It’s hard to believe that the New York Yankees had not won 11 games in a row since 1985, back when Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield and Ken Griffey Sr. patrolled the outfield, given they’ve won the most games in the majors over those 36 seasons. They had won 10 in a row six times in the intervening years but lost the 11th game each time.
So when dangerous Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman stepped up in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday with two outs, the bases loaded and the Yankees clinging to a 5-4 lead, the moment held a playoff-like tension between two potential World Series combatants, with the winning streak on the line. Indeed, it turned into the ultimate game-on-the-line moment: It was just the fifth plate appearance this season in the majors that got to a 3-2 count with the bases loaded in the ninth with two outs and the batting team down a run.
Chapman had started the inning, pitching for the second straight night after throwing 11 pitches on Monday. Adam Duvall hit a one-out single, and with two outs, Ehire Adrianza walked on four pitches. In a seven-pitch at-bat, Ozzie Albies reached on an infield single, somehow beating out a routine two-hopper to third base to load the bases (one of the most impressive hustle plays of the season).
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) August 25, 2021
By now, Chapman was sweating like Matthew Modine in a rubber suit in “Vision Quest.” Chapman has been better of late after a stretch from the middle of June to early July, when he allowed 15 runs over 5⅔ innings, but he is still earning back the confidence of Aaron Boone. Chapman just returned late last week after missing 13 days with elbow inflammation and allowed a home run, a walk and a hit in his first game against the Boston Red Sox and Boone pulled him for Lucas Luetge, who got the final out for the save in a 5-2 victory.
So when Chapman walked Jorge Soler on a 3-2 slider to force in a run on Tuesday, Boone pulled Chapman for the second straight time while in a save situation.
Peralta, acquired from the Giants in late April for Mike Tauchman has pitched his way into key situations. He battled Freeman for nine pitches, finally getting him to fly out to record his third save with the Yankees.
Starting pitcher Andrew Heaney was impressed.
“You got have a lot of nuts to throw; I think it was three or four straight 3-2 changeups to the reigning NL MVP, and all of them quality pitches, and he got him out,” Heaney said. “That’s a heck of position to be put in, and for Wandy to come through like that was extremely impressive.”
With an off day on Wednesday, Boone managed this one like a playoff game, pulling Heaney after four innings and churning through six relievers. However, the Yankees have just one scheduled off day through Sept. 22, so that’s 27 games in 28 days. Even with a couple of extra roster spots in September, it’s pushing the bullpen using six relievers a night. Plus, after this performance, Boone isn’t going to want to use Chapman too often on back-to-back days — and that’s aside from the comfort level in using him in save situations. Remember, Zack Britton is likely out for the season and could be facing Tommy John surgery.
Still, the Yankees haven’t lost since the “Field of Dreams” game in Iowa. They lead the Red Sox by 2.5 games in the wild-card race, with the A’s two games back of the Red Sox. While all the positives are otherwise lining up — the improved offense with Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo; Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon settling into a tough one-two punch; a defense that has made some big plays of late (including Andrew Velazquez delivering a nice relay throw to nail Freeman at home plate to save a run on Tuesday) — the Chapman issue looms over the stretch run and the Yankees’ hopes in October.
Right now, it’s hard to envision the Yankees going all the way with Chapman as the closer. When he gets ahead of hitters, he can still wipe them out with the slider or a split-fingered pitch, but getting ahead has been problematic, with 31 walks in 42 innings. He already has matched his career high with seven home runs allowed. As we saw against Albies and Soler, he has little faith in his fastball, throwing Albies three straight sliders with three balls and then throwing five straight sliders to Soler after a first-pitch fastball was outside the zone. This is not the intimidating, dominating Chapman we’re used to.
So as the Yankees continue to win, Boone still faces a difficult question: Who is going to be the guy in the ninth inning?
The Red Sox and Alex Cora might soon be asking themselves that same question. They held on to beat the Twins 11-9 on Tuesday, but Cora had to pull his closer, Matt Barnes, after Barnes came on with a three-run lead and allowed a home run to Josh Donaldson and then two walks. Hansel Robles, who had allowed 20 baserunners in his first 8⅔ innings with the Red Sox after coming over in a trade-deadline deal, had to clean it up and got two strikeouts and then Jake Cave to line out to second base.
Barnes made the All-Star team after a dominant first half, but he has struggled in August, with 10 runs and three home runs allowed over his past 4⅓ innings. He also had pitched on Monday and had to be pulled from that outing, as well, after allowing hits to four of the five batters he faced and blowing the save (although the Red Sox won the game in the 10th inning). Barnes has always been shaky throughout his career when appearing on consecutive games, so as with Chapman, that’s an ongoing concern.
Robles had 10 saves with the Twins before the trade, and he was throwing 99 mph on Tuesday, but he is hardly a reliable, shut-it-down option.
For now, Cora emphasized the positive — a win.
“We have 72 of those, and not many teams can say that,” Cora said after the game. “It’s 27 outs. Sometimes it easy; sometimes it’s hard. It seems like the last two days we had to use almost the whole roster, which is not perfect, but it’s good. Sometimes wins like this build character.”
So, yes, for now — all OK, even if the anxiety level is increasing as we creep toward October.
That’s true for all teams and fans in the playoff race. I received a message from a friend of mine — a Mariners fan, who was watching the end of the Yankees game (rooting for a loss, of course). “This is more stressful than an M’s game,” he texted.
It’s worth noting that Seattle completed a two-game sweep of the A’s to climb just one back of Oakland and three games back of Boston. The M’s are somehow in this thing despite a minus-56 run differential. Scott Servais let it ride with Drew Steckenrider, who pitched the final seven outs of a 5-1 victory on Tuesday while throwing just 23 pitches. So while All-Stars Chapman and Barnes struggle, the Mariners have remained in the wild-card race behind Steckenrider and Paul Sewald, two guys they signed as free agents after their former organizations let them go. They’ve combined for a 2.18 ERA.
At this time of the year, throw out the résumé. You want the hot hand — and the Yankees are Red Sox are hoping to find one.
ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this story.