NEW YORK — Joba Chamberlain, fresh into Sunday’s game against the Rays, decided to try something a bit unorthodox. With the crowd, Yankees and game all building to a frenzy, Chamberlain stepped to the mound, came to the set and greeted Tampa Bay third baseman Willy Aybar with a curveball that seemed to crawl across home plate.
Strike one. The crowd ooh-ed.
Then, as if remembering what made him such a sensation in the first place, Chamberlain reloaded, delivering a fastball that stadium radar guns clocked at 101 mph.
Strike two. The crowd ahh-ed.
Yankee Stadium’s energy seemed to triple, and all this before Chamberlain even recorded an out. By the time he did strike out Aybar — one pitch later, on a sharp slider — the fans in attendance had seemingly forgotten about the two men on base or about nearly anything other than their favorite reliever. The Yankees no longer seemed capable of losing, with Chamberlain flushing all the drama out of a 2-0 win over the Rays.
“I’m still young and dumb sometimes, and sometimes that works for me,” Chamberlain said. “I don’t try to do too much. I just try to attack the zone and be aggressive. I think I’m a little bit more experienced, but not necessarily smarter than last year.”
Though starter Chien-Ming Wang seemed to be the most important Yankee for much of Sunday’s game, a high pitch count and some unexpected trouble forced him out of the game with no outs and two men on in the seventh. That’s when Chamberlain came on, fanning Aybar on three pitches and throwing a bit of a scare into the rest of the Rays. Perhaps it was no coincidence that the next batter, catcher Shawn Riggins, watched a similar Chamberlain fastball zip by before lining into an inning-ending double play.
“The first one caught me a little off guard, 101 mph,” Riggans said. “You don’t see that every day. He’s got a great arm. He’s got electric stuff. He threw a real good slider to Willy the at-bat before me. I had that in the back of my mind.”
Leave it to Chamberlain to grow something of a legend, still less than one year into his Major League career. On a day that saw Wang dazzle the crowd by taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning and Hideki Matsui win the game by launching a two-run homer in the fourth, Chamberlain still commanded nearly all the attention.
He pitched two innings in all, following his escape act in the seventh with a perfect — and perfectly economical — eighth. His fastballs, more than anything, earned the attention of the radar gun, and certainly the attention of the crowd.
“You still have to locate and throw a good pitch,” Chamberlain said. “But it gives you a little bit of error. You can’t rely on that, because then you get too complacent and you leave one over. It doesn’t really matter how hard you throw to these guys, because it can come in 101 mph, but it’s going to leave about 140 mph and go about 500 feet. You’ve still got to be good with your stuff.”
He was. So was Mariano Rivera, who pitched a perfect ninth inning, and so was Wang, who added a nearly flawless opening six. Wang sprinkled in a greater percentage of sliders and changeups on Sunday, even supplementing his trademark sinker with a few split-fingered fastballs. He claimed he wanted simply to “try and find more ways to get hitters out.”
It certainly worked, because the Rays couldn’t even touch Wang until Aybar singled with one out in the fifth inning. Wang ended the inning with one of his six strikeouts and ended his day after allowing four hits and two walks in all.
“It seemed like his fastball was moving a lot,” Johnny Damon said, observing from out in left field. “It definitely kept them off guard. He was making it look pretty easy.”
Wang had a brief scare after slipping on the mound in the fourth inning, though a quick check from the Yankees training staff proved that everything was sound.
His pitching, along with that of Chamberlain and Rivera, took nearly all the strategy away from manager Joe Girardi, who was back in the dugout on Sunday for the first time since being laid low by an upper respiratory infection. There will be choices to make later this year, when the team must decide whether to keep Chamberlain in his current role, a job he’s certainly embraced, or convert him back into a starter. Should Chamberlain continue to succeed like this, the decision might prove vexing.
Yet on Sunday, strong pitching made Girardi’s decisions easy. His team lost two straight this week when he was confined to his couch, so Sunday provided a bit of a cure.
“I actually feel a little bit better,” Girardi said, “now that we won.”