Clay Holmes’ recent letdowns expose Yankees’ Achilles heel

Clay Holmes gave up two run to the Orioles and that led to the Yankees' late-inning defeat on June 19, 2024, at Yankee Stadium.
Joe Najarian
Thursday June 20, 2024

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Against the Orioles on Wednesday, the Yankees mounted a thrilling comeback in the seventh inning when Giancarlo Stanton launched a three-run homer, narrowing the Orioles’ lead to 5-4. In the ninth, the Yankees’ defense stepped up, escaping a bases-loaded, one-out threat from the Orioles. Center fielder Alex Verdugo made a critical play, chasing down a deep two-out gapper to keep the deficit at one run.
The Yankees’ resilience followed with Anthony Volpe led off with a double and Stanton’s one-out single off the Orioles’ struggling closer, Craig Kimbrel, tied the game.

The Yankees set the stage for a dramatic walk-off victory that would have propelled the Yankees toward a three-game sweep in this pivotal AL East clash. However, the script took an unexpected turn. Yankees closer Clay Holmes, who had been nearly untouchable with a 20-outing scoreless streak to start the season, encountered a rough patch in the 10th inning. The Orioles capitalized, pushing across two runs against Holmes to take a 7-5 lead. In the bottom of the 10th, the Yankees managed to plate one run on a sacrifice fly but ultimately fell short, as the Orioles held on for a hard-fought 7-6 victory.

Clay Holmes’ sudden slump stumps Yankees

While Yankees closer Holmes doesn’t always suffer defeats, he is typically as dominant and reliable as any other high-leverage reliever in Major League Baseball. However, when he does surrender multiple runs in crucial situations or blows a save, it follows a strikingly consistent pattern. In the last 15 games, the Yankees pitcher has 13.2 IP, 20H, 9Ks, 5.93 ERA, and 1.83 WHIP.

This scenario unfolded once more on Wednesday night at Yankee Stadium, as the Yankees endured a devastating 7-6 loss to the Orioles, with Holmes surrendering two runs in the top of the 10th inning.

Yankees' closer Clay Holmes reacts after blowing a save against the Royals on June 13, 2024, at Kansas City.

True to form, a weakly hit ball often serves as the catalyst for Holmes’ struggles. In this instance, Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins blooped a run-scoring single to center field, plating the automatic runner from second base. Mullins’ single left his bat at a mere 68.4 mph, registering as the Orioles’ third-softest batted ball in play throughout the evening.

Moreover, lapses in command and errant pitches frequently contribute to Holmes’ occasional downfalls, further compounding the challenges he and the Yankees face in high-pressure situations.

Holmes’ pitch to Cedric Mullins on the RBI single was a mistake, splitting the heart of the plate. After Mullins scored by swiping third base and advancing home on catcher Jose Trevino’s errant throw, Holmes hung another slider on the inside corner. Ramon Urias, the Orioles’ third baseman, ripped the full-count pitch into the left-field corner.

The Orioles’ second run in the 10th inning proved to be the deciding factor in the Yankees’ one-run loss.
A similar scenario played out in Holmes’ most recent save opportunity, resulting in a walk-off loss to the Royals in Kansas City last week. A softly hit dribbler on the infield, coupled with a defensive mishap, allowed the tying run to reach base. Holmes then struggled with his command, falling behind in counts and ultimately surrendering the game-winning hit on a sinker in a 2-0 count when he needed to attack the strike zone.

This is the inherent risk when a closer excels at inducing weak contact. Even when Holmes is pitching well, he remains vulnerable to baserunners. When the Yankees’ closer struggles to execute and fails to strike out hitters in crucial situations, the outcome becomes unpredictable. Holmes has now allowed two runs in each of his last three appearances. Prior to May 20, he had not given up an earned run all season, stringing together 20 consecutive clean outings. However, in the 13 games since then, Holmes has posted a 6.75 ERA, causing his season ERA to rise to 2.53.

Holmes looking for ways to rebound

Holmes attributed his recent struggles to a combination of factors after Wednesday’s loss. The Yankees closer noted that soft contact has been finding holes and he hasn’t been able to minimize the damage by generating swings and misses when needed.

“A mixture of some hits falling in there and then not be able to put guys away,” the Yankees relief star said. “I think probably the last three outings, that’s been the case. Some soft contact landing and not be able to minimize damage and get some swing and miss and put guys away when I need to.”

Jose Trevino congratulates Clay Holmes after his save helped the Yankees win over the Rays on May 10, 2024, in Tampa Bay.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone believes that Clay Holmes’ recent struggles do not indicate a significant issue. “It’s every now and then what’s going to happen to him when the ball is in play a little bit,” Boone said, acknowledging that Holmes’ tendency to induce weak contact can sometimes lead to unfavorable outcomes. Despite the recent setbacks, Boone expressed confidence in Holmes’ ability to regain his dominant form. “I don’t feel like he’s that far off from being his dominant self. Just maybe not been quite as crisp,” he said.

The Yankees skipper noted that Holmes has been consistently in the strike zone, effectively utilizing his sinker and slider. “For the most part, he’s generating the weak contact,” Boone added, but acknowledged that Holmes has been hurt by a combination of soft contact finding holes and a few mistakes that have been barreled up by opposing hitters. Overall, Boone doesn’t believe that Holmes is “out of whack” and remains optimistic about his closer’s performance going forward.

The Yankees closer expressed dissatisfaction with his performance over his last three appearances.
“Definitely not where I want to be the last three outings,” he said, acknowledging that he hasn’t been pitching at his desired level. However, Holmes remains confident in his ability to turn things around. “I have pitches to do it, It’s just a matter of making those pitches, reading swings and knowing what spots to go to with it,” he stated, emphasizing the importance of executing his pitches and making the necessary adjustments.

Despite his recent struggles, Holmes maintains a positive outlook. “I know there’s improvement there. I’m not in some crazy spot. I know where I’m at,” he said, indicating that he has a clear understanding of his current situation and what he needs to work on.

Looking ahead, the Yankees star expressed confidence in his ability to bounce back. “But I know I’m better than what I’ve been in the last three outings or so,” he asserted, determined to elevate his performance and return to his dominant form.

Way out for the Yankees

The New York Yankees’ bullpen has experienced a significant decline in performance, coinciding with closer Clay Holmes’ recent struggles. As of June 2, the Yankees boasted a 2.85 bullpen ERA, ranking second in MLB behind the Cleveland Guardians. However, following Wednesday night’s loss, their bullpen ERA has risen to 3.41, dropping them to sixth in the league. Even before allowing four earned runs over six innings in the latest game, the Yankees’ bullpen posted a 5.19 ERA in June, the fifth-worst mark in baseball.

New York Yankees pitcher Clay Holmes, second from left, hands the ball to manager Aaron Boone, left, as he leaves during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Monday, May 20, 2024, in New York.
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

While Holmes has endured slumps like this before, the overall regression of the Yankees’ relief corps is a more pressing concern. Questions arise about who the team can rely on in high-leverage situations throughout the summer and into the postseason.

Reinforcements are on the horizon, though. Sidearm reliever Scott Effross began a rehab assignment with Class-A Tampa on Wednesday, tossing a scoreless inning. Effross hasn’t pitched for the Yankees since undergoing Tommy John surgery at the end of the 2022 season.

Additionally, prospect Jack Neely, a two-pitch specialist with a 2.61 ERA for Double-A Somerset, was promoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Wednesday. Neely pitched a scoreless inning in his Triple-A debut, potentially providing another internal upgrade option.

As the July trade deadline approaches, the Yankees may need to consider bolstering their bullpen from outside the organization. Despite the resurgence of Caleb Ferguson, relying on Michael Tonkin and Luke Weaver to support Holmes in the late innings might not be sufficient, especially when the closer himself is struggling.

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