Yankees' season, and unfortunate playoff exit, boils down to four stinging words
The formula worked so well for the Yankees in the Wild Card Game, and in Game 2 of the American League Division Series: Homer early and often, get 12-15 outs from the starter and turn it over to a lockdown bullpen to finish the rest of the way.
Unfortunately, those two games were the only two of the five the Yankees played this October that they won, and their disappointment can be summed up in four words: too little, too late.
In Game 1 of the ALDS, J.A. Happ gave up a three-run homer to J.D. Martinez in the first inning, and then retired the next five in a row. Mookie Betts led off the third inning, though, with a double, and manager Aaron Boone gave him one more batter, which turned out to be an Andrew Benintendi bunt single.
From there Boone called on ... Chad Green, an extreme fastball pitcher tasked with facing the middle of an excellent fastball-hitting order. Green mostly did his job, surrendering only a seeing-eye single and two fly balls, but that was enough to make it 5-0 after three, a total the bullpen kept the same for five more innings thankfully.
"J.A. obviously got in a little bit of trouble in that first inning, just not having his real airtight command that he usually has ... especially with the fastball," Boone said. "The 'pen did a great job to allow us to get back in the game and give us a chance, and we almost caught them. If we're going to get to where we want to go, you know, the bullpen is going to play a big role in that. They stepped up for us (in Game 1), and allowed us to get back in that game. And did the job they've pretty much done all year for us."
The offense, stymied by Chris Sale for five-plus innings, finally mounted the comeback against Boston's bullpen but just couldn't get the big hit they needed. First and third with one out in the sixth led to two runs on a single and a groundout, which could've been a double play ball that negated the second run.
Second chance? Sure, but after two walks loaded the bases, Gleyber Torres struck out to end the inning. Third chance? Bases loaded, no outs in the eighth, but a strikeout and two straight groundouts -- the first, again, luckily not a double-play ball -- led to just one run. And by the fourth chance, after Aaron Judge homered to lead off the ninth and make it 5-4, Craig Kimbrel struck out the 3-4-5 hitters in order.
"I credit them a little bit in the fact that they did a good job of minimizing and staying away from trouble against us," Boone said. "We just couldn't get that really big hit that to have that big inning. I thought we did a really good job of pecking away and giving ourselves opportunities, and just ran out of time there."
Too little, too late.
Flash forward three days to Game 3, eventually a 16-1 laugher that ended up the worst loss in Yankees postseason history. It didn't have to be, though, because faced with a similar situation in which Boone relieved Luis Severino in the Wild Card Game -- this time, two on with no one out in the third, middle of the order coming up with Boston up 1-0 -- the skipper stuck with Sevy instead of going to the bullpen. The result? Sac fly, single, RBI groundout, and a 3-0 Boston lead.
The very next inning, Boone let Severino load the bases, yielding two singles and a walk to the bottom third of the order, before going to Lance Lynn -- another extreme fastball pitcher, this time brought in to start the third trip through Boston's lineup. And this time, by the time Green finished out the inning eight batters later, it was 10-0, Red Sox, a deficit even the heartiest of offenses hadn't erased all year.
"Just hoping (Severino) could get something started to get through the bottom of the lineup there, and then we're going to have Lynn ready for bats no matter what," Boone said. "We just kind of stuck with him, and then hoping Lynn for those righties at the top that didn't work out well, and that inning snowballs on us. It just turned into a really bad inning for us."
Too little, too late.
And finally, we move to Game 4, where the Yankees brought the tying run to the plate with no one out, and had three different batters represent the winning run at some point. That final rally was needed, though, because once again, Boone stuck with a laboring starter -- this time CC Sabathia, who had already barely escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first inning once things began to unravel in the third.
CC hit Benintendi to open the frame, and with five straight right-handed batters up, almost everyone assumed Boone would at least get his bullpen up in case Sabathia had trouble with the heart of the order. That assumption remained after Steve Pearce singled, and even after a Martinez sac fly and Xander Bogaerts comebacker got CC to two outs with only one run in.
Instead, it wasn't until the final pitch of the Bogaerts at-bat that David Robertson even began warming. By the time CC retired Jackie Bradley Jr. for the third (and what was his final) out, the damage was done: a double and a single by the last of the five righties, Ian Kinsler and Eduardo Nunez, made it 3-0.
"I was fine with the way CC was throwing the ball. He was at the two-out point, and we were going to have him go through Bradley, simple as that," Boone said. "We just kind of knew we had our guys lined up enough that, had we got to that point, we could get through the game. I think it was a sound decision to allow him to go through Bradley at that point."
As it turned out, the bullpen, specifically Zach Britton In the fourth, gave up the winning run, in the form of Christian Vazquez's 338-foot homer to right, the second-shortest home run hit at Yankee Stadium this year. And it was huge, because of that aforementioned final rally.
In the ninth, Craig Kimbrel loaded the bases with one out on two walks and a single, but again, the big hit escaped the Yankees. Neil Walker was hit by a pitch to make it 4-2, and Gary Sanchez's sac fly -- which just missed being a walk-off grand slam, to be fair -- made it 4-3. But Kimbrel induced Gleyber Torres into a video review-confirmed groundout to third to end the game, and the season.
"We've been through a lot this year, but the one thing I'm most proud of with these guys is they always compete," Boone said. "Gary's at-bat I think is a great example of that. If you fall behind 0-2 against that guy, lay off some tough pitches, battle, battle, and just miss winning the game. It was a great at-bat. But just proud of the way they competed. Just really sucks we came up short."
Too little, too late, indeed, as the Yankees now have 120 days to think about it. Among other Yankees quotes, Giancarlo Stanton said this after the game: "We just have to look for what we can build on from this season, and use it as fuel for next year. It's a disappointment, but we just have to pull out all the positives and move towards next year."
What might benefit the Yankees just as much, though, is to look at the negatives, look back at those just-missed opportunities, and analyze how and why they were missed, in order to fuel next year.
In other words: a winter to contemplate what came up too little, before it gets too late to fix.