Category: Postseason Page 1 of 14

Requiem for the Next Man Up

The motto of a team from the past. (Steven Tydings)

The Yankees lost a chance to reach a World Series they could have won. Goodness, that’s still hurts to write.

Matt already summed it up in one word yesterday: Almost. The Yankees almost danced on a razor’s edge and sneaked past the best team in baseball using DJ LeMahieu, guile and their bullpen. But they didn’t and that’s why I’m writing a post mortem for the Yankees’ season instead of talking about how well the team matches up with the Nationals.

Plenty went wrong in that ALCS. We, unfortunately, will cover that from front to back in the coming days and weeks. (We’ll also have everything else, too, from season reviews to free agency previews to wild, off-the-rails features that we thought up while bored this summer. Get excited.)

But the Yankees came up short in a season where they could have done so at just about every turn. From the open of Spring Training on, they were shorthanded. A back injury here, a Tommy John recovery there and a mysterious shoulder ailment stretching to September.

Still, there was the Next Man Up. No one player fully embodied that spirit as it was truly a collective in the Bronx. Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela and Cameron Maybin came out of nowhere for career-redefining seasons. DJ LeMahieu turned into more than just a superutility player. Mike Ford took just about every pitcher deep for a month straight.

It’s going to be remarkable 10 days from now and 10 years from now that the 2019 Bombers recovered from significant injuries to Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andújar, Luis Severino, Edwin Encarnación, Luke Voit, Didi Gregorius and Gary Sánchez, just to name a few, and still won the American League East running away. That’s an all-time accomplishment, clinched into the record books with their franchise-best home run total and franchise-worst injured list totals.

Remember when Nestor Cortes Jr. and a wad of gum held together a rotation spot for months on end? That doesn’t happen for a normal, run-of-the-mill team. Only a team with tremendous depth to fill in for its already strong depth and a dash of the spectacular could accomplish something like the 2019 Yankees did, and that shouldn’t be forgotten at the end of it all.

Holding up the Next Man Up were five arms that remained steadier than the rest, the five men at the back of the bullpen. Though Chad Green had a lackluster April, the five horsemen were nails from there on out. There was no need for a Next Man in the bullpen…

… Until there was a need at the worst moment. Five became four and four became exhausted. The offense cratered in a way all-together foreign to the rest of the season’s body of work. It was, and I quote, not what you want.

Still, the Next Man Up came back around. After months of the Yankees patching center field for Aaron Hicks, Hicks relieved his struggling pals with the biggest hit of the season to that point, injecting the team with new life. When mistakes added up to the team being two outs from defeat, LeMahieu wiped the slate clean with a nearly-unforgettable blast.

Yet there’s nothing to wipe away that hanging slider. That’s permanent. It’s going to be etched in the fanbase’s collective psyche like 2001, 2004 and just after midnight on Oct. 13, 2012. Baseball once again hoodwinked and schemed to make us believe fully that this was it — this was our year — and erased doubt until the Astros walked off with the pennant. That sting of failure, deserved or not, hangs over everything for now.

It’s gonna be an offseason of deep stares into the mirror, sighs and perhaps a tearful goodbye to a fan favorite or two. On this site, season reviews will turn into season previews and we’ll once again believe a little too strongly in the catharsis of Opening Day.

But before anyone can move on, it’s time to appreciate what the Yankees’ had, even if it came up short. The Next Man Up doesn’t get a ring, but that doesn’t deprive him of accomplishment and a grip on our memories, one win over the Orioles, comeback against the Rays and Maybin hug at a time.

DJ LeMahieu joins Alfonso Soriano in forgotten homer history

I yelped.

The Yankees had been dead for about an hour, give or take a double play, and now was just the formality, the part where Roberto Osuna put the finishing touches on the ALCS.

DJ LeMahieu wasn’t playing that game. Fighting off pitch after pitch, he worked the count and got a pitch to drive. The result? The most important home run of his career, a game-tying two-run shot to knot ALCS Game 6 with the Yankees down to their final two outs.

Let’s rewatch it for old time’s sake:

Like many of you, I jumped up and down. Did that really happen, I thought. With new life for the Bombers, your mind instantly turns to what could be, a chance to actually topple the juggernaut Astros in their own building.

Here’s the thing: LeMahieu’s spot in history was robbed mere minutes later by Jose Altuve’s series-ending blast. Instead of a moment for the pantheon of Yankees’ history, LeMahieu instead will have to settle for a footnote to another team’s signature highlight.

It was just about the perfect homer, too. Not an elegant, no-doubt blast like Altuve. Instead, it was a ball teetering in your mind between whether it would stay in play in Houston’s diminutive right field.

LeMahieu’s reaction was muted, but the iconic photo would have been George Springer sprawled out over the fence while trying to steal the ball, coming juuuuust short of the crowd-hushing home run.

So close.

Yet the Yankees didn’t take the lead, merely tied it, and that left the door open for Altuve to finish things in style. That’s not LeMahieu’s fault; He was the Yankees’ most consistent hitter all regular season and into the postseason as well. The prototypical leadoff hitter.

Even in the positive moments we’ll remember from this postseason, LeMahieu gets overshadowed. His first home run in ALDS Game 1 came sandwiched between Gleyber Torres’ go-ahead double and Brett Gardner’s second-deck tater. LeMahieu’s solo shot to tie ALCS Game 5 was forgotten four batters later when Aaron Hicks hit one to the literal sticks.

LeMahieu has company in possessing an earth-shattering blast turned trivia question. Alfonso Soriano came through with two of the most clutch hits in Yankees history during the 2001 World Series. Soriano hit a walk-off single to end the Yankees Classic Game 5 and homered off Curt Schilling to put the Bombers ahead in Game 7.

Soriano’s place in history was all but assured — Roger Clemens had World Series MVP on lock, but the homer would live on — until fate, an errant throw and a bloop single conspired to erase that home run and give the D-backs the series.

After a replacement level 2001, Soriano broke out in 2002 as he nearly joined the 40-40 club and took over as one of the Yankees’ best hitters. LeMahieu doesn’t need to break out because 2019 was his moment, likely the peak season for the tight-lipped infielder who anchored the Bombers’ lineup.

LeMahieu’s season won’t be forgotten any time soon. The under-the-radar signing made himself indispensable and a borderline MVP candidate in the Bronx. He was clutch from the start with his impressive numbers with the bases loaded, as well as two walk-off hits during the season, and his unwavering focus steadied him for a strong October.

That being said, despite hitting one of the most dramatic home runs possible, LeMahieu’s standout moment was all for naught. Its memory will remain enclosed in the pain of watching Altuve blast an Aroldis Chapman slider into smithereens and thus can’t have the spotlight to itself. Baseball has room for only one victor and to that team goes both the spoils and the moments staked into history.

Some last ditch ideas to wake up the Yankees’ offense

Embed from Getty Images

Last night felt like a must win, though tonight is actually the Yankees’ first must win game of 2019. It’s do or die. Win or go home. You know all the clichés by now. Let’s get some more of the obvious out of the way: the Yankees need James Paxton to pitch like he did down the stretch in August and September. But more importantly, they also need the offense to snap out of its funk. The savages we grew to love over the summer have suddenly disappeared.

Tonight, the bats will have to wake up against Justin Verlander, which is no easy feat. And at this point, with the team having scored six runs in the last three games, a little shake up may be necessary. Nothing drastic or out of desperation, but there are clearly a number of things simply not working. Namely:

New York Yankees Batting Table
Edwin Encarnacion151.067.222.133
Brett Gardner152.133.235.133
Didi Gregorius162.125.125.125
Gary Sanchez172.118.118.294
Gio Urshela152.133.188.333
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/18/2019.

It’s hard to win any game, let alone a best-of-seven, when five lineup regulars have turned into pumpkins. A few in this group probably need to be relieved for Game 5, because they either haven’t performed and/or have had horrific at bats while doing so. Here are a few things the Yankees may try:

Giancarlo Stanton needs to play – if not, he needs to be replaced

Aaron Boone said before yesterday’s loss that he envisioned Stanton as a designated hitter option for tonight’s affair. Well, it’s now or never. Edwin Encarnación has looked terrible this series and could sit tonight (though Gio Urshela’s situation could change that – more on that shortly). JV carved up EE in Game 2, and as I wrote earlier this week, it’s not totally surprising.

On the left is Edwin’s xwOBA based on pitch location. On the right is how Verlander pitched EE in Game 2. The only ball Edwin put into play was a weak fly out on a pitch up and out of the zone. He’s just a bad matchup against Verlander (not that many hitters are good matchups for him).

Stanton had a strong Game 1 and had a good approach during the ALDS. Who knows how much his quad is affecting him, but I have to imagine he’s going to be in the lineup tonight. And if he can’t, the Yankees really need to plug in Luke Voit or Mike Ford. I really don’t want to lose Giancarlo if the Yankees can stage a comeback from down 3-1, but at this point, the Yankees can’t wait any longer if he’s still hurting.

If Stanton has to be shelved, do they go to Ford or Voit? I think Ford has a really strong case over Voit, despite the limited major league track record.

PlayerwOBA vs. >= 95 MPHxwOBA vs. >= 95 MPH
Mike Ford.599.431
Luke Voit.373.369

Ford’s numbers and zone charts point to him being a favorable matchup against a hard-thrower like Verlander. Plus, there’s the short porch at Yankee Stadium that he can take advantage of.

Bench Gio Urshela

The Gio we knew and loved from the regular season has really cratered this series. He stung some balls in Game 1, including a homer, but he’s generally looked awful ever since. We know how great he is with the glove, but at this stage, the Yankees need to prioritize offense over defense. And I say that the day after the team had an embarrassing game in the field.

Sitting Urshela means that DJ LeMahieu would have to slide over to third base. It would also mean that Edwin Encarnación (or Ford or Voit) would have to play first base. I know I just wrote about how badly EE has looked at the plate in the previous section, but I’d still rather see the slumping established veteran play over the struggling limited track record guy.

Sit Gardner for Cameron Maybin or move Gardy down in the lineup

This suggestion isn’t a must by any means, but I think there’s a sliver of upside. Even though Gardner has run out of steam (has the de-juiced ball hurt him?), I still trust him to deliver productive at bats. Last night’s first inning bases loaded walk was one of them. Nonetheless, the Yankees should consider starting Maybin over Gardner.

Maybin’s very good against high velocity pitches and pitches up in the zone as I outlined earlier this week. Since 2017, Maybin has a .383 wOBA and .382 xwOBA against pitches greater than or equal to 95 MPH. Gardner is just at .364 and .312, respectively. Both singled off Verlander in Game 2, for whatever that’s worth (nothing).

To be honest, I doubt we see this swap. It’s an idea, but I’m not sure if it’s a good message to send to the team to suddenly bench its longest tenured player. But, at the minimum, Gardner should be moved down. He’s probably better suited hitting in the bottom third of the order than the middle third.

Ideally, here’s the lineup I’d run out tonight:

  1. DJ LeMahieu, 3B
  2. Aaron Judge, RF
  3. Aaron Hicks, CF
  4. Gleyber Torres, 2B
  5. Giancarlo Stanton , DH
  6. Gary Sánchez, C
  7. Edwin Encarnación, 1B
  8. Didi Gregorius, SS
  9. Brett Gardner, LF

Forget about “lanes”. Put your five most recently successful hitters one through five and hope six through nine wake up. Hopefully, Sánchez’s dinger last night was a start (and don’t you dare mention Austin Romine). As for the rest of that bottom portion – something’s gotta go in their favor eventually. It just has to come tonight, or else.

ALCS Game 4: Win and The Series Begins Anew

More of this, please.

I am going to just come out and say it: I am very sick of the Astros. I was sick of them a long time ago, really, when they started the trend of tanking a few years ago. I was sick of them in 2015 when Dallas Keuchel blanked the Yankees in the AL Wild Card Game. I was sick of them in the 2017 ALCS. I was sick of them when they laid an egg, for once, in four consecutive games in last year’s ALCS against Boston. But now I am very sick of them and I would very much like for the Yankees to come back and win this series. Just look at this quote from Justin Verlander:

Look at that. Just look at it. It is so obviously a shot at the Yankees with the added ingredient of looking ahead at the Nationals, who obviously won the National League pennant the other day and await the winner of this series. I hope Justin and the rest of the Astros are looking ahead. Want to know why? Because this is still just a 2-1 series. Yes, Houston has won two in a row, and yes, it would be better if the Yankees weren’t down 2-1.

But again: this series is just 2-1. If the Yankees win tonight, and I am hoping that they win this game more than any in probably the last decade, this is a whole new series. What a thing that would be.

Here are tonight’s lineups.

Houston Astros (2-1)
1. George Springer, CF
2. Jose Altuve, 2B
3. Michael Brantley, LF
4. Alex Bregman, 3B
5. Yuli Gurriel, 1B
6. Yordan Álvarez, DH
7. Carlos Correa, SS
8. Robinson Chirinos, C
9. Josh Reddick, LF
RHP Zack Greinke

New York Yankees (1-2)
1. DJ LeMahieu, 1B
2. Aaron Judge, RF
3. Aaron Hicks, CF
4. Gleyber Torres, 2B
5. Edwin Encarnación, DH
6. Brett Gardner, LF
7. Gary Sánchez, C
8. Gio Urshela, 3B
9. Didi Gregorius, SS
RHP Masahiro Tanaka

The only news worth sharing is that Giancarlo Stanton will not be removed from the roster and is considered an option at DH tomorrow. I’ll believe it when I see it, but that’s good news nonetheless. He’s at about 60% right now, per Boone. First pitch is at 8:08. Go Yankees.

Tanaka Time, and what the Yankees need in Game 4

2017 Game 5 was magical. (MLB Gifs)

With a rainout pinning the Yankees’ hopes to winning three games in four days against the Astros, one might think they’ll have to veer off-script. Find a new way to win.

Though coming two years apart, the Bombers’ past two postseason wins against the Astros provide a blueprint for what they need in order to win Game 4 and subsequent games in the series.

It all starts and ends with Masahiro Tanaka. Despite a lackluster regular season in which he had to contend with a disappearing splitter from his repertoire, the veteran right-hander turned his year around at the exact right time, just as he did in 2017 and ’18.

You’ve surely seen the stats by now. Tanaka the only pitcher in MLB history to allow two or fewer runs in each of his first seven postseason starts, surpassing a mark set by Sandy Koufax. His postseason ERA is in the top four all-time.

The Yankees are now a far cry from where they were going into the postseason, when Aaron Boone said James Paxton might be the only starter they use traditionally. Now, Tanaka and Paxton have to take full starts with the bullpen up against it in a four-games-in-four-days stretch.

Luckily, we’ve seen how Tanaka can handle this offense. He did it twice in the regular season, albeit with few swings and misses and the aforementioned lackluster splitter, but he dominated Game 1 of the ALCS. Go back two years, and he shut out a similar offense for seven innings in the Bronx. If he can somehow repeat the performance from earlier this series, Boone would have to let him go further into the game.

But Boone can’t let him go deep regardless of his performance. If Tanaka’s not on his A-game, then Boone has to pull him earlier and deal with the bullpen-related consequences later. Game 4 is that much of a must-win.

Still, the Yankees need length and quality length at that from Tanaka. A three-inning start could still lead to a win, but the bullpen game looming in Game 6 becomes dicey at best.

“We’re going to have to get some innings out of our starters, there’s no question about it,” Boone said Wednesday. “So hopefully — obviously Masa is coming off a real good start in Game 1 where he was able to give us six innings. So between him and Paxton these next two days, they’re going to need to give us some innings if we’re going to be successful.

“But again, you’re kind of — we’ve got to go out and win a game. So I’ll be aggressive in that sense but we do have to get some bulk innings out of some people, there’s no question.”

Beyond the pitching, the offense needs to wake up. Three runs in two games somehow worked for the Astros to earn a split in Game 1 and 2 in Houston, but it’s been and will be untenable for the Yankees. This has never been a team that strives to win 2-1 games, even with the baseball itself potentially producing fewer home runs.

What the team could really use is a good ole fashioned blowout, something the Astros aren’t likely to allow. A blowout means a chance to rest your top relievers and save them for the essential innings in games to come.

But the offense needs to score anyway. Giancarlo Stanton’s return would give the Yankees’ a tremendous boost, and the extra off day makes that a more realistic possibility. The team needs more depth in its lineup than Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres working good at-bats, though that’s a strong base.

With or without Stanton, the team will need more from the other six players who started in Game 3 other than the aforementioned trio. Aaron Hicks worked strong at-bats after two months off, but the team could use more proper aggression from Edwin Encarnacion and a slump-busted Gary Sanchez, just to name an option or two.

Down 2-1 to Houston, the Yankees are in an unenviable spot. They still have a chance to wrest control of this series, even without an off-day, and it starts with Tanaka and Game 4.

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