It's impossible to get it out of your head. Joba Chamberlain, covered in hundreds of insects, trying to ignore the urge to flail his arms and shake them all off.
When focused on the mound, Chamberlain knew he could blow the ball by any batter at the plate. But as they continued to swarm, two wild pitches and a blown save — the first of his career — pushed the Indians past the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALDS, and eventually the series.
That was hardly the Joba Chamberlain of 2007, who accelerated through the minors and joined the Yankees on their World Series run, dazzling spectators and confounding opposing teams with his blazing fastball. During the stretch run of the regular season, the hefty right-hander allowed just one run in 24 innings, recorded 34 strikeouts to only six walks and held an eye-popping 0.38 ERA.
Impressed, the Yankees declared he would be a mainstay in the bullpen for the 2008 season, where he didn't disappoint. On April 20, Chamberlain was 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA as a reliever. Through 6 1/3 innings pitched, he had allowed absolutely nothing.
But that's when the Yankees stud's stable ground started to crack. Hank Steinbrenner declared on April 21 that he wanted Joba in the starting rotation. Manager Joe Girardi obeyed, and the dominant reliever became a green starter.
His first start was anything but memorable: 2 1/3 innings, two earned runs, four walks and 62 pitches on June 3. He slowly progressed, though, picking up his first win in his fifth start (6 2/3 shutout innings, seven strikeouts), and began to hit his stride. After 11 starts, he was 3-1, and his overall ERA was actually better than it was when he left the bullpen, checking in at 2.24.
A shoulder injury in the beginning of August sidelined him for a month, but instead of returning back to the now-comfortable confines of the rotation, he found himself back in the bullpen, starting over. Once again, he adjusted, giving up runs in two of 10 outings to finish the season with 19 holds and a 2.60 ERA. He proved he could be the bridge to Mr. Automatic. He even proved he could handle the starting rotation. He just needed to stay in once place.
The Yankees' staff decided it was best to put him in the starting rotation again come 2009, and he didn't fare nearly as well as anyone had hoped. In 31 starts, Chamberlain finished just 9-6 with a 4.75 ERA, often battling with himself to keep his pitch count low and extend his start to six full innings. Even by the All-Star break, the pitcher's confidence was shaken. He went home to Lincoln, Neb., for four days to clear his head and rebuild his psyche.
"It was fun to get away from baseball for four days. I think that was the best — to get those four days to get my mind right and get back to having fun and the confidence and attitude I know I have," Chamberlain told MLB.com at the time.
After the break, he rattled off four straight wins and appeared to be exactly what the Yankees needed from their No. 4 starter. But then his foundation crumbled. One bad outing turned into two, and no one was hiding any disappointment.
A small funk soon snowballed out of control. From Aug. 11 to Sept. 20, he made eight starts, going 0-4 with an 8.78 ERA. He made it through six innings just once, leaving before the fifth inning six times, sometimes without hitting 60 pitches. Whispers of being demoted to the minors and being left off the postseason roster began to grow louder, and Chamberlain's confidence plummeted. He managed to salvage his second full season by returning to the setup role and allowing just two earned runs in 10 appearances to help New York win the World Series.
Chamberlain could pitch in the majors, and he knew it. It just didn't seem like he was able to be a starting pitcher for seven months.
Yankees brass followed that trend, hoping to run with the momentum from his 2009 postseason and carry it into 2010. Instead, Chamberlain has imploded. He holds a 5.79 ERA in 37 1/3 innings, most recently allowing a grand slam after recording just one out in Seattle. In his last five games, he has blown two saves, and he hasn't gone more than three straight games without giving up a run since the beginning of May.
Those frustrated whispers are back. Sports Illustrated named him the most overrated athlete. Pundits are calling Chamberlain the one loose bolt in a well-oiled Yankees machine. Stats say he should be canned.
And, once again, his confidence is bottoming out.
If New York gives up on Chamberlain, opting to cut him or demote him to make way for a trade deadline acquisition, it may lose out on a reliever who has simply lost what he recently had. Joba Chamberlain is 24 years old. He has proven he is willing to take it all on. He has proven that when September rolls around, he dials in. For his sake, the trade talks need to stop so Chamberlain can get out of his own way.
Should he listen to the media? Of course not, but as a young player, he does, and it's freaking him out. He got his time off once again to recharge and remember what he can do. Now, for the sake of his future with the Yankees, both the team and the fans need to remember, too.
The rumors are swarming, and Chamberlain has shown he can't shake it off by himself.
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