldn't put them away. They put on tough at-bats and it happens and you move on."

"I think we’ve proven we can pitch at this level," said Warren, who had thrown seven scoreless innings and allowed just two hits before this game. "We know we can. It’s just going out there and executing pitches. I think we know we can do that. Just have to try to bounce back and still maintain that confidence."

"It stinks, but there are times you’re going to have a night like that," said Phelps, who just nine days ago threw 2⅓ perfect innings to earn his first career save against the Red Sox. "Nobody’s perfect, but we try as hard as we can to be. Things didn’t go our way tonight. You saw some of the swings those guys put on some of those two-strike pitches. It seemed like they were trying to fight balls off and they were just finding ways to drop in. And I’m sure we’ll be out there tomorrow and start a new streak. I have faith in our guys, and we have faith in ourselves."

That faith, no matter how well placed, got shaken a bit on Friday night. Robertson is expected to be back by Tuesday, Betances should be available for Saturday night's game and Ivan Nova better be prepared to give the Yankees some innings, if only to avoid the possibility of the same horrific scene playing out two nights in a row.

What Girardi called a hiccup might be nothing more than that.

Or, it could be the first symptom of a serious condition that could be a problem for the Yankees all season long.