Judgment day looms. The agonizing wait between the regular season and the AL Wild Card Game is nearing an end. The Yankees will play the Athletics tomorrow night at Yankee Stadium, and for the third time in four years, the Yankees’ fate will be decided in a one-game playoff.
Let’s continue previewing that fateful matchup with a look at the biggest players to watch. Anything can happen in one game, but these players could prove to be the most important of any.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ll be looking for in this game is when manager Aaron Boone goes to his bullpen. Boone will almost surely have a quick hook. The Yankees cannot afford to let any pitcher be left out too long if he doesn’t have it.
Last year, Green was the reliever the Yankees turned to when Luis Severino lasted only one-third of an inning. It would not be a surprise to see Green be the first man up this time around as well. If the Yankees need someone out of the bullpen early, Green might be the most important pitcher in the game.
Green did give up a run in last year’s Wild Card, but he also fanned four over two critical innings. He entered the game after Severino melted down, yielding three runs and putting two more runners on with one out. Green struck out Byron Buxton and Jason Castro to extinguish the threat and keep the Yankees in the game. Things could have gotten out of hand before New York even came to bat had Green not escaped the jam.
He posted a 2.50 ERA in 74 innings this year, striking out over 11 batters per nine in the process. He entered games as early as the fourth inning, and recorded more than one inning in 20 appearances. Green has the pedigree of a late-inning reliever but has the capability to enter any game in any situation and pitch multiple innings. How Green is used will tell us a lot about the Yankees’ strategy, and how he does could help decide the result.
This one goes without saying. Judge is the Yankees’ best player, one of the most feared power hitters in the league, and capable of changing the game with one swing of the bat. He also recently returned from injury, of course, and Judge’s progression back from a broken wrist is still worth monitoring.
The initial returns on Judge were mixed. He posted just an 87 wRC+ in the final two weeks of the season, a far cry from the MVP-caliber production that had become the norm for Judge. At the same time, he did scald a number of balls that just happened to find opponent’s gloves, and showed his typical penchant for just generally punishing opposing pitchers. He also homered in his second to last game of the year, and reached base multiple times in three of his six last games. Judge just might be rounding into shape.
Regardless, Judge requires full attention at all times, whether we’re looking at his health or his ability to hit balls 500 feet. He homered in last year’s Wild Card Game, and if he does so again tomorrow, the Yankees will obviously be much better off for it.
Stanton and Judge can almost be grouped together, in a way. In a sudden death matchup, one play could decide it all, and Stanton and Judge have a greater chance of changing everything with one at-bat than pretty much anyone else in baseball.
For Stanton, though, it feels like there’s more at stake. He put together a fine year, totaling over 4 fWAR, yet Stanton clearly didn’t match the expectations that come with being the reigning NL MVP. Stanton is great, and one of the most talented players in the game, but surely some fans were left wanting.
Those that claim Stanton is some sort of choker or not cut out for New York are lazy and obstinate, but there’s no easier way to shut down that kind of talk than with a big game when the lights are brightest. The lights don’t get much brighter than playoff games in the Bronx. If Stanton puts the team on his back for the Wild Card Game, or at any point during a playoff run, it would go a long way towards erasing the belief that exists with some fans that he is overpaid and overrated.
That stigma is silly and unfair, but the only way to convince those that believe in such a stigma might be October performance. It was similar with Alex Rodriguez in 2009, when A-Rod converted a number of non-believers with a playoff run for the ages. All eyes will be on Stanton tomorrow, and hopefully the rest of the month, to see if he can do the same.