Relievers put to the test

Joe Torre is credited for his steady handling of players, his unflappable outward demeanor. But he manages the Yankees with a daily and desperate search for the jugular: if he sees a chance to win a game, he will go for it, without concern for the next day.

This is how you have to manage in New York, where one loss could turn into back-to-back defeats, and three straight losses could turn into a full-blown crisis. And this year, Torre sees the jugular in almost every game. "No matter how far behind, it won't matter," pitcher Mike Mussina said the other day. "We're going to come back and make a game of it."

Even when the Yankees are behind, Torre has called on his best relievers, in an effort to hold the opposing team. When the Yankees are ahead -- which is frequently -- Torre will call on those same relievers again, at an extraordinary rate. The primary three members of the bullpen have been worked more than any group from a contender other than San Francisco's trio of Felix Rodriguez, Jim Brower and Matt Herges.

Through Sunday, Yankees closer Mariano Rivera had thrown 32.2 innings over 30 games; he is currently on pace to make 19 more appearances than in any of his nine previous seasons with the Yankees, and throw 14 percent more innings than in any season.

Set-up man Paul Quantrill injured his right knee in the first series of the year in Japan. But despite that problem he has logged 34.1 innings in 29 outings -- meaning that he is on pace to pitch 17 more innings than his career high, at age 35.

Tom Gordon, the other set-up man who has earned the trust of Torre, is working at a rate that would result in 87 appearances and 94 innings -- much more than his career-highs of 73 appearances and 79.1 innings, accomplished before he battled arm problems.

The Yankees are 35-20, and there may be a time when that rate of work will diminish. It would be a concern, general manager Brian Cashman said, "if it stayed that way. But you can count on ebbs and flows. You can't use these guys throughout the year the way they're being used, but typically they'll go through periods where they'll get a lot of rest."

"As the season goes on, you'll find situations where blowouts will alleviate the numbers a little bit, and they'll settle in a little bit more."

There could be help on the way. The Yankees could acquire at least one reliever in the next two months. Steve Karsay, who hasn't pitched since 2002, is rehabilitating in Florida and is also a possibility to log innings in relief.

The Yankees could also get some expensive relief from within their active roster. Jose Contreras is floundering in the rotation, perhaps mounting so much pressure on himself in the days between his starts that he struggles to fight his way through anxiety after taking the mound.

He could soon be moved to the bullpen, where he could go day to day without knowing when he was going to pitch -- Arthur Rhodes became a frontline set-up man for this reason after struggling as a starter years ago -- and where he showed great promise as a reliever last fall.

Other bullpens that are being worked heavily include the Mets, Reds, and Astros. All three American League West contenders -- Oakland, Anaheim and Texas -- rank in the bottom five for their use of their three primary relievers.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.