OAKLAND, Calif. -- For Joe Girardi, having Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman in the New York Yankees' bullpen must be a toy comparable to Evel Knievel having a brand-new Harley-Davidson in his garage.
He simply cannot wait to use it.
And despite his best efforts to control the impulse to wear it out, he can't seem to stay away from it, even when he knows it might be better to let it rest awhile.
Girardi had two such nights this week -- consecutive nights, no less -- and the Yankees manager's behavior on both of them raised serious doubts about his commitment to his own ideals, namely to coax more length out of his starters, and not overuse, and potentially burn out, the strongest unit on his ballclub.
“The one thing that we haven’t done is we haven’t burned them out," he said. "I’m going to use them when I feel the time is right. That’s my call."
Girardi's justification is reasonable -- he manages to win today's game rather than worry about tomorrow's -- but still, there is a certain amount of finesse and discretion necessary to handle something as delicate as one big league pitching arm, let alone three.
On Wednesday, Girardi pulled Nathan Eovaldi, who had allowed just one hit over six innings, in a 3-1 game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and had to sweat it out as Betances walked the first two hitters he faced in the seventh. But the Yankees managed to hold on for a 4-2 victory.
So Thursday, Girardi went himself one better, yanking Ivan Nova after just 62 pitches -- barely more than a solid bullpen session -- but with the Yankees clinging to a much more precarious 2-1 lead against the Oakland Athletics. And while there was a certain amount of sweating on this night, too -- both Betances and Chapman allowed singles to the first batters they faced but worked their way out of potential trouble in the seventh and ninth innings, respectively -- Girardi's strategy was once again borne out by a Yankees win, this time by a score of 4-1.
Circumstances were somewhat different Thursday night. The Yankees could have avoided using any one of the big three had three baserunning gaffes -- by Carlos Beltran, Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius -- not potentially cost them three runs, but the long-term effect could turn out to be the same.
And there could be short-term consequences as well, since Girardi will definitely not have Betances, and quite possibly will not have Miller or Chapman, either, when CC Sabathia makes his first start in 17 days Friday night. Logic tells you that if Sabathia is going to implode, it is likely to happen early, in which case none of the big three would get into the game, anyway. But the potential is there for yet another solid outing by a Yankees starter, with no one left to close the show.
"I don't second-guess myself," Girardi said, somewhat testily. “Maybe a lot of other people do. There’s a reason we put them together down there and it’s for games like today and yesterday. We didn’t put them together for games that are 6-1 or 7-1, but when you’ve got 3-1 and 2-1 and they’re close games and you have guys that strike people out, it’s much harder to score.”
What was left unsaid is that Girardi's almost knee-jerk response of going to Betances-Miller-Chapman in a close game regardless of how well his starter is pitching or how fresh he still appears is indicative of a quiet desperation on the part of the Yankees manager to nail down games, even though he continues to insist it is too early to worry about his club's slow start this season.
Clearly, someone is concerned about that start -- they remain four games below .500 and in last place in the American League East, but now just a half-game behind the Toronto Blue Jays -- and Wednesday's remarks from owner Hal Steinbrenner critical of several Yankees players made it obvious just who that someone is.
That might be why Girardi is managing with his foot to the floor after less than a quarter of the season has been played, and why he is willing to risk paying a bill later -- in the form of a sore shoulder or elbow for any one, or possibly all three, of his back-end relievers -- in exchange for some sure wins now.
Before Thursday's game, Girardi had said he had "no restrictions" on Nova, who was making his third start of the season since being inserted into the rotation to replace Sabathia, who went on the disabled list May 6 with a groin strain. And yet, there he was yanking him after six strong innings in which he allowed just four hits and one run, on Josh Reddick's fourth-inning home run.
“You look where I took him out in the lineup, they had four hits and the next four hitters had the four hits. Reddick had one, [Danny] Valencia had one and hit a couple balls hard, and [Stephen] Vogt had the other two. I just thought, ‘I’m going to make a change.’”
Nova, of course, seemed perfectly capable of giving the Yankees (at least) one more inning, as Eovaldi could have on Wednesday. But it seems that whenever Girardi has the slightest bit of doubt, he's going to roll that fancy machine out of the garage and fire it up, regardless of how much gas is in its tank or how much mileage on its odometer.
Chapman, who missed the first 30 games due to his suspension, is on pace to work fewer than the 66⅓ innings he worked last season, but both Betances, who noticeably wore down last September, and Miller, who spent a month on the disabled list with a forearm strain, are on course to match or exceed their 2015 workloads. That is something the concept of the three-headed bullpen monster was supposed to avoid.
"I'll worry about tomorrow tomorrow,” Girardi said when asked which, if any, of his back-end beasts will be available to back up Sabathia on Friday night.
That might sound like a winning strategy in May. But let's see what happens come September.