Justus Sheffield got a call on his day off Monday. The RailRiders talented young southpaw wouldn’t be making his scheduled start Tuesday at Buffalo.
He was moving to the bullpen instead — orders from New York and a Yankees team that is trying to figure out how he’ll be able to help them down the stretch.
“I was supposed to start (Tuesday), so definitely was surprised,” Sheffield said. “I was getting ready to get my mind set to start the game, and then getting told that I was going to be coming out of the bullpen for the remainder of the year was honestly surprising, but I’ll definitely accept that role and run with it.”
Sheffield has piggybacked in his career before — essentially, someone else starts the game and he follows, but Sheffield isn’t making a true relief appearance. He’s a starter who’s still on a routine and knows what day he’s pitching and when he’s warming up and when he’s coming in. Being a true reliever was going to be a first for the 22-year-old.
He made his debut in the new role Tuesday night at Buffalo, taking over in the seventh with the RailRiders winning, 1-0. He struck out Gunnar Heidt on four pitches, finishing him off by getting the righty to swing over a slider. He got veteran Darnell Sweeney to strike out, too, dotting the outside with two fastballs then spinning in another slider in the dirt for strike three. Jonathan Davis grounded out to end the inning.
“Felt good. Felt really good,” Sheffield said. “Tried to take it as a normal game, even though I was coming out of the pen. Definitely came in a little amped up. Adrenaline was pumping. Just felt really good out there.”
Sheffield was back out for the eighth, but that inning didn’t go as smoothly as the seventh. He jammed Dwight Smith Jr. with a 3-1 fastball, but the lefty fought it off and dunked it into left field for a single. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the top prospect in the game jumped on the next pitch and ripped it to the gap for an RBI double. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. grounded out, then an error by Abiatal Avelino at short allowed Anthony Alford to reach. Sheffield got out of any more trouble with a foul out and a grounder.
His final line: Two innings, one run on two hits, no walks and two strikeouts. He threw 36 pitches; 25 for strikes. A lot of fastballs. A lot of sliders. One or two changeups.
“I just wanted to go out there and attack guys,” Sheffield said. “Fell short of doing my job — I gave up the run there, they tied up the game. In all reality, I just wanted to go out there and attack the guys, get quick outs and get us back in the dugout so we can score some more runs.”
Sheffield doesn’t know when his next appearance will be, just like any reliever doesn’t know when their next appearance will be. That’s part of the reason he’s moving to the pen with more than a week to go before September call-ups. If the Yankees are going to use Sheffield out of the bullpen in the bigs, they want him to have at least experienced the basics of relief pitching.
“I think just the preparation, kind of getting ready for the games, not knowing when I’m going to pitch and on what days and things like that,” Sheffield said about the adjustments he’ll have to make. “I think just the preparation, kind of switching up the routine are going to be the hardest part. But I feel like in all reality, same game, just a different role. Still out there playing baseball. That’s pretty much what it boils down to.”
He was successful as a starter in his first taste of Triple-A this year, pitching to a 2.57 ERA in 80.2 innings. He allowed 61 hits, walked 36 and struck out 77. Overall, he had pitched 108.2 innings this season heading into Tuesday’s outing, and after throwing 118.1 innings — including a stint in the Arizona Fall League — last year, the move to the bullpen allows the Yankees to ease his workload.
If this path leads him to the major leagues, Sheffield’s all for it.
“Still have work to do down here though,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it. Still got to go out there and do my job, if it’s here or it’s in New York. That’s the way I look at it. You’ve got to finish strong and do my job.”
Times-Tribune file photo