DUNEDIN, Fla. — For three months, the 2022 Yankees seemed set to go down as one of the greatest baseball teams ever. They were on pace to match or break the major league record of 116 victories and, of greater consequence, to win their first World Series title since 2009.
Instead, they failed to win 100 games before they were swept by the Astros in the ALCS, and a loaded roster of forensic investigators would be needed to identify all the reasons why. But one player embodied the strange narrative arc of the 2022 Yankees as much as anyone did: Clay Holmes. He was Mariano Rivera over the first half of the season, and something substantially less than that over the second.
Holmes made the All-Star team in his first full season in The Bronx, and before the break he looked nothing like the pitcher with the 5.57 ERA that the Pirates had traded away. When Yankees manager Aaron Boone gave him the news that he was headed to Los Angeles for the Midsummer Classic, Holmes responded, “I’m glad it’s as a Yankee.”
Like Rivera’s cutter, Holmes’ sinker was a terrifying weapon … until it wasn’t.
The first sign of real trouble came on July 12, after Holmes had converted on 16 of 18 save opportunities. He imploded in the ninth inning while turning a 3-0 lead over the Reds into a 4-3 defeat, inflating his 0.46 ERA to a more human 1.37. In August, Holmes landed on the injured list with lower back spasms after he blew three saves and allowed seven runs in five appearances. A bullpen that had already lost Chad Green and Michael King for the season was suddenly in a state of disrepair.
Holmes later overcame a shoulder strain to become a reliable playoff option, though not reliable enough for Boone to summon him amid a Game 3 disaster in the ALDS against Cleveland that put everything on the brink. That’s OK, however, because Holmes helped beat the Guardians in Games 4 and 5 and didn’t surrender an earned run in six postseason innings. That’s enough reason to believe that he is all the way back and — with Edwin Diaz down for the year — now the most valuable closer in town.
As a compassionate peer, Holmes felt the impact of the knee injury Diaz suffered during a World Baseball Classic celebration and called it “a punch in the gut.” Unlike Diaz, Holmes couldn’t sustain his 2022 brilliance over the entire season. If the Yankees want to give themselves their best chance to finally unseat the Astros by securing home-field advantage for the inevitable October clash to come, Holmes will be vital to that pursuit.
Asked if he embraced the idea that he stands among the Yankees’ most important players in a potential championship drive, Holmes defaulted to the overall talent in the bullpen.
“For me, it’s not so much being caught up in the individual stuff,” he said. “I’ll just make sure I’m ready to do my job when the time’s called. I think there’s enough talent in this room that if we all do that at the end of the day we’ll go on some really good runs. … For anyone to accept any crazy amount of responsibility, whether it’s there or not, maybe isn’t the best way to look at it.”
Sure, there’s enough pressure in New York for any unnecessary add-ons. And though general manager Brian Cashman called Holmes “a really big, strong, intimidating presence on the mound,” he cited a number of relievers capable of taking the ball in save situations, including the likes of Jonathan Loaisiga, Wandy Peralta and King. Rather than a traditional approach to the closer’s role, the Yankees will likely go more by committee — with Holmes as committee chairman.
“I know Clay will get a lot of opportunities,” pitching coach Matt Blake said, “but I think with how Booney has talked about it, there are a lot of guys who probably could close some games for us, whether it’s Wandy or [Loaisiga] or King. … If we’ve got a lineup that’s got a ton of right-handed hitters in the eighth inning and left-handed hitters in the ninth, it doesn’t make much sense for Clay to go in the ninth when he can face the [George] Springers, the [Bo] Bichettes, and the [Vladimir] Guerreros in the eighth.”
So be it. It should be noted, however, that during the seven championship seasons of the George Steinbrenner Era, the Yankees had singular forces in the role of closer. Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young Award in 1977. Goose Gossage led the AL in saves in 1978 and became a Hall of Famer. John Wetteland led the league in saves and was named World Series MVP in 1996. Mariano Rivera became the bullpen GOAT and the first unanimous Hall of Famer while closing games for the 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2009 title teams.
Can Holmes join that select group?
“He’s capable of being a dominant reliever,” Boone said before Holmes delivered a scoreless inning on nine pitches Saturday in a 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays.
The Yankees could sure use that dominance for six months this season instead of three.