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Four and a half months into the 2021 season, the New York Yankees are 66-52 with a plus-20 run differential. They are right in the thick of the wild card race, and making a run at the AL East title isn't completely out of the question, though it is unlikely at this point. New York needs to move into wild card position before they can seriously think about the division anyway.

Two weeks ago we looked at Anthony Rizzo's hot start in pinstripes, Rougned Odor's well-timed hot streak, and the club's new-look middle relief crew. Now here are three new notable Yankees trends.        

The closer problem

It has been a long time since the Yankees had a bullpen that was truly bad. From 2014-20 (i.e. the post-Mariano Rivera era), New York's bullpen ranked fourth in ERA (3.70), first in win probability added (35.5), and first in WAR (42.8). The Astros bullpen was a distant second at 28.8 WAR. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same as the gap between No. 2 and No. 24.

Lately though, the Yankees bullpen has been a major liability. Aroldis Chapman is on the injured list with an elbow issue and wasn't all that great in the weeks leading up to the injury, and Zack Britton has been hurt and ineffective all year. Britton has struggled so much that he asked out of the closer's role after blowing the save in the Field of Dreams Game last week.

"I told (manager Aaron Boone) I don't deserve to be out there in the ninth inning. Other guys deserve it," Britton said Saturday. "I haven't been pitching the way I should be to be out there when the team needs wins. I told him I want to pitch, whenever you need me I'll be ready, but I don't deserve to be out there in those situations."

Later that night Britton was asked to protect a three-run lead in the tenth inning because Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga, the club's top two late-inning relievers, had already appeared in the game. Britton faced four batters, retired one, and had to be pulled with the bases loaded and one out. Rookie righty Albert Abreu was able to close out the win, but still, it was stressful.

On Sunday, Boone asked lefty Lucas Luetge to protect a four-run lead in the ninth inning, and like Britton the day before, he could retire only one of the four batters he faced. Fellow southpaw Wandy Peralta entered and was able to coax the game-ending double play from Cèsar Hernández to preserve the win. Right now, nothing is easy for New York's bullpen.

"Getting on a happy flight is always a good thing," Boone told reporters, including MLB.com's Bryan Hoch, following Sunday's win. "Our guys did a lot of really good things today. It got interesting there in the ninth, but this was a really good series. Guys just continue to pound away."

The typically reliable Yankees bullpen has a 4.20 ERA since June 1st (it was 2.82 in April and May) and they've had several big time meltdowns and crushing losses. A few facts about the Yankees bullpen:

  • Four losses in games the team led by at least four runs, the most in baseball.
  • Six losses when leading in the ninth inning or later, their most since 1997.
  • Five walk-off home runs allowed, tying the franchise record set in 1970.
  • Eight walk-off losses overall, tied with the AL East rival Rays for the most in baseball.

The easiest solution to the ninth inning woes is inserting Loaisiga as the closer. Loaisiga has been New York's most consistently excellent reliever this season and he is unquestionably their best reliever right now (Green has been very good this year overall but has struggled lately), so in that sense, he should close. Easy solution, right?

In theory, yes, but occasionally the biggest outs come earlier in the game. For example, Loaisiga entered with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning of a tie game Saturday, and escaped the jam. Sunday he faced the middle of the White Sox lineup as they represented the tying run in the eighth inning, and tossed a scoreless frame. Without Loaisiga's work earlier in the game, the Yankees may not have had ninth inning leads to protect Saturday and Sunday.

At some point, someone other than Loaisiga has to get important outs. Chapman recently resumed throwing and his return should help, though he wasn't exactly dominant before getting hurt. Britton hasn't looked right all year and Green has struggled the last few weeks. The Yankees need someone like Abreu or Peralta or Clay Holmes (currently on the COVID list) to step up and become a trusted late-inning reliever. Loaisiga can only do so much.

Despite the bullpen issues, the Yankees have won 10 of their last 13 games and 25 of their last 36 games, and they are knocking on the door of a Wild Card spot. That's pretty good considering this team was 41-40 at the halfway mark. The rotation keeps the Yankees in games and the offense, while underperforming overall, is doing enough to win. It's just that the bullpen is making things way more interesting than in previous years. Late leads are no longer near automatic wins.

Impressive start to Gil's career

Give the Yankees a truth serum and I'm guessing they'd tell you they did not want to insert young righty Luis Gil (pronounced "heel") into their rotation earlier this month. The 23-year-old is one of their top prospects, though he hasn't had a great minor league season (4.13 ERA overall and a 5.64 ERA in eight Triple-A starts), and he's still working to hone his command.

COVID forced the team's hand, however. The Yankees lost Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery to the virus within two days of each other earlier this month, plus Domingo Germán went down with a shoulder issue. New York was suddenly short on starters even after adding Andrew Heaney at the trade deadline, and they had little choice but to turn to Gil as a stopgap.

Two starts later, the Yankees couldn't be happier with Gil. He's thrown 11 scoreless innings in two spot starts while striking out 14, and is only the second Yankees pitcher ever to allow zero runs in his first two MLB starts (Slow Joe Doyle did it in 1906). Gil is also the first pitcher in the Modern Era with 14 strikeouts, fewer than 10 baserunners, and zero runs allowed in his first two starts.

In his MLB debut on Aug. 3, Gil threw 62 of his 88 pitches for strikes, or 70.5 percent. That ties his career high strike rate (set in Low Class-A on May 16, 2019). This is a pitcher who walked four in 1 1/3 innings in his last Triple-A start and has a career 13.8 percent walk rate in the minors. Throwing strikes is not usually Gil's forte, yet he's pounded the zone in his first two MLB starts. This game is impossible to predict.

"That's what it's all about for him," Boone told reporters, including MLB.com's Michael Charles, following Gil's MLB debut. "The stuff is real. The fastball has a chance to be special, but his ability to land his secondary pitches routinely throughout the outing allowed him to be pitch efficient."

The Yankees acquired Gil from the Twins for outfielder Jake Cave in March 2018, before Gil had even pitched in a domestic minor league. He missed 2016 with shoulder surgery and spent 2017 in the Dominican Summer League, then came to the United States following the trade in 2018. Our R.J. Anderson ranked Gil the No. 4 prospect in New York's system coming into the season. Here's his write-up:

Gil has ample arm strength and he can impart good spin on his pitches. He just can't consistently locate, either over the plate or within the zone. He walked 4.4 batters per nine innings in 2019 and that ranked as the second-lowest rate of his career. Gil remains on the youngish side, but the odds are in favor of him ending up pitching in big spots out of the bullpen rather than as a No. 2 or 3 starter.

Gil will make his third MLB start Tuesday during a doubleheader against the Red Sox and it's possible that will be his final start with the Yankees for the foreseeable future. Cole returned Monday and Montgomery will return Tuesday, and they'll join Heaney, Jameson Taillon, and secret weapon Nestor Cortes Jr. in the rotation. Gil could be forced back to Triple-A.

If it happens, it would be disappointing given Gil's performance to date, though also understandable because he's still rough around the edges. There's more development that has to take place. The important thing is Gil helped the Yankees when presented with the opportunity, and he put himself in better position to help the team long-term. He went from someone who wasn't really on the immediate radar to someone the Yankees will actively try to create room for in the near future.

"It definitely means a lot," Gil told reporters, including Sean Farrell of NorthJersey.com, when asked about getting an opportunity to help the Yankees. "There's a saying in Spanish that once you arrive, you just want to help out any way. That's what I'm trying to do."

Ridings comes out of nowhere

If there is one silver lining to the Yankees going through another COVID outbreak the last few weeks, it's that they've had to give opportunities to players who wouldn't have been on the radar otherwise. Summoning Gil was not in the plans until Cole and Montgomery went on the COVID list (and Germán went down with a shoulder issue), for example.

Right-hander Stephen Ridings, a 26-year-old who had never pitched in a full season minor league prior to 2021, was called up two weeks ago to help during the COVID outbreak, and his debut was eye-popping. Ridings touched 101 mph with his fastball and hitters missed with seven of their 10 swings against him. He was electric.

Ridings grew up on Long Island and had his family in the stands at Yankee Stadium for his MLB debut on Aug. 3. He was also pitching with a heavy heart -- Ridings' grandmother passed away one day earlier, the same day he was informed he is being called up to the big leagues.

"To be able to have this moment with my family in the stands was very special," Ridings told reporters, including Greg Joyce of the New York Post, following his debut. "In the midst of my family trying to figure out funeral plans and wakes and dealing with all that, getting the call today and having this moment with them was indescribable."  

The Cubs originally selected Ridings in the eighth round of the 2016 draft, and Baseball America's pre-draft scouting report noted "some scouts saw him get up to 93 mph" at Haverford College. Chicago sent Ridings to the Royals in a minor trade in March 2019, then Kansas City released him last November. Now here he is throwing 101 mph in the big leagues.

Ridings signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent in January. He spent part of the offseason working as a substitute chemistry teacher in Florida while also training at Cressey Sports Performance, which just so happens to be owed by Eric Cressey, New York's director of player health and development. That's how the Yankees found Ridings.

Baseball America identified Ridings as a player who opened eyes in minor league spring training in May, and he pitched to a 1.24 ERA with 42 strikeouts and only four walks in 29 innings at Double-A and Triple-A before being called up. That's after posting a 5.02 ERA with 64 walks in 112 innings at the lowest levels of the minors with the Cubs and Royals from 2017-19.

Ridings is a massive human (listed at 6-foot-8 and 220 lbs.) and he's a reliever only because he lacks a third pitch, but the ability to throw strikes with a triple-digit fastball will take you a long way. If nothing else, it will get you chances, and so far Ridings has allowed one earned run against seven strikeouts in five big leagues innings. That will get you chances too.

It happens quite a bit these days, but it's always sort of amazing when a team calls up a pitcher basically know one knows, and he's throwing 100 mph. Not too long ago 100 mph was rarified air that gave you free passage to the big leagues. These days unheralded prospects are throwing 100 mph and just trying to get on the radar. That was Ridings as recently as June and July. 

The Yankees sent Ridings back to Triple-A following Monday's game -- he was on the roster as a COVID replacement and went down to make room for Montgomery -- though he'll be back soon enough. He's earned a permanent 40-man roster spot in the offseason, when he'll be Rule 5 Draft eligible, and he figures to be in New York's full-time bullpen mix in 2022.

"This was our first time seeing him in person, and the stuff was impressive," Boone told Joyce (Ridings was not invited to major league spring training). "He had a little emotion with it, had a little strut out there."