Miller’s injury thrusts Betances into closer role

Now Yankees fans will find out just what kind of closer Dellin Betances can be. The strained left flexor mass muscle in Andrew Miller’s forearm that will send him to the 15-day disabled list has already had an effect on the Yankees because it was pretty much directly responsible for Wednesday’s 5-4, 11-inning loss to the Nationals that ended a season-long seven-game winning streak.

When the Yanks came back from a 2-0 deficit and scored four runs in the seventh inning, their usual back-end of the bullpen formula would seem to be in place — Betances for the eighth and Miller for the ninth.

Yet while the Yankees were running all around the bases, I kept looking at the bullpen and wondering why Betances was not loosening up. Instead, starter Nathan Eovaldi came out to begin the eighth and after giving up a leadoff single to Yunel Escobar was relieved by Jacob Lindgren and not Dellin Betances. I figured Betances was hurt. It turned out it was Miller who was hurt.

Lindgren got two outs but before he could get a third he gave up a game-tying, two-run home run to right field to Michael Taylor. Justin Wilson pitched a scoreless ninth and Chris Capuano ditto in the 10th, but the Nationals got to Capuano in the 11th and took the lead on a two-out, infield single by Denard Span.

Three Washington relievers held the Yankees scoreless with one hit over the final four innings. Mark Teixeira had the only hit, in the 10th, and was removed for pinch runner Didi Gregorius, who was thrown out attempting to steal second base.

So the winning streak ended, but that turned out not to be the worst news of the day. Manager Joe Girardi explained after the game that Miller told him after Tuesday night’s victory that his forearm was stiffening, a condition that has lingered for the past week or so. Girardi has used Miller to pitch the ninth inning with the Yankees up 6-1 and therefore not a save situation. Miller had an MRI exam, which revealed the muscular strain.

The lefthander was not specific about how long his forearm was bothering him and said only that the condition “has been building. It has been harder for me to get loose. It has been tougher each times lately. It’s a fatigue issue.”

Miller has appeared in 26 of the Yankees’ 59 games for a total of 26 1/3 innings and has been brilliant by converting all 17 of his save opportunities and posting a 1.03 ERA. He and Betances have formed the best 1-2 bullpen combination in the majors.

“I feel like I am letting the guys down,” Miller said. “It’s better to take care of this now so I can be strong for the rest of the year.”

Girardi said that Miller will not throw at all for 10 days to two weeks, which means his stay on the DL will be longer than 15 days. While Betances, who has two saves and is 4-0 with a 0.28 ERA, will slide into the closer role, the situations shortens the bridge from the starter to closer for the Yankees’ bullpen.

“Guys are going to have to step up,” Girardi said, noting that the staff lost Masahiro Tanaka for six weeks and got through it and just ran off seven straight victories and 11 of 14 without center fielder Jacob Ellsbury (strained right knee) in the lineup.

“It is unfortunate because Miller has gone a great job; he has been the best closer in the game,” Betances said. “I’ll have to take what I have been doing in the eighth into the ninth.”

Betances added that Girardi told him before Wednesday’s game that he would not use him despite the fact that the righthander pitched one inning Sunday, had Monday off, pitched one inning Tuesday night and Thursday is an open date. Betances noted that the Yankees have a long stretch of games coming up and that the manager said he wanted him to be fresh for that run of games for 20 straight games from June 12 through July 1, the last seven of which will be on a lengthy trip to Houston and Los Angeles.

There is also the possibility that after hearing of Miller’s injury Girardi felt concerned that he may have been over-working his late-inning combo. Betances has pitched 32 1/3 innings over 28 outings.

The Miller injury came on a day when the Yankees got healthier elsewhere. Utility infielder Brendan Ryan returned from the DL, started at shortstop and had a big day with a single and a run-scoring triple in the four-run seventh when it appeared the Yanks had the Nats just where they wanted them.

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