The Joba Chamberlain phenomenon

At 21, Chamberlain has lit a fire under the Yankees
09/20/2007 11:05 AM ET
By Jon Lane /

Ron Guidry hugs Joba Chamberlain.(AP)
NEW YORK — Roger Clemens just completed six superlative innings against the hated Red Sox, allowing only an unearned run on two hits following a 13-day layoff to rest ligament damage to his right elbow, caused in part by a blister on his foot, when he turned to Joba Chamberlain. He looked the rookie dead in the eye and told him, "Make sure you're ready." Clemens, erudite, grizzled and weathered at the ripe age of 45, moved quickly to take the 21-year-old Chamberlain under his wing and share the infinite fruits of his knowledge immediately upon Chamberlain's August graduation to the Major Leagues, analogous to a kid genius enrolling at Harvard less than two years into puberty.

Failure was not an option. Clemens did not go mano e mano with Curt Schilling at an age many of his brethren spend on the fishing boat or golf course to see the effort flushed down the drain. The kid Chamberlain is fresh faced, but his already-rapid growth spurt was about to accelerate.

"When somebody like Clemens says that, you make sure you're ready," Chamberlain said. "It gets me ready knowing that he went out and gave it all he got."

This wasn't early April at Tropicana Field. This was a Sunday night in September, a national television audience fixated on Fenway Park and two bitter rivals fighting for a division title locked into a 1-1 stalemate. This wasn't Triple-A Scranton either. Nor was it Double-A Trenton. Nor was it the University of Nebraska or the Winnebago Indian Reservation in the northeast corner of state that Chamberlain called home.

Not that it mattered. Chamberlain didn't propel through the Yankees' organization to flop in the biggest moment of the Yankees' season and his career. Warming in the bullpen, Chamberlain blocked out the beer-soaked denizens of Fenway's bleachers who loathe everything Yankee. He popped a few fastballs and lathered up his slider — and decided to experiment with a curveball, a pitch he used only about three or four times. In the eighth, after responding to a leadoff double the previous inning by retiring the next three batters, Chamberlain was 2-2 to Dustin Pedroia when he decided it was time for something new.

Now he decides to throw a curveball? Had Chamberlain gone mad, or was he finally acting 21 instead of 21 going on 31? Manager Joe Torre had no clue, but pitching coach Ron Guidry revealed it was Chamberlain's idea to take a chance. Pedroia had seen Chamberlain before, Aug. 30 at Yankee Stadium when he laced a two-out double to deep right.

"In that inning, you have to go get guys," Chamberlain said. "Second and third time, I have to show them something different,"

He showed it alright, freezing Pedroia for strike three, and later shook off Mike Lowell's home run to weather a toxic mixture of September baseball in a hostile environment. Moreover, he did it with a newly-minted target on his back after twice throwing at Kevin Youkilis in the finale of the Yankees' three-game sweep in the Bronx, an incident that earned him a two-game suspension.

"It doesn't surprise me," Torre said. "[Sunday night] was a terrific test for him. He certainly didn't have any problem."

"He's come in and made a huge difference to come in and do what he's done, and get the outs that he has, and to be able to stabilize the pen out there. I think since he's came up everybody has been throwing the ball better out there."
— Andy Pettitte

Where Chamberlain stands in the Yankees' pecking order is a big surprise. Brought to the big club a lot sooner than anyone expected, Chamberlain is ahead of Kyle Farnsworth, the disappointing right-hander signed to replace Tom Gordon as the team's eighth-inning reliever. Ahead of Phil Hughes, the crown jewel of the organization. Ahead of Ian Kennedy, taken 21st overall in the 2006 draft, 20 spots ahead of Chamberlain. Even ahead of Mike Mussina, who threw his first Major League pitch when Chamberlain was six years old.

One could argue that Chamberlain's elevation to the Majors on Aug. 7 was one of the two most important decisions of the season. The Yankees were already sizzling at 19-7 since the All-Star break, a run that pushed them 12 games over .500, and sliced respective deficits in the Wild Card and AL East races from 9 ½ to a half-game and 12 to six. Yet there was something remiss about that bullpen. Farnsworth (11 hits and five walks in 11 innings pitched in July) drove fans and management nuts. Two arms, Scott Proctor (traded) and Mike Myers (released), are no longer with the team. Luis Vizcaino's July (1.62 ERA) was scintillating, but he also led all Yankees relievers in games (16) and innings pitched (16 2/3), and was used to the point where a tired arm shut him down for nine days earlier this month.

Help was at Brian Cashman's fingertips and his name was Eric Gagne, Cy Young Award winner (2003) and owner of an MLB-record 84 straight converted save chances. All it took was reportedly Kennedy and Melky Cabrera to get him, but Cashman said no thanks. Kennedy was too valuable a part of the Yankees' long-term future. Chamberlain was the internal solution Cashman craves, a secret weapon to get that baseball to Mariano Rivera.

AL East on May 29, 2007
AL East on Sept. 20, 2007
AL Wild Card on Sept. 20, 2007
Gagne is 1-2, with a 9.00 ERA and four blown saves in 15 appearances since the Red Sox snatched him on July 31 for three decent prospects. Chamberlain is 2-0, 0.49 with 24 strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings. He's a precious commodity, confined to "Joba Rules" that dictate he gets a day off for every inning worked. He's also, next to Rivera, the most valuable chip in the bullpen, important enough for the rules to be tweaked slightly in the eighth inning of Wednesday's 2-1 win that pulled the Yankees to within 1 ½ games of the AL East. For the first time in 14 appearances, Chamberlain was summoned in the middle of an inning. For what seemed to be the umpteenth time, Chamberlain earned a big out, whiffing Baltimore's Melvin Mora to preserve the one-run lead.

"He's come in and made a huge difference to come in and do what he's done, and get the outs that he has, and to be able to stabilize the pen out there," said Andy Pettitte, the Yankees' starter now 14-8 after Chamberlain and Rivera sealed the victory. "I think since he's came up everybody has been throwing the ball better out there."

So much so, Torre can't recall playing with or managing anyone in his 47 years of baseball more precocious than Chamberlain.

"Not with that ability," said Torre, adding without hesitation Hughes and Kennedy to the discussion. Hughes (4-3, 4.75) wasn't supposed to be with the Yankees this season, but only a strained hamstring curtailed a no-hitter in his second career start back in May and he's given up just five earned runs in his last 17 2/3 innings (2.55 ERA). Only Chamberlain rose through the ranks faster than Kennedy, who replaced a struggling Mussina in the rotation and is 1-0, 1.89 in three starts.

Mussina's 12 2/3 scoreless innings since his return from exile, combined with Torre's preference for experience, likely have Hughes and Kennedy in the bullpen come October, with one possibly left off the roster all together. But that's only due to a numbers game, not their physical aptitude and emotional strength at the tender ages of 21 (Hughes) and 22 (Kennedy).

"These kids certainly haven't done anything to scare me," Torre said. "The most important thing I've seen from these young kids is the fact that if they do happen to get a bad result, it doesn't really knock them off. They seem to think straight and try to straighten it out. I don't think there's any doubt in these kid's minds that they can't handle this."

You'll see Chamberlain, way ahead of the curve, come October. And pass or fail, he won't melt. Shortly after Lowell ended his scoreless streak at 17 2/3 innings on Sunday, he looked towards Fenway's Green Monster and shrugged his shoulders, a posture that suggested, "Oh well."

"You know you can't throw your whole life scoreless," Chamberlain said. "I wasn't thinking about it."

After all, Joba Rules or not, there was another night and they'll be a next time — when the Joba Show grows into full bloom and the stakes are at its highest.

"It's something you look forward to," Torre said.

Jon Lane is an Editorial Producer for He can be reached at comments