Well, last night’s game sure was great. I know that these Yankees have a reputation with some fans for backing down when the going gets tough, but I don’t see it. They’ve consistently not gone away all season – even when they folded for a bit in September, they stormed back to win 10 in a row – and last night was no different. They needed to win, and they did. In dominating fashion, really.
This sets up a do-or-die, must-win Game 5 against Tampa Bay tonight. I am amped up and extremely ready. This is why we’re fans, right? For games like these. Anyway, here is what’s on my mind heading into this one.
1. God, It’s Nice to Have Gerrit Cole: There have been a number of postmortems already written about the 2020 Yankees, mostly by their own fans. As has been the case nearly every year since 2004, those preliminary postmortems focus on the lack of pitching and the team’s supposed inability to go out and shore up the rotation. Well, there will be a lot more to add to this over the offseason – but it definitely seems just a bit silly tonight, when new ace Gerrit Cole will take the mound in a must-win elimination game.
The Yankees went out and got Cole to take the mound in games just like this one. I feel very good about the Yankees’ chances as a result. There are a few things about Cole’s start tonight that are especially interesting, though. Let’s get into those.
First, this will be the 15th start of his season and his 5th against the Rays. It’s wild, but that’s baseball in 2020. This is an interesting dynamic. I wrote the other day about why Cole should attack the Rays with his fastball since they’ve struggled against high-velocity heat all year. I still believe this. Cole has one of the best heaters in the game, and when it’s on, it look like this:
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cole use his breaking stuff early on in this one. It really looked like the Rays were sitting on the pitch and were extremely aggressive against it in Game 1. Cole was able to overcome that, plus some missed locations, but it’ll be worth watching tonight. His bender, though, was nasty:
Remember, he got 7 whiffs on 11 swings on this on Tuesday. I am curious to see how Cole attacks them. I bet he mixes in a lot of slower stuff early and works backwards a bit. Whatever he does, though, I suspect will be the right approach. The dude is just so smart.
Second, this will be Cole’s first career start on three days’ rest. The deep rotation in Houston meant he never had to do it. This does not worry me one bit. Cole is clearly in his prime and in peak physical condition. I have no doubt that he will come out firing tonight and likely have a long leash. The Yanks gave him ample rest all year on top of the fact it was a shortened season. Cole should be ready to go.
Finally, for the love of all that is holy, can Cole please get Ji-Man Choi out tonight? The guy has used Cole as his personal launching pad all season and I am sick of it. No better time for Cole to remind Choi that he is Gerrit Cole than tonight.
2. The State of the Bullpen: The bullpen was absolutely phenomenal last night and they should be all set to go again for Game 5 tonight. Here is my favorite pitch from Game 4, which is exemplary of the bullpen’s performance:
That’s nasty. Just nasty. When Green is on like that, he is tough to beat. But enough about that. Let’s focus on tonight. I think everyone will be fully available to pitch tonight if needed. The only one who might not be ready is Green, who has pitched in 3 of the last 4 nights and twice in a row. Is that enough to hold him back? Meh. It’s not ideal. It would also never happen in the regular season…but this is not the regular season. If Green needs to go, I think he goes.
But everyone else is clearly ready. Green is the only one. Britton threw 24 pitches last night but hadn’t thrown since Game 1. Chapman, too, threw 25 pitches…but they’re the first pitches he’s thrown since Game 2 of the Wild Card Series. The rest of the pen – clearly a step down from these three – is also going to be available, of course.
But if I am Aaron Boone, I have a clear game plan tonight: push Cole as hard as possible, then hope you turn the ball over to a lead to Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman for the final 9 outs with Green on standby for emergency purposes. If the Yankees have to use anyone else, they either scored a bunch of runs (cool!) or got smoked (bad!). I have to like this plan, though. They are well set up. Now it’s just a matter of executing with their best arms.
3. The Bottom of the Order: I would like those arms to retire the bottom of the Rays order, for once. They did it last night – the Rays’ 7, 8, and 9 hitters went 1-7 with 2 walks – and it was a huge reason why the Yankees managed to win. Aside from Arozerena – who also went 0-4 – and Choi against Cole, the Yankees have done a good job holding down the Rays. In fact, the Rays have just 19 runs in the series (though they had two high-scoring games sandwiched between some stinkers). But it’s been the bottom of the order who has made the Yankees pay.
We saw this with both J.A. Happ and Masahiro Tanaka in Games 2 and 3. They left pitches over the heart of the plate and the Rays made them pay. I really hope that isn’t the case tonight. I don’t really know where I’m going with this other than to say that the Yankees will have their best arms throwing tonight. They’ve had an effective gameplan against the Rays’ best so far. Getting beat by the weakest third of the Rays’ lineup again would just be infuriating, and I hope it doesn’t happen.
4. The Rays’ Pitching Strategy: The Rays are using Tyler Glasnow on two days’ rest tonight, which came as a surprise to some. I think this plan makes sense, though. They’re clearly going to use Glasnow as an opener before turning to Snell as the “bulk” guy. The plan will be to use those two arms to get through 4 or 5 innings before turning the ball over to their vaunted Four Horseman bullpen for the remainder of the outs.
I think this is a smart plan for Tampa Bay. It is probably the strategy that gives them the highest chance of winning. I still feel very confident in the Yankees, though. (The only way I don’t feel confident is if the Yankees have to scrape a rally off Nick Anderson, who is probably the single best reliever in baseball right now.)
The Yankee offense, believe it or not, has been great in the ALDS. It really has been. They have 23 runs in 4 games and hammered both Snell and Glasnow earlier in the series. I think the Yanks have a real chance to jump on one or both of them early on in tonight’s game and give Cole a lead. Snell does not have great stamina even on regular rest and Glasnow is not going to have much gas in the tank.
As we said before Games 1 and 2, the Yankee approach needs to be all about discipline, discipline, discipline. The Yankees cannot help Glasnow and Snell out by chasing out of the zone. Force them into the zone and attack their mistakes. We’ve seen them do it all postseason – Morton start aside – and that will be crucial tonight. At the very least, the Yankees want to force the Rays into their (actual, non-Snell) bullpen as early as possible tonight. Doing that with a lead would be all the better, and I am oddly confident that this is how it will play out this evening.
5. Get Judge Going: Before Game 1, I said that Giancarlo Stanton was my x-factor for the series. That take worked out pretty well! Stanton has been awesome and he’s a major reason why the Yankees are still alive. I hope he keeps it up, but the good news is that the Yankees have another stud waiting in the wings in case he doesn’t. That is Aaron Judge, of course, and he’s been really struggling.
Judge hasn’t been the same since coming back from injury in September, really, but it’s been really apparent in the playoffs. He is hitting just .111/.194/.333 with 10 strikeouts in 30 plate appearances and he’s really been missing some hittable pitches. I mean, look at this chart that shows the location of the last pitch of every at-bat he’s had in the playoffs:
Yikes. All you can say to that is yikes. Those are all pitches that Judge could destroy but he just has not. The good news is that he’s laid off bad stuff for the most part. (There are a few strikeouts not on the chart that are out of the zone.) So, in other words, he can turn it around fast.
I suspect he will. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I think he has a big game tonight and maybe even hammers a Glasnow hanger in the first inning. He is due for a monster game, and when he has one, the Yankees are tough to beat. He’s my x-factor for the evening.
This doesn’t deserve its own section, so I’m just going to end on this note: I am so amped for this game. I’m sick of the Rays, I think the Yankees are very well set-up for success, and it’s a do-or-die game with Gerrit Cole on the mound. It’s time to put the Rays back in their place. Let’s go Yankees.