Clay Holmes’ blown save tally reaches four, casts a pall over Yankees contract renewal

Yankees' closer Clay Holmes reacts after blowing a save against the Royals on June 13, 2024, at Kansas City.
Inna Zeyger
Friday June 14, 2024

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Yankees closer Clay Holmes, who ranks third in baseball with 19 saves, experienced a rare misstep in the team’s 4-3 loss to the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday. Despite impressive efforts from Juan Soto, who delivered two clutch hits, and Nestor Cortes, who pitched seven innings of two-run ball, the Yankees fell short when they turned to their most reliable reliever.

Clay Holmes, known for his ability to induce softly hit ground balls rather than relying on strikeouts, occasionally sees those grounders sneak through the defense. This was the case in the crucial inning on Thursday where he blew his fourth save of the season, a scenario not entirely unfamiliar to the seasoned closer.

This assumes more significance as Clay Holmes is in a contract year and the Yankees are yet to initiate any discussion. His performance this season is likely to give him leverage in any such contract talks.

The Yankees have found success this season by leaning on their key players and trusting Clay Holmes to close out games. This strategy has been effective, and the team continues to support it. However, Thursday’s game presented an uncommon hiccup in their otherwise reliable formula.

Despite the setback, Cortes expressed unwavering confidence in Clay Holmes, noting that he has been the team’s closer for several years and is highly skilled. He acknowledged that such challenges are part of the game but remains optimistic that the closer would continue to perform at the high level he has consistently maintained.

“All the confidence in the world [in Holmes]. Clay’s our closer,” he said. “He’s done this for a few years, and he’s really good. Stuff is going to happen here and there. … [We hope he] keeps on pitching the way he’s been pitching.”

Yankees' closer Clay Holmes takes to mound against the Royals on June 13, 2024, at Kansas City.

Clay Holmes admits he can’t afford to fall behind

Clay Holmes took the mound in the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead, initially securing the first out with a flyout to right field. However, he then allowed an infield single to Drew Waters, who hit a weak grounder between Holmes and first baseman Anthony Rizzo. Following the second out, Clay Holmes faced a pivotal at-bat against Kyle Isbel, which Yankees manager Aaron Boone later described as the “at-bat of the inning.”

Despite getting ahead in the count 0-2, Clay Holmes couldn’t close out Isbel, who worked the count full before driving a 97 mph sinker that caught too much of the plate for a single up the middle, placing runners at the corners. The closer later noted that his intent was to induce weak contact, but he failed to execute as planned.

“Just trying to make a good pitch. I knew the sinker had some bottom to it. Really trying to get some weak contact there,” he conceded. “Obviously didn’t make a good pitch. [Isbel] worked it back 3-2 and got a single there.”

Clay Holmes’ struggles persisted against the next batter, Maikel Garcia. Falling behind 2-0 with two missed sinkers, Holmes then threw a third sinker down and in. Garcia capitalized, lacing a double down the right-field line, driving in two runs and clinching the victory for the Royals.

The loss was a tough pill for the Yankees to swallow, especially as they were on the verge of a successful road trip. Clay Holmes, typically dependable throughout the season, couldn’t find his rhythm in the ninth inning, allowing the Royals to mount a late comeback and capture the final game of the series.

He took responsibility for his performance in the team’s loss to the Royals on Thursday, acknowledging that he needed to make better pitches and avoid falling behind in the count, especially against Maikel Garcia, who hit the game-winning double. Clay Holmes explained that Garcia, after seeing two sinkers, was likely anticipating that pitch. The closer stressed the importance of starting with better pitches and maintaining count leverage to avoid such situations.

“Bottom line, I gotta make a better pitch there,” Clay Holmes said. “I just can’t fall behind there. Once he’s seen two sinkers and he’s got count leverage, he’s selling out for that pitch there. I gotta start off with better pitches and get some count leverage. Tough pitches there. Was ahead of the guy before that and couldn’t make a pitch and couldn’t make a pitch there.”

A mistake

Before the critical at-bats by Kyle Isbel and Garcia, the inning could have started differently if Drew Waters hadn’t reached on a soft grounder to the right side. First baseman Anthony Rizzo seemed to expect Holmes to field the ball, but when Clay Holmes moved to cover first, the play fell apart.

A mistep involving Anthony Rizzo and Clay Holmes allows Royals' Drew Waters to steal a base against the Yankees on June 13, 2024, at Kansasa City.

Rizzo clarified that he had positioned himself back and had signaled Clay Holmes to keep going for the ball. He admitted that he could have made the out if he had fielded it cleanly and flipped it to the closer but also praised Waters for hustling down the line.

Despite the misplay, it was agreed that the ball was well-placed and a challenging play to make. Clay Holmes noted that he didn’t want to stray too far from the line in case Rizzo was going for it, needing to be ready to cover first base.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone described it as a “tweener” ball, a tough read for both Clay Holmes and Rizzo. He questioned whether Rizzo could have beaten Waters to the bag but noted that the closer seemed to have the best chance to make the play.

The loss was a disappointing end to the series for the Yankees, who were close to a sweep. However, the team will aim to learn from the experience and rebound in their upcoming games.

Expressing his disappointment, Holmes noted he felt he had let the team down, particularly after Cortes’ strong outing and the offense’s effort to come back. He admitted that it was his responsibility to finish the game for his teammates.

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