The Yankees entered this season with a pretty simple formula to win games.
Their starting pitcher would go six innings and then hand it off to the Big Three in the bullpen, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman.
If they were really lucky, sometimes their starters would go seven or eight and manager Joe Girardi could mix-and-match his elite trio out of the ‘pen.
There have been times this season that the formula has worked perfectly, and not more so than this week, as they have won five of seven games.
In the first half of the season, it largely did not go according to plan, as their rotation, with the exceptions of Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia, did not perform as expected.
Luis Severino did follow up on his progress from late last season and he was sidelined with an injury early, and has yet to return to the majors. Nathan Eovaldi (8-6, 4.93 ERA) and Michael Pineda (4-9, 5.25 ERA) have shown flashes of brilliance, but not been nearly as consistent and reliable as hoped.
These factors, and the fact their offense was not potent for most of the first half, resulted in a 44-44 record at the All-Star Break. They went into the break on a high as they won three out of four in Cleveland.
When they came out of the break, they looked like a different team ready to strike and take advantage of a 10-game homestand, even though they faced stiff competition in Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco.
After the Yankees dropped the first two to the Red Sox, Tanaka took the mound in the series finale on Sunday night and did what an ace does. He got the Yankees a needed 3-1 win and outdueled David Price in the process, allowing just one run and three hits in six innings.
That got the ball rolling into the Orioles series, as Ivan Nova threw a great game Monday night (one runs on four hits in six innings) as the Yankees won 2-1, Eovaldi went 5 1/3 and allowed just 1 run in a 71 win on Tuesday night, and Pineda delivered the following night with six innings of shutout ball in a 5-0 win.
Sabathia threw a great game on Thursday, as he allowed just two runs in six innings, but Girardi tried to stretch him, as he has before, and the Orioles got two more off CC in the seventh to make it 4-1, and that was the final.
On Friday night, the carousel came back to Tanaka, and he threw six innings of shutout ball, outdueling Madison Bumgarner, and after the Giants tied it late, the Yankees eked out the 3-2 win.
The Yankees have had winning streaks this season, but no question this is the best stretch of consistent starting pitching.
“There’s been some ups and downs in the course of the season for us,” Girardi said of the winning formula on Saturday afternoon. “There’s been days that we haven’t needed them and there’s days that you can’t use all three. We play a lot of close games, and we have to try to win some games where we don’t need them so they can get some days off. We have to see how they are. Betances and Miller have worked a lot lately, Miller threw a lot of pitches yesterday, not sure where he’s at. I mean, that’s the idea. It would be nice if we only played two fays in a row and had a day off all the time.”
Betances has already appeared in 48 games (49 innings pitched) and Miller has made 42 appearances (43 1/3 innings).
On Saturday, Nova kept this impressive run for the starters going, as he went seven innings, and held the Giants to just one run on six hits and two walks, with seven strikeouts.
Nova worked out of trouble in the first three innings, and was helped by some great defense. Didi Gregorius threw out Mac Williamson at the plate in the second and then he started a nifty double play on a grounder from Buster Posey to get out of a jam in the third.
The Giants’ only run came on a Williamson homer to left-center to tie it at 1 in the fifth. This was redemption for Williamson, as his error allowed allowed Gregorius to score all the way from first in the fourth.
“The defense got him out of some innings early on, but then he was really, really good after that,” Girardi said of Nova. “To give us seven strong innings like he did, I thought he threw really well.”
“Just making pitches, making pitches,” Nova said of his successful outing. “I didn’t start the way I wanted to, getting into trouble in the first inning, but I didn’t give up, just kept making pitches.”
“He threw the ball great today,” catcher Brian McCann said. “He pitched up in the zone pretty well, got his sinker down, some big key outs.”
After Nova left, with the game still tied at 1, Miller came on in the eighth, Chapman threw two solid innings, and Betances came in for the 11th.
With the Big Three used up, Anthony Swarzak came in for the 12th, and allowed a double to Trevor Brown to open the inning, and he scored on a hit by Williamson to give San Francisco a 2-1 edge, and they held on for the big win.
Even thought the Yankees lost, the long view is that Nova gave the Yankees their seventh straight strong outing from a starter, and it feels like they are feeding off each other.
“I think we all want to win games, all starters want to win the games,” Nova said. “My main focus is trying to do the best I can and then the bullpen locks it up and wins the games.”
“Nova’s been pitching good,” Carlos Beltran said. “Today, he pitched well, gave us an opportunity to win this one, but we just couldn’t come through for him.”
The Yankees starting pitching has come on at just the right time, as there is plenty of time left in the season, and it might have convinced the front office to keep this team together for the rest of the season.
This week has shown what could be possible for the Yankees if the winning formula keeps resulting in wins.