Michael King made it clear he was hungry midway through spring training. He just didn’t care what the Yankees put on his plate.
After throwing 26.2 innings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the 25-year-old right-hander stated that his goal was to reach 100 big-league frames in 2021. With experience as a starter and a reliever, he wasn’t concerned with how he reached that century mark. King knew that after such an abbreviated season, the Yankees would approach the recent injury histories within their pitching staff with caution. He was eager to seize whatever opportunities that were provided.
“I don’t care where they are,” King said of his innings goal in mid-March. “Whether they’re starts, piggybacks, long relief, whatever it is.”
On Sunday, in his season debut, it was long relief. King took the reins from a homer-happy Domingo Germán in the fourth and made a little history in the process. He became the first Yankee reliever to twirl six shutout innings with one hit or fewer since Bob Shirley in 1986.
All in all, King needed 68 pitches to throw six innings of one-hit ball. He walked one, struck out three and retired the last 16 batters he faced as a talented Blue Jays lineup struggled to make solid contact. The performance kept the Yankees within striking distance, though the offense never came through in the 3-1 loss.
“He pitched great. To be as pitch efficient as he was, to be able to complete that game, was huge for us. Saved some guys [in the bullpen], obviously,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “He was really in command and gave us a chance.
“He did a heck of a job.”
While King stole the show on Sunday, he wasn’t the only young, unproven pitcher to impress during New York’s disappointing season-opening series.
Jonathan Loaisiga has logged more MLB work than King, but the 26-year-old is another arm that finds himself in a sort of utility pitching role. Loaisiga recorded a 3.52 ERA in 12 games last year, but his struggles in two playoff appearances were the most significant moments of his 2020 campaign.
The righty started 2021 with two strong outings, though, throwing three perfect innings while striking out four and picking up a win on Saturday. Without over-analyzing less than a handful of innings, it was notable that Loaisiga filled the zone, throwing 65 percent of his 34 pitches for strikes while inducing seven whiffs.
“He’s really attacked the zone in a really good way this spring and so far in these first couple of games,” Boone said over the weekend.
King and Loaisiga won’t be that dominant all season, but their outings were among the positive takeaways from the first three games of the year. If they can continue to pitch well and force their way into Boone’s circle of trust, it can only help a team that is currently missing Zack Britton and Justin Wilson in the bullpen and hoping for substantial innings from Germán, Jordan Montgomery, Corey Kluber and Jameson Taillon, all of whom have missed significant time over the last two seasons.
If nothing else, King and Loaisiga demonstrated that there will be opportunities for the taking in the Bronx. Their work in the opening series, along with Boone’s multiple spring training comments regarding the need for creative pitching tactics this season, made that clear.
As King noted last month, the Yankees are going to have to find some innings this year. That’s where younger, untested pitchers like himself, Loaisiga, Nick Nelson, Deivi García, Clarke Schmidt, Albert Abreu and others will have a chance to fill the void. Of course, the same applies to a few veterans the Yankees scooped up on minor-league deals over the winter, but the 40-man roster serves as an obstacle for them.
“Hopefully that depth manifests itself and we do get the most out of those guys and, ultimately—in a 162-game season coming off a 60-game season—those guys serve each other well and almost protect each other,” Boone said at the onset of spring training.
It’s only been three games, but so far that plan has worked well. We’ll see if that continues to be the case and, if so, which depth arms lead the charge after King and Loaisiga set a high bar.
One thing is for sure, though: there will be plenty of opportunities to go around New York’s pitching staff in 2021.
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