Sunday October 25th, 2009

Phil Coke and Mariano Rivera wrapped up their pregame catch shortly before 6 p.m. As Coke descended the steps of the Yankees dugout, he saw David Cone and stopped to talk, telling the former pitcher and team broadcaster, "I'm excited, I can't wait to get this game going."

Cone replied, "Uh, they just cancelled it."

Moments after Coke's confused reply of "What? Really?," the voice of the public address announcer boomed over the stadium's speakers confirming Cone's scoop and dashing the young reliever's hopes. The Yankees, who hold a 3-2 lead in the American League Championship Series, will have to wait until Sunday night for Game 6 and their next chance to secure a trip to the World Series. "I don't care if it's snowing outside, I still wanted to play," Coke said a little later in the clubhouse. "I would rather go out there and pitch every day. I love every minute of it, whether it's one guy or a couple of innings."

So far this postseason, it's usually only been for one guy, but the Yankees have loved having him -- or his tossing partner, Rivera -- pitch. It's the rest of the bullpen that's been a bit shakier.

The rainout gives the Angels a boost, because their ace, John Lackey, would be able to start a possible Game 7 on three days' rest, but it could also give the Yankees some help in closing the series out in Game 6, by allowing their young relief unit an extra day to regroup and their meddling manager a chance to reorganize his own plans for using them.

As has been well documented, Phil Hughes' performance as the Yankees' top setup man has given the bullpen a boost. Before he joined the relieving corps on June 8, the bullpen's ERA was 4.88; after that date, it was 3.37. But Hughes has struggled so far this postseason, as he did again in Game 5, when entered in the bottom of the seventh with a 6-5 lead and a runner on third and one out. Not only did he fail to protect the lead, the Angels went walk-single-single in sequence, to take a 7-6 lead. In 4 2/3 postseason innings this October, Hughes has allowed three earned runs, for a 5.79 ERA, and 11 baserunners, for a WHIP over two.

It was also the first time all year Hughes had allowed a run when relieving on two days of rest, making 11 such appearances in the regular season with a 0.00 ERA. In 24 appearances with two or more days' rest, he gave up one earned run in 29 2/3 innings, a 0.30 ERA. Before the postseason began, he said changing from a starter to a reliever was "not a tough transition" and that "it's still pitching." True, but it's undeniable that he does still pitch better with extra time between outings.

With the rain postponement, Hughes will now get a guaranteed second day off before he might pitch again. He did not appear in the clubhouse Saturday evening, but Rivera voiced confidence in his 23-year-old setup man, adding that he'd seek Hughes out for a quick pep talk, just in case.

"I don't want him to change anything," Rivera said. "He has to trust his stuff. It's the same game we're playing."

Unfortunately for the Yankees, Hughes isn't the only one who has struggled. Joba Chamberlain has allowed seven hits in 2 2/3 postseason innings. Alfredo Aceves entered in the 11th inning of Game 3 and allowed a single and a double to lose the game -- Girardi called on him to relieve a fellow righty, David Robertson, for no obvious reason. Damaso Marte gave up hits to the only two Twins he faced and received a shaky hold in Game 5 when one inherited runner scored off him and the other advanced to third (only to score off Hughes). Why Marte entered the game ahead of Coke was unclear.

Robertson has pitched well in his three innings, but Girardi -- who has fiddled with dozens of situational matchups with his relievers, many without success -- doesn't seem ready to use Robertson in higher leverage situations.

"We have matchups that we like that we favor, and that's what we'll go to," Girardi said vaguely on Saturday. "You can see David possibly, depending on how the game goes. But I can't tell you I would use one guy over the other. The situation dictates a lot of what you're going to do."

Whether the relievers haven't been comfortable adjusting to new, shorter, matchup-based roles in the postseason or have struggled for other reasons, so far Girardi has had to resort to using a lot of Rivera, throwing him for 8 2/3 innings, more than a third of the bullpen's 25 innings of work. Rivera has been tireless, throwing 10 strikeouts and allowing no runs, but the Yankees will need more from their young relievers.

The bullpen is not quite in shambles, as Rivera can effectively shorten games by three outs or six, but it's a point of serious concern, as the Angels have already beaten it twice this series. There's a lot for Girardi to figure out for the sixth and seventh innings on days CC Sabathia doesn't start.

Just don't count the veteran closer at the back of the 'pen as someone who's particularly worried.

"They're going to be fine," Rivera said.

With Game 6 starter Andy Pettitte having completed seven or more innings in fewer than a third of his starts, the Yankees will need to hope Rivera is right.

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