The New York Yankees. The Boston Red Sox. In a playoff series. Need I say more?
My editor says I do, so here I am writing this piece. Do not let that take away from the fact that for the first time in almost 15 years, the greatest rivalry in baseball, and arguably in all of sports (high praise coming from a graduate of the Duke-UNC rivalry) returns, in October no less, and it is back with a vengeance.
The feel of this iconic clash is different now. Babe Ruth will not be trading his socks for pinstripes. Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek will not be jawing at home plate. The entire game will not come down to David Ortiz and Mariano Rivera, as it always seemed to do. For the love of the baseball gods, Pedro Martinez is not going to throw an elderly bench coach to the ground. Poor Don Zimmer. Even Tyler Austin, the guy who started the lone skirmish between the clubs this year, will be watching from home like the rest of us after getting traded to the Twins in July. Yes, the animosity may seem to have simmered down – maybe because the steroids are out of everyone’s systems – but the competition of Yanks-Sox is as strong as ever.
For the bulk of the season, these were the best teams in baseball, 1a and 1b. A combination of injuries and slumps for the Yankees, coupled with multiple award-winning performances out of the likes of JD Martinez and Mookie Betts, made the division a laugher come late August. Do not let the final standings fool you: both of these teams can play ball. They can mash with the best of them, throw out flamethrower after flamethrower, and feature two of the brightest young coaches in the game. This may even be the best NYY-BOS matchup of all time, since it is the first time we are seeing them go against each other when both have over 100 wins on the season.
While Boston kicked back and watched on Wednesday, New York took care of business to set up this epic clash of titans, dispatching of the upstart Oakland Athletics 7-2 at Yankee Stadium. It followed the scripts experts and fans alike expected out of the Bronx this season: home runs and high heat, and once the Yankees get a late lead, good night. However, the wild card game showed us a lot about how this team is playing right now, both the good and the bad. Everything becomes important in a playoff series, especially against a team as potent as the Red Sox, hot off their best season ever with 108 wins.
So, while everything seemed peachy for the Yankees on Wednesday, let me tell you what I saw from watching every pitch, and what it means towards taking Boston down.
The Good: What a time to get healthy and hot. Any doubts about Aaron Judge’s wrist were immediately erased when the 116 MPH screamer left the yard in the first inning, and the power kept on coming. Luke Voit, the hottest hitter you’ve never heard of, nearly joined the fray when he came inches short in the 6th off of All-Star closer Blake Treinen, but he was clearly happy with the stand-up two-RBI trible. Giancarlo Stanton hit a towering shot late, outdoing Judge with a 117 MPH, 450-foot moonshot. None of those hits were cheap shots to say the least, but power was not the only thing the Yankees showed. They made one of the best bullpens in baseball work for it, drawing a ton of walks and being selective with their swings. When the Yankees make good swings, the ball goes a long way.
The Bad: The Yankees did end up only having 7 hits in the game, and the only inning where they had more than one was the four-run 6th. The Yankee lineup has been known to be streaky and laden with strikeouts, and they cannot afford to let top-end starters like Chris Sale, David Price and Rick Porcello get in a groove on the mound. Not to mention, a few bats never showed up that need to, in order to make this lineup really groove one through nine. Gleyber Torres and Andrew McCutcheon were quiet, Miguel Andujar only got on with a cheap infield single, and Gary Sanchez’s woes continued. More on him later.
The Good: Sevy put last year behind him quickly, huh? After not making it out of the first in last year’s wild card game, Severino took a no-hitter into the 5th, where he was pulled after two singles. He had great life on his pitches all night. The fastball velocity was top of the line, probably thanks to the lack of pressure to go deep into a playoff game with a behemoth bullpen backing you up. His slider was equally nasty, causing a lot of swing and misses from the Athletic batters with nasty late movement. Not to mention he pitched well again at home as he continues to shake off the late season slump that cost him a chance at the Cy Young Award. Best part? 5 days rest would put him in line to pitch again on Monday – Game 3, at home again.
The Bad: Did anyone else notice that Severino never seemed to hit the target? He was missing spots for most of the night but was lucky that he never made a bad miss. Perhaps that’s because the Oakland A’s were last in baseball in batting average against fastballs above 97 MPH, and the anticipation of that made his slider look even more devastating. Boston hits too well and has seen Severino too many times to let that happen. Not to mention, it took him 87 pitches to not even make an out in the 5th inning, with 4 walks sprinkled along the way. Severino may have been nasty, but he was not sharp, definitely not enough to continue his success against the Sox.
The Good: Sanchez was one of the biggest question marks about the linuep for the Wild Card game. It was unknown whether he would catch Severino after allowing two big past balls in a loss back in August when the two last worked together against Oakland, but his defense was spectacular on Wednesday. After looking lethargic at backstop all season, Sanchez was moving well behind the plate and blocked every ball expertly. When a pitcher can trust hit catcher to stop balls in front of him, they are less afraid to throw their out pitches in the dirt. What may have been the reason why Severino struggled late season turned into a reason why he, and the relievers after him, performed so well on Wednesday. Calling a good game and hustling on the base paths are other good signs pointing towards putting him back behind the plate for Game 1 on Friday.
The Bad: I did not think I would ever talk about how Gary needs to stay in a lineup because of his defense, because his offense was abysmal again. After hitting .186 in the regular season, he began post-season play without a ball leaving the infield. Flip side? No strikeouts, and putting the ball in play will work well, but Sanchez needs to stop trying to pull everything, causing him to roll over balls to the left side. If he can find his stroke the other way and start making solid contact, he could make a big difference against a Boston team he’s been know to feast on.
The Good: Besides a well-placed outside fastball that was turned around by the MLB HR leader for a wall scraper in the short right field porch at Yankee Stadium, every guy out of the Yankee pen the other night was frankly unhittable. Dellin Betances, often known to give up others’ runs when coming in with runners on base, worked out of Severino’s mess masterfully. Coupled with a strong second inning, he put 6 up, 6 down with three strikeouts in what may have been one of the best outings I’ve seen from him in a long time. Equally comforting? After injuries late season, Aroldis Chapman got his velocity back, lighting up the gun with 100’s and 101’s while shutting the door for the win. The Yankees will need him sharp to close out close games against the Sox.
The Bad: To be honest? No complaints. Sure, Khris Davis beat Zach Britton on the one pitch, but it was a decent pitch that barely got muscled out of the smallest part of the smallest park in the big leagues. That being said, as the only lefty in the bullpen outside of Chapman, Britton needs to get his confidence back because Aaron Boone needs to be able to rely on his trade deadline pickup. Speaking of the skipper…
The Good: Every call seemed to be on point and immediately justified. Start Severino? Throw 4 no-hit innings? Yank him in the 5th for Betances early with two guys on and no outs? Out of the jam. Take out Andujar and Voit for defensive replacements? Adeiny Hechavarria made one of the greatest leaping catches I’ve ever seen by an infielder, and Neil Walker made a great stab on his knees for the final out of the game. Every lever the rookie manager pulled worked out for the Yankees, meaning the skipper is now undefeated in the postseason.
The Bad: It only gets harder now. Managing the bullpen over a five-game series and navigating Boston’s equally terrifying lineup will be a challenge. Knowing when to insert the likes of Brett Gardner and Austin Romine will be just as difficult of decisions. Boone needs to be decisive and trust his gut in the playoffs, but sometimes the pressure can get to you the first time. Luckily for him, Boston’s rookie skipper Alex Cora faces the same battle, and he does not have a game already under his belt.
The Good: Yankee fans showed up loud and proud for their team. Two pitches into the game, with Severino already ahead in an 0-2 count, the entire stadium was already on their feet. It stayed that way for every two strike pitch the rest of the game. When Judge blasted that one out in the first inning, forget about it. The new stadium erupted in ways that have rarely been seen since the Bombers moved across the street before the 2009 season, and the players seemed to relish in it.
The Bad: They’re the wild card team, which means no home-field advantage until the World Series. When it comes to Boston’s home field, Fenway will be just as hostile of an environment as the Bronx is to outsiders. This is a young team with several key contributors lacking significant playoff experience, and they cannot afford to get rattled by the Boston faithful and come back to New York facing elimination. Steal one away from home and the Yankees could advance on home turf.
I’m excited. The only upsetting part of it is that it’s not a seven-game series, but whoever emerges victorious from this matchup becomes the odd-on favorite to take home the rings. If the Yankees want to pull off the upset, they need to build off the great performance in the wild card game and hit the Red Sox in the mouth in Game 1. If they can get back to the Stadium with a win, they have a chance to do something special. To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
Yankees-Red Sox in the playoffs: there’s nothing better.