Throughout the first few months of the season, the sight of Clay Holmes emerging from the Yankees' bullpen in a save situation meant a guaranteed victory for New York.
After allowing a run on Opening Day, the right-hander delivered 29 scoreless appearances in a row, officially stepping in as closer when Aroldis Chapman was placed on the injured list in May.
Holmes made the All-Star Game, distinguishing himself as one of the best relievers in the sport.
Over the last few weeks, however, Holmes has been far from dominant, failing to command the zone with his lights-out sinker while contributing to New York's second-half slide.
Holmes blew another save in Friday night's extra innings loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park, his third blown save in his last 11 appearances. His ERA on the season has jumped from 0.46 to 2.39 in that 11-game span, a stretch where Holmes has allowed 11 earned runs to score—while walking 10 batters and giving up 11 hits—in 9.2 frames.
On Friday, Holmes' command issues returned right away. With one out in a 2-1 ballgame, the reliever walked two batters in a row, setting the table for J.D. Martinez to tie the score with an RBI single up the middle.
At that point, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was forced to call to the bullpen. If it wasn't for a tightrope act from left-hander Wandy Peralta to get out of the jam, Holmes would've been charged with the loss. Instead, New York fell 3-2 in the 10th inning when recently-acquired reliever Lou Trivino allowed a walk-off single off the bat of Boston's deadline acquisition, Tommy Pham.
Holmes recognized after the game that walks have been a direct catalyst for this poor stretch. He fell behind in the count in all four at-bats on Friday night, a trend for Holmes lately. Even with a pitch as dominant as his sinker, it's tough to get big-league hitters out with the game on the line when you're pitching from behind.
"Maybe a mechanical thing. It could be a lot of factors," Holmes told reporters in the visitor's clubhouse when asked about his command. "Especially with sinkers, sometimes it's a feel pitch. I think it's just a matter of finding that consistent feel, finding that consistent starting point."
Considering this is no longer a small sample size for Holmes, it's evident he doesn't have that feel anymore. Holmes was mowing hitters down in the first half, barely breaking a sweat regardless of the situation or who he was facing. Now, it seems like there's traffic on the bases every time he takes the mound. No leads are safe with Holmes toeing the slab at the moment.
Meanwhile, in a dramatic reversal from the beginning of the year, Chapman has been practically unhittable.
The left-hander returned from his Achilles injury at the beginning of last month and after settling into a groove in his new role, Chapman has been fantastic. Factoring in another scoreless frame on Friday, striking out two in the eighth at Fenway Park, Chapman has gone eight outings in a row without allowing a run.
In that span, the longtime closer has recaptured his old form, regaining his confidence and swagger while lighting up the radar gun and pounding the strike zone. He's walked only one batter (out of 26 plate appearances) in this stretch.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone was asked on Friday night if Chapman's resurgence will put him in play for a return to the closer's role and the skipper didn't rule it out, reiterating that he's very encouraged with what he's seen from the southpaw of late.
"We'll see," he said. "He was in a high-leverage situation tonight. He's going to continue to be in those. He's throwing the ball incredibly well, we love what we're seeing there. We'll keep building on that and see where it leads."
Forget the fact that the Yankees are reeling, playing sub-.500 baseball over the last two months with a 1-8 record since the trade deadline. This bullpen will be at its best in the postseason—when it really counts—if both Holmes and Chapman are locked in. With Michael King and Chad Green out of the picture due to elbow injuries, the back end of this club's 'pen hinges upon the performances from these two high-leverage arms.
If that means Holmes needs to ease back for the next couple of weeks, New York should make the switch at closer right away. Chapman has certainly earned his spot in the ninth inning with how he's pitched recently and although he's struggled to be consistent as a closer over the last few years, he's still one of the greatest pitchers at the position this league has ever seen. Doesn't hurt to give him a shot in that spot again. Worst case, New York progresses with two relievers capable of serving as the team's closer in October. Boone would be able to deploy them in different situations depending on matchups and who has the hot hand.
Boone hinted at the fact that Holmes might benefit from more regular reps, a chance to find a routine as he works through his mechanics. He and Holmes don't think fatigue is an issue—Holmes has pitched in 49 games (49 total innings) this year.
"I'm going to try and get him in the best positions to be successful. Some nights, that'll be the ninth. Some nights it'll be other [innings]," Boone said. "Gotta get him right and consistent."
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