The Yankees won their wild card series. They fought back, figured it out, and overcame blunders in a wild 10-9 victory over Cleveland that literall
The Yankees won their wild card series. They fought back, figured it out, and overcame blunders in a wild 10-9 victory over Cleveland that literally began in September and concluded in October.
For all of this, they deserve to celebrate. But they’re trying to win a World Series, not merely the first round. And to that end, this game introduced a significant question: Is their bullpen strong enough to get them through the month?
Were we so busy talking about other Yankee problems this year — the injuries! The inconsistent offense! Gerrit Cole’s hardly existent mini-slump, even! — that we failed to notice all the holes in the ‘pen.
On Wednesday, this was suddenly impossible to ignore. Needing 15 outs from his relievers after a short start from Masahiro Tanaka, there was nothing Aaron Boone could do to paper over or manage around several painful truths: Tommy Kahnle is badly missed. Adam Ottavino is currently unreliable. Chad Green is not quite what he was a year ago.
Put that all together, and you have Jonathan Loaisiga facing Francisco Lindor in the eighth inning of a tie game in the playoffs. To use a term favored by the analytically-savvy Yankees, this is not the ideal lane for him.
Perhaps over the past few years we’ve come to take a dominant bullpen for granted. Last October, the team hardly needed length from its starters because the pen was so loaded. Green dominated in late innings or as an opener, Kahnle stabilized after a bumpy 2018, and Ottavino’s frisbee slider helped him to cruise through the regular season before running into postseason struggles.
On Wednesday night, Tanaka’s exit after four innings forced a gut check from Boone. It turned out he could only trust Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman.
Green allowed an RBI double to Jose Ramirez on a curveball, a curious pitch selection. Britton got a big double play but issued two walks in the seventh.
Knowing he needed to replace Britton, Boone went to Loaisiga over Ottavino. We could understand his reluctance. Ottavino struggled in the playoffs last year, and allowed hard contact during this regular season at a rate worse than 98 percent of pitchers in the league.
But as one savvy baseball person texted after Loaisiga entered Wednesday’s game, “Why is Ottavino on the roster if you’re not going to use him there?”
Pressed afterward about his level of trust in Ottavino, Boone did what he always does and defended the player. He also noted that because Cleveland has so many switch hitters and lefties, it was hard to find a lane in this series for the right-handed Ottavino.
“Otto is still going to be in big spots,” Boone said. “Especially when there are difficult, challenging, right-handed lanes. This team is kind of unique with all the switch hitters and some of the lefties they have sprinkled in. Otto is going to find himself in a big spot, in a big game probably more than once.
“There are going to be obvious non-pinch hitting situations and obvious lanes, and there are going to have to be situations where he’s in where he probably is going to have to be facing a lefty, too. He’s capable.”
Because he was reluctant to call for Ottavino Wednesday, it occurred to us to ask Boone if he might address his bullpen issues by using Deivi Garcia in late-inning, high-leverage spots this month. Boone said that he would not, because he planned to use Garcia as a starter.
He’ll need the rookie to succeed in that role, and pitch relatively deep into games. Cole, Tanaka, J.A. Happ and perhaps Jordan Montgomery will have to do the same. It’s clear that every time a starter leaves early, Boone will have to walk a tightrope to the seventh inning, when he can begin to think about using Britton and Chapman.
It’s also clear, even in the afterglow of a hard-fought win, that the task ahead will not be easy.