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Three keys to the Yankees beating the Red Sox in Game One

Taking home field away from Boston is huge. Here’s how the Yankees can do it.

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

If you still haven’t come down from the highs of Wednesday’s 7-2 Wild Card Game win, don’t let me be the wet blanket that sobers you up. It’s okay, click “back” and reread our recap or game threads. They were lots of fun.

If you decide that it’s time to look forward to the upcoming ALDS, with Game One coming tonight at Fenway Park, then keep reading. It’s absolutely critical for the Yankees to take one of the first two games in Boston, and with all the momentum on their side after a big series win last weekend, tonight may be their best chance to do that. If they want to win though, they’re probably going to have to do three things:

1. J.A. Happ has to be J.A. Happ

It may seem counterintuitive, but the fastball-heavy left-hander has been able to neutralize a powerful right handed lineup all year. In four starts against the Red Sox this season, Happ’s managed a 1.99 ERA with a 4.83:1 strikeout to walk ratio. That alone is ace-level performance, but what makes it even more impressive is how Boston has torn up the rest of baseball in 2018.

Baseball-Reference has a wonderful stat called sOPS+, which normalizes OPS allowed against the rest of the league for a given split. Similar to regular OPS+, a pitcher wants their sOPS+ to be as low as possible, and 100 represents average performance in that split. In 2018, Happ has posted a 44 sOPS+ against Boston, more than 50% better than the rest of baseball.

I’ve been singing the praises of Happ since May, and so far he’s been everything the Yankees could have wanted. But he was added to this team with the playoffs in mind, and getting the ball in such a critical game is why he’s here. Time to put up, Happ.

2. Swing for the fences

Every year, come playoff time, we’re subject to takes that teams need to shorten up, put the ball in play, yadda yadda. For some reason, facing the best pitchers in baseball, the common narrative is to play station to station, even though trying to string together two or three hits in a row against Chris Sale or Justin Verlander is awful hard. The Yankees should not try to do that.

Instead, the Yankees should do what made them the best offense in baseball this season; jack the ball into the air. They hit 266 home runs for a reason, after all. They hit seven in just three games against the Red Sox last weekend, and six in the three-game series at home in late September against Boston. It’s not surprising the Yankees also went 4-2 in those six games.

Even the Wild Card Game was won largely because of the Yankees’ propensity to get the ball up. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton had huge home runs, and while Luke Voit’s triple didn’t leave the park, he sure wasn’t shortening up his swing:

The best way to attack the Red Sox is how the Yankees have done it all year: work the count and punish mistake pitches. This is especially true if Chris Sale isn’t 100% — his velocity has been 3-4 mph lower since Labor Day as he’s struggled to get healthy. As we saw Wednesday night, an early home run can take a team right out of their game plan.

3. Infield defense has to be better

The most frightening things to happen Wednesday weren’t really Oakland’s responsibility. A wayward throw from Miguel Andujar in the first pulled Luke Voit off the bag. Voit was able to tag the batter out, but it was certainly a bad omen for the second batter of the game.

Voit had a poor throw of his own a couple innings later, and only a great play by Didi Gregorius ensured the Yankees got one out from what should have been a double play, and could have been a ball tossed into left field:

And then Andy had another muffed play, that Voit also struggled to scoop, giving Oakland a free out. As if to drive the point home further, arguably the play of the game came from Adeiny Hechavarria, who Aaron Boone was roundly criticized at the time for bringing in the game too early:

Infield defense for the Yankees all year has been scary to say the least. Gleyber Torres has looked like a rookie, Andujar has been arguably the worst defender in baseball at his position, and although defensive metrics are even spottier than usual for first basemen, Voit’s play at the bag certainly doesn’t inspire much confidence.

For a team like Boston, who put the ball in play more than the Yankees do, this kind of shaky defense plays right into their hands. Add to that the Red Sox very real speed in key lineup spots, and you can bet that they’ll look to exploit poor defense on the infield:

Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr, Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and Eduardo Nunez all boast above-average speed, putting even more pressure on the Yankees’ infield. With Betts, Benintendi and Bogaerts usually making up three of the first four lineup spots, New York could see a test of their defense awful early. Poor defense cost the Yankees a game against the Red Sox already this season, it can’t happen again now.

The playoffs are of course a different animal. The relative impact of a particular play – or pitcher’s start – is driven up by the higher leverage in each situation. We know that the Yankees at their best can hang with the Red Sox, and aren’t really the eight-game underdogs the standings show. With such high leverage in each spot, though, they can’t afford mistakes or experiments at this point. Taking Game One is huge, but doable, if the Yankees don’t shoot themselves in the foot.