Zack Britton returns, Yankees bullpen close to full strength

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PHILADELPHIA — The Yankees’ bullpen got closer to being whole for the first time this season when Zack Britton returned from the injured list before Saturday’s game against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

The left-hander missed the first 2 ½ months of the season while recovering from elbow surgery during spring training to remove a bone chip.

“I was really excited when I got up this morning at the team hotel,’’ Britton said prior to the game. “It felt like my Opening Day.”

To make room for Britton on the 40-man roster, Mike Ford was designated for assignment and Brooks Kriske was optioned to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to open a spot on the active roster.

The Yankees’ season hasn’t gone according to plan so far — they entered Saturday just three games over .500 — but the bullpen hasn’t been an issue.

Britton said the success of the other relievers — in particular, left-hander Lucas Luetge — made it easier for Britton to make sure he was ready to return, rather than coming back too soon.

“Everyone has done absolutely fantastic,’’ Britton said of the relief corps. “[Luetge] has been absolutely outstanding. He’s been a great find by the front office.”

Zack Britton

To get where they want to go this season and into the postseason, the Yankees will need Britton to pitch as he normally has for them.

In that sense, Britton believes sitting out much of the first half should pay dividends for him down the stretch, especially since he pitched just 24 ¹/₃ innings a year ago (including the postseason), and then had COVID-19 during the offseason. Britton was in the process of building up after the COVID-19 battle when the bone chip was discovered.

Britton said he spoke with the organization about a workload that made sense considering all those factors and he’s confident that the time off the first two-plus months of the regular season will prove to have been for the best.

“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.”

Though Britton’s stuff wasn’t consistently up to par during his rehab stint, he attributed that to having started three of the five games he appeared in. He blamed that for causing him to pitch differently than normal.

“That’s not me anymore,” Britton said of starting games. “I didn’t feel great and felt out of whack. I felt rushed and mentally not all the way in it.”

Once he started throwing in his more usual role out of the bullpen, Britton said he was back to his old self.

“The last [rehab] game, he was pitching and tried to treat it like a real game and not try to work on anything,’’ Boone said. “Just go in and get outs. … We said all along we’re not in a rush to do this. It’s about when your body says he’s ready to come back and be Zack Britton.”

Having Britton back gives Boone another option to close games when Aroldis Chapman is unavailable and also lengthens the bullpen — with Chapman, Britton, Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga all capable of pitching in late-game situations.

It also gives the Yankees an unusual-looking pen, with five lefties: Britton, Chapman, Luetge, Wandy Peralta and Nestor Cortes.

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