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  • Chapman continues to struggle, the Dodgers add to a once-crowded outfield and Machado has a night for the ages.
By Ted Keith
August 19, 2017

The Yankees’ Cuban Missile Crisis

Joe Girardi was hot, and it had nothing to do with the steamy weather in Boston or the intensity of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. No, when New York’s manager went to the mound in the bottom of the eighth inning Friday night to talk to pitcher Aroldis Chapman, he appeared simply frustrated at what he was seeing: his formerly unhittable closer melting down yet again when facing the team the Yankees are chasing in the AL East; his club squandering an impressive comeback and missing a chance to gain ground in the division race and a mounting problem that offers no obvious solution.

Just two days earlier Girardi had declared that he still had “a ton of confidence” in his flamethrowing closer but that confidence was clearly eroding even before Chapman gave up two runs in his lone inning of work in a 9-6 Boston win that left New York five games back in the AL East. For the first time all year, Chapman entered a game in the eighth inning with the Yankees already trailing, hardly the traditional spot for a man who has made four All-Star teams for his overpowering work in the ninth inning. Nor did he perform like much of a star, surrendering a single and a walk to the first two Boston batters, allowing a double steal when he never checked the runners, then giving up a two-run single to Jackie Bradley Jr., which Chapman compounded by failing to back up home plate on a throw from the outfield that got away from catcher Austin Romine and allowed Bradley to move to second.

It was then that Girardi paid his visit to the mound. Chapman recovered to get the next three batters out, but that was little comfort to Girardi or the Yankees, who must figure out what to do with their $86 million southpaw. For just the second time in his career, and the first time in six years, Chapman has now given up runs in four consecutive outings. Overall in that time he has yielded seven runs on five hits and five walks with five strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings pitched.

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To be fair, Chapman has been dealing with a mild hamstring problem (though Girardi said that wasn’t a factor in Friday’s performance) and before this bad week he had put up a 0.84 ERA and closed out all six save opportunities he had been handed in his previous 10 outings.

Perhaps more noteworthy is Chapman’s declining strikeout rate. Since coming back from the disabled list in mid-June, here are his monthly K-rates: 38.9%, 28.6%, 22.2%. Yes he is still the hardest throwing pitcher in the game, routinely topping 101 mph. Yet as Girardi noted after the loss, he’s far from the only pitcher in baseball these days who can reach triple digits, and batters are becoming more accustomed to facing that kind of heat.

All of these numbers are coming in undeniably small samples, but such is the life of a closer. Chapman’s numbers don’t look much better when expanded, either. His 4.29 ERA is by far the highest of his seven-year career (it was 1.55 last season, including 2.01 during his brief stint in New York before a midseason trade to the Cubs). Nor is this the first time he has had difficulty with the Red Sox, against whom he has a 9.95 ERA in seven outings (it’s 3.07 against every other team).

With two more games against Boston this weekend that are almost must-win if the Yankees have any hopes of finishing first in the AL East—they still have a three-game lead in the crowded wild-card race—it’s hard to imagine Girardi entrusting Chapman with the ball in a crucial spot. He certainly has plenty of other options. David Robertson (132 career saves) and Dellin Betances (a four-time All-Star middle reliever) closed out the final two games in the Yankees’ four-game Subway Series sweep of the Mets earlier this week and neither pitched Friday, so they should be fresh for the remainder of the weekend series in Boston.

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Given the injuries and inconsistency to their starting rotation, the Yankees figured their best chance at October glory would be to build the majors’ most fearsome bullpen. Adding Robertson and righty Tommy Kahnle in a mid-July deal with the White Sox to a group that included Chapman, Betances and swingman Adam Warren was meant to give Girardi options for mixing and matching in order to get as many as 12 outs on any given night. While those other pitchers could be interchangeable, Chapman was supposed to be the foundation the rest of the bullpen was built on. That foundation is turning out to be shakier than expected, and may cause New York’s dream of a division title to collapse entirely if it isn’t fixed soon.

Dodgers get a Grand treat

It’s hard to tell what Los Angeles has had more of lately: celebrities, or Dodgers outfielders. Yet that didn’t stop team president Andrew Friedman from adding another one Friday, getting Curtis Granderson from the Mets for cash or a player to be named later. The Dodgers have displayed few weaknesses in running up an incredible 19-game lead on the Rockies and 20 games on the Diamondbacks, both of which are in playoff position, in the NL West, and adding a 36-year-old with a .228 batting average wouldn’t seem to be much of an impact.

Still, as they showed with their acquisition of pitcher Yu Darvish from the Rangers at the trade deadline, the Dodgers are not playing for August or September, they are playing for October and that’s where the Granderson move comes in. Not only does he have 51 games of postseason experience and hit three home runs in the 2015 World Series, he also has fared well against L.A.’s likely postseason opponents. Against Arizona, Chicago, Colorado and Washington, Granderson has batted .281 with five home runs. With Joc Pederson struggling badly in the second half (.149 average, two home runs) and Andre Ethier still out with a back injury, Granderson will give manager Dave Roberts another option in a once-crowded outfield that should still be able to rely on superstar rookie Cody Bellinger and Yasiel Puig to play everyday.

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Around Baseball

• Manny Machado was the star of the night. The Orioles’ third baseman belted three home runs, including a walk-off grand slam to beat the Angels 9-7. The win helped Baltimore get to within two games of the Angels for the second wild-card spot. All 16 runs in the game were scored on home runs.

• As the Nationals lose one All-Star righthander they gain another. Max Scherzer was placed on the DL with neck inflammation Friday but the team will activate Stephen Strasburg to start Saturday’s game against the Padres. Strasburg last pitched on July 23 but he is 10-3 with a 3.25 ERA this season. Like the Dodgers, the Nationals are playing for October and perhaps no player in baseball is more eager to get there than Strasburg, who famously missed Washington’s 2012 trip when the team shut him down in September when he reached his innings limit and sat out last year’s NLDS loss to the Dodgers with an injury. Strasburg has made just one postseason start in his career and everything will be done to ensure he is ready to join Scherzer at the top of the Nats’ rotation as they chase the first World Series berth in team history this fall.

• Kudos to the kids from North State Little League in Greenville, N.C., who combined for the first perfect game at the Little League World Series since 2008 Friday night. Chase Anderson (3 IP), Matthew Mattijs (2.2 IP) and Carson Hardee (0.1 IP) combined to retire all 18 Sioux Fall Little League hitters, nine on strikeouts, in a 6-0 win.

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