‘Yeah, he knows what happened’: As the Yankees falter, Joba Chamberlain finds his form

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Joba Chamberlain. (Yankees.com)
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Maybe the Yankees are in an unstoppable free-fall. It would certainly seem that way, judging from the size of the 10-game division lead they just squandered, thanks to an offense that has produced fewer than seven hits for five straight games, a feat of offensively pointlessness unmatched by the Yankees since 1990.

Yet it's worth pointing out that there are far worse places to be than tied for first place and 1.5 games up on the final wild card spot with 27 games to go.

If the Yankees do resuscitate their offense and make it to October, a little-noticed eighth inning by Joba Chamberlain might prove to be a turning point for the extra reliever the Yankees desperately need. He was thoroughly dominant.

It is telling that Chamberlain's struggles relegated him to the low-leverage situation of pitching in a game the Yankees trailed 5-2. That is just common sense; Chamberlain, the once-heralded pitching prospect, had been a mess since returning from an elbow injury, and freak ankle injury, that kept him out for well over a year.

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He'd figured in just nine games since re-joining the Yankees on August 1, pitching to a bloated 10.57 E.R.A., with as many walks as strikeouts, five apiece. With the Yankee division lead dwindling, the team was left in the awkward position of knowing Chamberlain needed work, but needing to win badly enough that Chamberlain could only be deployed in rare low-leverage spots. The expected plan, that Chamberlain could pitch whenever he needed to thanks to a massive Yankee cushion in the standings, had disappeared.

As a result, Chamberlain's appearance was so unremarkable that the Yankee announcers instead focused on the insertion into the game of Francisco Cervelli, the backup catcher, discussing his season playing for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay's best hitter, stood in. Chamberlain fired a knee-high strike, 96 miles per hour. As Michael Kay described the home run Longoria hit earlier in the game that turned out to be the game-winning hit, Chamberlain knocked him off the plate with a 95 mile per hour fastball inside to even the count.

"He admitted that he kind of moped around," Kay said of Cervelli, even as Longoria swung over a beautiful 89 mile per hour slider, a vintage Chamberlain offering. Kay told of a visit by Cervelli's parents that helped turn his attitude around.

Chamberlain reached 97 with his next fastball, inducing Longoria to ground out for the first out of the inning.

"His parents gave him good advice," Lou Piniella, who is a rare sight in the Yankee booth, said to Kay and partner Ken Singleton.

Chamberlain started Matt Joyce off with an 81 mile per hour curveball that broke sharply, and Joyce missed it by six inches.

He assumed starting position quickly, eager to throw his next pitch. He worked quickly the whole inning, even as Joyce and others stepped out on him to try and upset his rhythm.

Chamberlain followed that curve with a 96 mile per hour fastball, at the knees, on the outside corner. Another perfect pitch. Meanwhile, Singleton continued to describe the hardships of the 2012 Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, who played on the road in 2012 while their stadium was rebuilt.

"It's a tough situation to be in," Singleton observed, as Chamberlain set and then fired a slider in the dirt that Joyce didn't chase.

"Chamberlain's throwing the ball well tonight," Pinella exclaimed, with surprise.

Kay and Singleton moved to reassure Piniella this wasn't a big deal.

"He's been throwing pretty well since he-it's not the velocity," Singleton said. "I think it's more location than anything else." Of course, Chamberlain was putting the ball exactly where he wanted.

"I think Mike would agree he's been throwing upper 90s most outings," Singleton said.

"And Girardi has said, last thing to come around is location, with Tommy John surgery," Kay replied.

Chamberlain fired a 95 mile per hour fastball on the outside corner to blow away Joyce.

"That's a good pitch right there, strike three," Kay said, finally alerted to the outing in front of him by Piniella while Chamberlain strutted off the mound in a mini circle and the ball got tossed around the infield.

"If he can be throwing it, and throwing it that location, he can- watch him walk off the mound after this-yeah, he knows what happened, there's strike three," Singleton said, seeming to admire both the pitching and the style. "Throw it around the infield, guys!"

Chamberlain started Jeff Keppinger off with an 87 mile-per-hour slider for strike one. He snatched the ball back from Cervelli and followed with a 96 mile per hour inside fastball that Keppinger couldn't catch up to.

"A little late on that one," Kay said. Chamberlain quickly followed with 97, outside corner, blowing Keppinger away.

"Oof," Piniella exclaimed.

As Chamberlain walked off the mound, Kay said, "Boy, that's the best inning that Joba Chamberlain has thrown since..."--Kay reached back, pausing, trying to remember--"... he came back."

Chamberlain actually looked a good deal better Tuesday night than he had in the year before his surgery, too.

"Maybe that energizes the Yankees," Kay continued, as the YES music swelled.

It didn't, yesterday. But a return to dominance by Chamberlain would sure help the struggling Yankees over the season's final month.

Elsewhere in New York sports:

METS

A spotty outing by Matt Harvey helped the Cardinals beat the Mets, 5-1.

GIANTS

The Giants open the regular season against the Cowboys Wednesday night.

N.B.A.

Iona standout guard Scott Machado signed a deal with the Houston Rockets to back up Jeremy Lin.