Despite having been disproven over and over again in various forms, the idea that the Yankees struggle against pitchers they haven't seen before still exists. When the Yankees faced Wei-Yin Chen for the first time, no one had seen him before. A few major league scouts and a couple hundred fans probably saw him during his time overseas and in spring training, but the Yankees were the first to face him in the regular season. Normally there's some sort of tape out on a pitcher before the Yankees ever face them, so if they didn't hit him in that first start, at least there would have been a valid excuse from the narrative.
They didn't really need the excuse, putting eight men on base, scoring two and forcing him from the game before he could finish six innings in that first start. He allowed two runs again his next time out against the Yankees, but cut down on the base runners and managed to finish seven innings. Then they started to figure him out, putting up four and seven runs respectively over Chen's next two starts. OK, so they didn't exactly flail helplessly against him in their first meetings, but it's probably safe to say they started to figure out Chen after facing him a few times.
Jump ahead to a Game Two ALDS loss to Chen and the Orioles and we're left wondering what happened. They've had big games against him not too long ago, they hit him last night, and still, they're an Ichiro capoeira dance and a faceplant away from having nothing to show for it. The Yankees lost so they kind of have nothing to show for it anyway, but two runs at least gave them a chance to win. Chen was hittable Monday night and the Yankees didn't fully capitalize. Part of that is their own fault, another, smaller part is bad luck, but it was mostly a case of Chen following his stat line script to a tee and making pitches when he had to.
The first two batters of the game reached on Chen; one on a hit and one on an error. That's about par for the course as a look at his season splits shows that he's more than willing to give up hits and runs right away. He gave up one on the Ichiro circus act and very easily could have given up more if not for a great catch turned into a double play. That's bad luck on both sides so even getting one in that situation is probably a fair trade-off.
Unless they were waiting until mid-way through the order the second time around, the runs needed to be scored in that first inning. Chen dominates those next couple innings (.601 and .635 OPS) and that range of 25-50 pitches (.654 OPS). That's exactly what happened in those innings/that range in Game Two, with a pair of strikeouts and only two balls leaving the infield; a flyout and single. Though he does work primarily off his fastball, Chen changed speeds and mixed his pitches up really well in those innings. The 22 to 51 markers are the important numbers in this case. Never too many fastballs in a row, a rare curve and a sweeping slider for the few lefties in the lineup.
Now it gets tricky; it's the fourth inning. For whatever reason, Chen tends struggle in the fourth (.827 OPS, 8 home runs allowed). Maybe it's the second time through the order and the hitters are picking up whatever he's putting down, but something happens. It happened again Monday night when he loaded the bases on two singles and a walk with just one out. This time, Chen was able to break his trend and escape unharmed.
Part of this can be attributed to Angel Hernandez. Pitch three here was a ball. Pitch three was called a strike. The strike zone adjusted in the wrong direction for the righty Nunez. Ahead on the count 1-2, Chen went right back to the same spot on pitch five and induced a weak pop-up to short. Credit to Chen for attacking an area where he can apparently get a strike, partial credit to Nunez for recognizing that and covering the pitch and no credit to Hernandez. That probably goes without saying, though.
Jeter had a chance with two outs, but like Nunez, was approached really well. Chen threw a rare change away on 1-0 that Jeter fouled off before going back inside with a middle-in fastball. The fastball worked, Jeter got jammed by the pitch and grounded out weakly to third. Could both hitters have done better? Not really. Nunez covered a pitch that was likely going to be a strike and, while inside, Jeter swung at a thigh-high fastball from a lefty. The key was setting them up for those pitches, which Chen did perfectly. And Angel Hernandez. No more about Angel Hernandez, promise.
Even the inning that has everyone up in arms, the four pitch fifth inning, was a good job of pitch selection by Baltimore. Ichiro got a lefty-on-lefty slider that moved about three feet, A-Rod got a fastball up, which he always struggles with somehow, and Cano took the obligatory strike before getting another big, sweeping slider. Again, they probably could, and should, have done better in those situations, but this is far from a case of the Yankees completely beating themselves. They threatened, Chen made some good pitches, Chen made some so-so pitches that weren't capitalized on and they flat out blew it in some situations. That's baseball; it's just really unfortunate timing.
Chen had a pretty impressive rookie season, not unlike what we saw from Ivan Nova last year. Similar stats and everything! He wasn't exactly lights out over the course of the season and he wasn't lights out Monday night. But he did enough when he had to and kept the Yankees from taking back the lead whenever they threatened. He isn't a superstar, he isn't an ace; he might not even be a good pitcher for the rest of his career. Chen was a slightly improved version of himself in Game Two, and sometimes that's all it takes.