Bring On Boston: What the Yankees Learned in the Wild Card

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 Lineup

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Aaron Judge needs to stay hot for the Yankee offense to keep clicking.

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.

Luis Severino

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.

Gary Sanchez

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 Bullpen

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…

Aaron Boone

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Luis Severino made his mark after his manager trusted him once more

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.

Yankee Stadium

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.

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Red Sox didn’t learn the first time

The Boston Red Sox suffered for a very long time. Maybe not as long as the Chicago Cubs but still for over eight decades. The Curse of the Bambino finally broke in 2004, when Boston made its long-awaited return to the series  . The Sox won in spectacular fashion, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in what was expected to be a seven-game series.

Three years later, the Sox were back in the World Series, this time facing the Colorado Rockies. Boston once again looked dailed in and downed the Rockies in just four games. Manager Terry Francona became the first manager to ever win his first eight world series games and the Red Sox had their second title in four years.

When 2013 rolled around, the Red Sox once again found themselves back in the World Series with a chance to win its third title in nine years. Boston met a familiar foe in St. Louis once again and actually failed to sweep their opponent. However, the Sox still went on to win the series in six games and became something of a dynasty with three titles in nine years.

Rick Porcello
Porcello’s 5.44 ERA would mark a career worst.

Following their 2013 World Series victory, Boston seemed to hit the reset button. Jacoby Ellsbury left in free agency. Jake Peavy, Felix Dubront, Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, John Lackey, and Andrew Miller away in the waning days of July for various prospects and draft picks. This was two seasons after the Red Sox sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett away to Los Angeles in return for a bunch of prospects and some salary relief. The Red Sox went from having a top three payroll entering 2012 to have some room to spend. The Sox were very lucky to have been able to escape some of those torturous deals by dumping them on the Dodgers.

It seemed like the Red Sox had turned a corner. With Ben Cherington, a disciple of saber metrics guru Theo Epstein, as the general manager, many thought the Red Sox would begin to search for more affordable deals that avoided any massive inflation to the salary cap. 2014 rolled around and Boston struggled as expected with all of its young talent trying to work itself out.

Pablo Sandoval
Sandoval, a career .291 hitter, has only hit .260 this season with a career worst for on base percentage and slugging.

The next offseason though, Boston seemed to ditch the prolonged rebuilding effort and wanted to make a splash. They spent a combined $180 million to bring in Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. Cherington also brought in Rick Porcello from the Tigers and by early April had given an $82 million dollar contract over the next four years. By opening day, the Red Sox had managed to commit $262 million over the next five years for only three players.

Boston was spending money on these players as if they were sure things that couldn’t possibly fail. Meanwhile, Porcello has a 5.81 ERA and a 1.44 WHIP at this point in the season. Porcello has also given up more runs than any other Red Sox’s pitcher this season, third most among all pitchers in MLB. On the offensive side, Sandoval and Ramirez have only hit 23 extra base hits combined. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts have more on their own. Ramirez and Sandoval also have the 90th and 94th best averages in the bigs. Ramirez has been redeeming at least with his 19 home runs but Sandoval has only managed to hit 8. That would be his lowest total since his rookie year where he only played 41 games.

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Ramirez has a history of missing extended amounts of time due to injury but has been a very capable homerun hitter for Boston this year.

All three players have been mediocre this season. Each of them is putting up career worsts in multiple categories. And it only cost Boston $48.5 million for this season. It just goes to show that trying to buy your way back into contention barely ever works. The crazy thing though is that Boston seemed like they had figured that out already as they begun moving the massive contracts on their books. Baseball is a spenders game but the spending has to come wisely.

The Red Sox also had perfect examples of value contracts on their roster already. Betts and Bogaerts, Boston’s two best hitters, are costing the Sox just over a million dollars for both of their contracts. If that isn’t maximizing players on rookie contracts, I don’t know what is. And we’ve seen that spending big doesn’t always work. Obviously the Yankees have had unparalleled success but that’s the exception. Boston has success buying championships with a top-five payroll before but since the year 2000, only 5 of the 15 World Series Champions were teams with a top-five payroll. It is far from a guarantee.

Boston is headed for a second straight season at the bottom of the AL East with several of expensive disappointments on the roster for years to come. It would be more acceptable if Boston’s pay roll was down and the team was testing young players. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case and this team is now just even more disappointing.

John Farrell will likely have a little bit longer that he can ride the success of 2013 before it starts to wear off. If Boston continues to strikeout on a big contract players though, him and Cherington could be out of a job soon.

Top five most successful sports cities

As a continuation from yesterday’s piece, I thought it might be interesting to reflect back on the last 15 years of sports champions. More specifically, I am ranking the top ten sports cities in the US since 2000. This includes the five largest sports leagues in America, NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS. The rankings will mainly rely on championships won by a single city but I will also take into account appearances in the finals as well. Let’s see if your city cracked the top five.

#5 Chicago: 3 total titles in 6 total appearances
Chicago actually has fewer titles than San Antonio but gets the nod for the extra finals appearance and diversity across more than one sport. Chicago is home to the two-time finalist Fire of the MLS in 2000 and 2003. The Bears also claim the Windy City as home. Even though this NFL team hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1985, they did make it to 2007 Super Bowl. Despite the Cubs century long struggle to win the World Series, the White Sox claimed a title in 2005. The other two titles came from the NHL side. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and 2013. Chicago has seen championship berths from the spread out across these 15 years. The Bulls, despite all the success in the 90s, have not made it to the finals since the turn of the century.

#4 Miami: 4 total titles in 6 total appearances
Florida’s major city clocks in at number four largely due to the success of the Miami Heat during this decade. The Heat made it to a NBA-record four straight NBA Finals, winning the middle two. The Heat also locked up a championship back in 2006 as well over the Dallas Mavericks. So yes, most of the credit goes to the NBA team but the baseball team based in Miami has a World Series title as well. The Marlins, who back then were only the Florida Marlins but still played in the city, won the 2003 World Series over the New York Yankees. The titles from two different sports gives Miami a boost. Now if only the Dolphins could help the city out. Soccer could be springing up as well soon as David Beckham seeks to set up a MLS expansion team. For now though, Miami is nowhere close to jumping over the top three cities on the list.

#3 Tri-State: 6 total titles in 15 total appearances
This seems like it is cheating a little bit but it is hard to differentiate New York and New Jersey. Despite being called the New York Giants, Jets and Red Bulls, all of these teams play in New Jersey, along with the Devils. Either way, The Giants locked up two Super Bowl titles in 2008 and 2012. The Red Bulls made a Cup run in 2008, falling short to Columbus. The Yankees won two World Series titles in 2000 and 2009, the 2000 one over the cross-town rival Mets. The Yanks also made the 2001 and 2003 Series. On the ice, the Devils have two Stanley Cups from runs in 2000 and 2003 to go along with losses in the 2001 and 2012 final. Even the Nets, who back then played in Jersey, made consecutive title appearances in 2002 and 2003. Worth noting, New Jersey based teams have accounted for 4 titles in 9 appearances while New York teams only have 2 championships in 6 showings. Looks like Jersey is holding up their end of the deal…

#2 Boston: 9 total titles in 18 total appearances
You know a city is dominant when they have more finals appearances than there are years in our criteria. Boston’s 18 championship runs is one less than the number one team on this list. The cities 9 titles are incredible though. The largest contributor has been the Patriots, with Super Bowl victories in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2015 and losses in 2008 and 2012. The Red Sox have held up their end of the bargain as well, delivering 3 World Series titles in 2004, 2007 and 2013. The Celtics and Bruins even locked up a title each in 2008 and 2011 respectively. The little known fact is that Revolution actually have contributed the second most title appearances, with five. The issue is that they have come up short every time in the MLS Final. Still Boston’s titles are very impressive. They just couldn’t edge out number one.

#1 Los Angeles: 14 total titles in 19 total appearances
Wow. 14 titles in 15 years. It’s no wonder stars love going to Los Angeles. With teams in every one of the sports being considered but football, LA probably solid chances of succeeding but still 13 championships in 15 years in unprecedented. The LA Galaxy have brought home 5 MLS Cups in 7 attempts in 2002, 2005, 2011, 2012 and 2014. The Lakers have the same numbers with their titles coming in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2009 and 2010. The Kings have been stellar of late, nabbing two Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014. The Anaheim Ducks grabbed a trophy on the ice in 2007. The Anaheim Angeles added a World Series title in 2002 as well. When one city has three different teams winning titles in a single year (2002), there is really no discussion. This city has truly become Titletown since the year of 2000.

Disagree with the list, tell me who you think should have been included and who should have missed the cut.