PHILADELPHIA — The Yankees’ bullpen is nearer to being whole for the first time this season after Zack Britton returned from the injured list for Saturday’s game against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.
The left-hander threw a scoreless inning in an 8-7, 10-inning defeat after he missed the first 2¹/₂ months of the season while recovering from elbow surgery during spring training to remove a bone chip.
“I was definitely nervous,’’ Britton said of his season debut. “It’s been a while since I pitched in front of a packed house. It was good to get one out of the way.”
To make room for Britton on the 40-man roster, Mike Ford was designated for assignment and right-hander Brooks Kriske was optioned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to open a spot on the active roster.
Britton said he believes sitting out much of the first half will pay dividends for him down the stretch.
He pitched just 24 ¹/₃ innings last year (including the postseason), but then had COVID-19 during the offseason. He was in the process of building up after the COVID-19 battle when the bone chip was discovered.
Britton said he is confident that the time off to begin the regular season will allow him to pitch regularly for the rest of the season.
“It made a lot of sense for me if I returned and I could pitch normally with no break in September,’’ Britton said. “I hope to be strong into September and into the playoffs.”
Manager Aaron Boone said the organization knew Britton was ready to go because they “continued to see an uptick in his stuff and velocity.”
The Ford move was made necessary in part by Britton’s return, but also because of Ford’s lack of success at the plate since 2019.
“I just think 2020 was a little unique,’’ Boone said of the beginning of Ford’s trouble at the plate. “So he never got on track and lost some playing time. He had a hard time kicking in and getting consistent time to build off ’19. This year, he got into a bit of a rut, especially as he got in more regular playing time. With regular at-bats, he was just scuffling.”
That’s putting it mildly. Ford went just 8-for-60 with three homers and 23 strikeouts this season as the Yankees desperately looked for help at first base due to Luke Voit’s two stints on the IL. They’ve since turned to career minor leaguer Chris Gittens.
Though the righty-swinging Gittens has yet to produce, the Yankees are hopeful Voit will return in a week or so, with a rehab stint likely to begin in the coming days in his comeback from a strained left oblique.
Ford’s left-handed power and plate discipline weren’t enough to make up for his lack of production and propensity for striking out. He was optioned to Triple-A early this month, but his trouble continued there, as he went just 2-for-24 before the DFA.
“I still feel like he can hit,” Boone said. “I still feel he can hit at this level. We had to make a tough decision.”
One of the keys to the Yankees’ offensive firepower during their previous series at Minnesota was the production of Giancarlo Stanton. The streaky Stanton had just started to heat up after a slow start to his return from the IL stint caused by a strained left quad. With games Saturday and Sunday against the Phillies, an NL club, Stanton was relegated to pinch-hitting duty.
“With who he is offensively and how he’s swung the bat the last couple days, we definitely miss having him in the lineup,” Boone said.
Stanton pinch-hit in the eighth inning of Saturday’s loss and grounded out. His leg injuries have made him a non-factor when it comes to playing the outfield.
Add Britton to the ranks of pitchers in favor of the looming MLB crackdown against pitchers using foreign substances on baseballs.
“The rule is the rule,’’ Britton said. “You can’t cheat. It’s pretty clear. I’m not sure that’s where my focus is. It would be on getting a baseball [out of the factory] that isn’t slick and just enforcing the rule that’s on the books. They’ve been capable of enforcing it since I’ve been in the league.”