Well, that sure was a wild ride. The longest game 9-inning in MLB history ended with a Yankee victory past 1:00 am ET and it was worth every second. The Yankees are now off until Monday, when they’ll be in San Diego taking on the rival Tampa Bay Rays in Game 1 of the ALDS. I’m sure that series won’t be stressful.
I have a lot of thoughts about the last two days, so let’s get right to them.
1. The Offense Reminds Us of Who They Are: Let me just get this out of the way immediately: phew. There was a moment in the 8th inning when it sure felt like the Yankees were about to head into a do-or-die matchup in which J.A. Happ, Jordan Montgomery, and Deivi Garcia would be the primary options. Suffice to say, it wasn’t a great feeling.
That obviously didn’t happen and the biggest reason why is because the offense was an absolute juggernaut all series from the very first pitch they saw. It is hard to stress how impressed I am with (basically) every Yankee batter. They forced Cleveland pitchers to throw 384 pitches in 18 innings of work. Yankee batters had a clear plan of attack for Shane Bieber – spit on the offspeed stuff and attack the fastball – that paid off and they kept up the same impressive approach last night. I mean, look at this:
It’s a bit tough to see because of how many pitches there are, but there is virtually no purple outside of the strike zone. That’s what you want to see: they didn’t swing at balls outside of the strike zone in Games 1 or 2. Last night, the Yankees were selective in their approach and worked 12 (!) walks. It kept the pressure on Cleveland all night and I can’t say enough about good things about it.
This approach only works when you are similarly aggressive with pitches you can hit, though, and the Yankees sure were that as well. Look at the locations of the pitches the Yankees drove out of the park last night.
Here’s the first one, from Giancarlo Stanton:
Here is Gary Sánchez:
And here is Gio Urshela’s grand slam, about which I will have a lot more to say in just a minute:
That is what I am talking about right there. Lay off the junk. Absolutely punish the mistakes. That is how you win playoff games right there. That they did it against both of Cleveland’s best pitchers in Shane Bieber and James Karinchak on back-to-back nights is even more impressive. It was a reminder of the fact that the Yankees are a well-oiled machine from top-to-bottom.
In fact, the Yankees got homers from up-and-down the lineup in this series, and everyone – barring a few outliers from Aaron Hicks and Clint Frazier – had a great at-bat virtually every time up. It’s a new series next week, but it’s hard not to feel great about the state of the Yankee offense right now. There are basically no holes.
2. Gio Urshela is Incredible: I don’t know what more we can even say about Gio Urshela at this point. The Yankees picked him up off baseball scrapyard for $25,000 and now he is one of the most reliable and effective players in their organization. I mean, the dude is smacking go-ahead grand slams in the playoffs while the Yankees are down 3 runs against the other team’s best reliever. A guy who struck out just about 50% of every batter he faced in 2020. It is so good and great. Let’s watch it again:
God. It’s so good. Gio worked the count full, which led to this pitch:
Without context, this might look like a tough mid-90s fastball. It’s low and it’s in on the hands. Hard to hit, right? Wrong. Look at a map of Gio’s slugging percentage in 2020, overlayed over the strike zone:
That’s why you work the count, ladies and gentlemen. You force the opposing pitcher – even great ones – to make a mistake and put the ball in your happy zone. And then you punish them. And, as he showed in the 9th inning, sometimes you just hit balls like this…
…for singles up the middle to put the go-ahead run on base in the 9th inning of an elimination postseason game. (Gio, of course, came around to score later in the inning on the DJLM go-ahead hit.) I legitimately cannot believe how good Gio Urshela is and I’m not sure I ever will.
This leads us to his defense. We all know that it’s controversial because the advanced stats don’t rate him well. As a reader of this site, you probably know I think that’s hogwash. That’s because it is. Look at this magnificent play, which came in the bottom of the 8th inning with Cleveland threatening to tack on insurance runs:
That is an incredible, incredible play. And it’s not one any third baseman can make. I’m sorry, but it’s not. Neither play was even particularly close. I mean:
Yeah. Sheesh. Gio had a +.302 WPA (which doesn’t even count defense) last night and, as I said, I don’t think I will ever get over how good of a player he’s become. It’s just incredible.
3. Aaron Boone, Overmatched: Alright, so that’s the good stuff. Now onto the bad. There was plenty of that last night, which a nice, come-from-behind victory in an elimination tends to paper over (as it should). Let’s start at the top, with Aaron Boone, who I thought looked overwhelmed at three points in this game.
First, the decision to roll with Masahiro Tanaka into the fifth inning made absolutely zero sense to me. I was first guessing even sending Tanaka out for the 2nd and 3rd, so maybe I’m crazy, but the fifth made absolutely no sense to me at all. It was the third time through the order, after two (2) rain delays and a spotty (at best) performance from Tanaka. Sure enough, it bit the Yankees. Both batters Tanaka faced in the 5th came around to score, which tied the game. This was predictable.
Second, the decision to remove Zack Britton from the game in the 7th inning in favor of Jonathan Loaisiga. Now, Britton had lost the zone – he inexplicably walked two guys with two outs in the inning – but it felt like Boone got out-managed here. Cleveland removed
Hottest Hitter in the Game™ Josh Naylor in what felt like bait for Boone to remove Britton. That is because of the lefty/righty split – Luplow is terrible against righties – but it was the wrong move. I get it to some degree, but I would rather have Britton out there. Righty batters hit .196 against him in 2020, so it’s not like he’s a platoon pitcher. In fact, he’s been the team’s best and most consistent reliever!
Sure enough, it backfired. Both of those runs scored, largely because Loaisiga did not look ready for the moment. A 1-2 curveball in that situation just cannot be left here:
Finally, the decision to send Loaisiga back out there for the 8th inning was also baffling. And then, after he walked the leadoff guy, Boone let him do it again. Truly inexplicable stuff. Chapman replaced him right away, so it wasn’t like the Yankees wouldn’t use Chapman in the 8th. (One of the runs scored.) Boone just didn’t want to. It was an unacceptable lack of urgency and it was the second time that Boone tried to steal outs from a pitcher who didn’t have it in this game. It’s easily his biggest weakness as a manager and it has to stop now if the Yankees want to do this thing.
I know that the relievers have to get the job done, and they didn’t. That is a real thing and I don’t want to discount it. I also took issue with some of their approaches – why was Loaisiga throwing a curve in that 1-2 and why did Chad Green use his curve so much – but that’s a story for another day. The fact is that the vaunted Yankee bullpen blew several leads in a crucial game last night and that is not good. But I don’t think their manager put them in the best position to succeed. In fact, these three mistakes – again, all of which were first-guessed in real-time by countless fans – led to five (5) runs, all of which when the Yankees had the lead or the game was tied. Five!
It felt a lot more like 2018 Aaron Boone than 2019 Aaron Boone. Let’s not let this become a thing again, please.
4. The Playoffs Feel Real: I woke up on Tuesday morning unsure how the playoffs would feel. This season was a bit of a slog and felt especially joyless at times. I really didn’t know what the playoffs would feel like, especially in an empty ballpark. The answer: pretty damn real. I wasn’t thinking about it at all last night. I was engaged as I ever have been in a Yankee game, riding the highs and sinking to the lows right alongside the team. Dare I say it, but it was probably the most “normal” I’ve felt since March. I’d be curious to hear how it felt for you all.
The only two times I really, really missed the crowd – or, more accurately, noticed it – was during Judge’s home run in Game 1 and Gio’s grand slam last night. Those are two “suck the life out of the opposing fanbase” moments and I wish we got to enjoy them. Oh well. I’ll take what I can get these days, and this felt extremely real to me. I’m super pumped for the ALDS to start now.
5. Bring on the Rays: Speaking of which, bring on the damn Tampa Bay Rays. I am not scared of them. This is the matchup I’ve wanted all season. I really, really wanted the Yankees to get a chance to exact some revenge on them and end their season. The Rays have been in the Yankees’ face all season and talking a frankly unearned level of smack at the Yankees, a more successful franchise in every single way. The Yankees are healthy now, their offense is clicking, and they have Gerrit Cole starting in Game 1. This is what you want in a playoff matchup. I expect it to be intense and exhilirating. I also expect the Yankees to win.
The only complaints are that we have to wait four days for it to begin and that it’s not the ALCS (why didn’t MLB reseed after this dumb round?) but whatever. If that’s the tradeoff for not having to watch the Yankees play postseason games in the Trop, I will certainly take it.
We’ll have much more to come on the Rays and the Yankees’ performance in the days to come. For now, I’m just enjoying the hell out of the last two nights, and I recommend you do the same.