- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

The New York Yankees would take their best young pitcher, gradually wean him from the bullpen with a combination of in-game appearances and bullpen throwing sessions and convert him into a starter - in part because they need him to be and in part because the guy paying the bills says he should be.

Joba Chamberlain’s big move would be executed in steps, meticulously plotted to keep him available as a fireballing setup man as long as possible while he tinkers with new pitches on the side, sits in the dugout instead of the bullpen and learns how to go through a major league batting order multiple times.

Some nights the scheme looks like the careful exercise it is. On Wednesday night, Chamberlain pitched to six Baltimore Orioles batters, struck out three of them while preserving the Yankees’ 4-2 lead, then ran off to the bullpen to throw another 27 pitches while Mariano Rivera finished off the Orioles. On such occasions, the 22-year-old gets his pitch count up, still acts as one of the Yankees’ best weapons and everybody goes home happy.

Then there are the other nights.

Nights like Tuesday, when the Yankees blew two four-run leads, lost their starting pitcher to an injury, took an extra-inning lead only after they already had used Rivera and headed into the bottom of the 11th with Chamberlain sitting idly as LaTroy Hawkins, who has flunked out of the closer’s role with two teams, blew the game.

These are the nights when the plan looks like a high-stakes gamble by a high-rolling owner. And predicated on the belief that the rest of the Yankees’ bullpen is good enough to withstand the loss of Chamberlain, it’s coming up snake eyes.

“You’re going to have rough outings,” manager Joe Girardi said. “You’ve got to pick yourself up and bounce back because you’re going to be asked to give crucial innings in a couple days again.”

The Chamberlain-to-the-rotation-move, hurried by co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner’s comments last month, could be done as soon as Tuesday now that starter Ian Kennedy is headed to the disabled list after pulling his right latissimus dorsi muscle Tuesday night. The right-hander is arguably the most talented of the Yankees’ young pitchers, but on a last-place team that doesn’t tolerate rebuilding and that is enduring injuries and early struggles by Kennedy and Phil Hughes, the price of making him a starter could be doled out on the bullpen.

“It’s hard not to [wish I was pitching late in the game], because that’s the only thing I’ve done since I’ve been here,” Chamberlain said. “You try to do the best you can and look at it and understand you’ve got a new role.”

The rest of the Yankees’ relievers are mostly young with a couple of bargain veterans thrown in. Edwar Ramirez has pitched 14 scoreless innings for New York this season, but he and little-used right-hander Chris Britton are the only Yankees relievers not named Rivera or Chamberlain with ERAs under 4.00.

Hawkins and Kyle Farnsworth likely will get the majority of setup duties with Chamberlain out of the bullpen, and the two former Cubs relievers have combined to allow 29 runs in 47 1/3 innings, including the two Hawkins surrendered in the 11th inning of Tuesday’s loss.

“People are called upon in a lot of tough situations, and just because you didn’t do it one day doesn’t mean you’re not going to do it,” Girardi said. “I still have a lot of confidence in him.”

Girardi said he does not plan to make any major changes to the bullpen, and the Chamberlain experiment is being conducted on a team that, as starter Darrell Rasner said, has “no panic button.”

But as the Yankees go forward hoping Chamberlain can dominate as a starter and the bullpen can pick up the pieces, time will tell whether they already pushed it.

“My short time here hasn’t been anything normal,” Chamberlain said. “It’s exciting to know you’re being thought of in both aspects. This is what they see fit.”

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