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Yankees vs. Red Sox: Three players to watch

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Who will play a crucial role as the Yankees match up with their rivals?

MLB: AL Wild Card-Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees are on to the ALDS. Weeks and months of stress culminated in a cathartic yet straightforward Wild Card victory over the Athletics. Now, it is on to Boston for a grudge match with the archrival Red Sox.

Who are the crucial players to watch as the Yankees take on their nemesis? Who could prove to be the key? Let’s take a look.

Dellin Betances

Betances was the first man manager Aaron Boone turned to when things got sticky in the Wild Card Game. Luis Severino threw four shutout innings, but allowed the first two runners to reach in the fifth inning. Betances entered for what was one the highest leverage moments of the game with two on, none out, and the Yankees nursing a 2-0 lead.

Betances escaped the jam, backpedaling off the mound after striking out Khris Davis. Betances ended up tossing a pair of crucial scoreless innings. That Betances was the first reliever up in a dangerous situation hints at the role he will play going forward.

Aroldis Chapman will be the closer, but the Yankees’ most important relief arm will probably be Betances. If Boone is planning on deploying Betances to put out fires in the middle innings, there’s no limit to what he can do. He can play a conventional eighth-inning role, or come in the fourth. He can get three outs, or go two, maybe even three frames. Betances’ optimal role might be as the fireman Andrew Miller was for Cleveland two postseasons ago. Betances is surely one of the few relievers in all of baseball with the talent to take on that kind of responsibility.

If Betances’ performance down the stretch is any indication, making him the go-to guy out of the bullpen is a savvy decision. There might not be a nastier reliever in the game than an in-form Betances, and the Yankees should ride him for what he’s worth.

Aaron Judge

Judge was a key player to watch in the Wild Card, and he proved why when he pulverized a Liam Hendriks fastball for a first-inning home run. Judge’s status as one of the most important players in any series remains unchanged.

He just might be even more vital to the effort in the ALDS. Judge, at full health, is the Yankees’ best player, but he may prove especially crucial to this matchup. Boston’s starting staff skews heavily left-handed, with Chris Sale, David Price, and possibly Eduardo Rodriguez dotting the rotation. Judge’s powerful right-handed bat could prove to be a big equalizer against Boston’s southpaws.

Moreover, if Judge is rounding into form, that simply changes the complexion of New York’s lineup. The Yankees will run out a strong offense no matter what, but when Judge is hitting at his peak, MVP-caliber form, they are borderline unstoppable. Judge has homered in two of his last three starts. A homer binge from the big man could cinch the series on its own.

J.A. Happ

There was some consternation over whom the Yankees would tab to start the first game in Boston, and they announced Thursday they would go with Happ. That lines Happ up to also start a potential Game Five back in Fenway Park.

While it’s possible Masahiro Tanaka could start the fifth game, Happ is most likely to take multiple turns in the series. The fact that he could be the only starter to go twice makes Happ a clear player to watch.

Tanaka is probably the more talented of the two, but the Red Sox fared worse against left-handers this season than righties, making Happ a strong choice. Despite the presence of big-swinging right-handers Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez, Boston posted just a 101 wRC+ at home versus left-handers, compared to a 120 wRC+ at home against righties.

The Yankees will need to win at least one game on the road in the series in order to advance. Happ lines up to start on the road twice. If he can take advantage of Boston’s relative weakness against left-handed pitchers, the Yankees will be in a much better position to move on to the ALCS.