With a playoff spot clinched and the Wild Card Game nine days away, the Yankees are working to properly line up their rotation. Thus, the starting pitchers for this series in Tampa Bay have been up in the air, with the Yankees waiting until this afternoon to announce they would bullpen their way through tonight. The strategy worked effectively, as the Yankees downed the Rays to inch closer to securing the first Wild Card spot.
This game was distinctly September baseball, with both teams making full use of the expanded rosters at their disposal. That being said, given their affinity for the “opener” strategy, starting with a short-inning reliever and emptying out the bullpen is just another day at the office for the Rays. They started Diego Castillo, who lit up the scoreboard with 100 mph heaters in shutting out the Yankees for the first two innings.
Hunter Wood came on for the third, and Andrew McCutchen scorched a line drive over the left field wall for the game’s first run. McCutchen entered the game with a 1.009 OPS over his last 15 games, and he continues to provide quality production to the Yankees at the top of the lineup.
As the Yankees countered with a bullpen day, there was a parade of early-inning pitching changes. Jonathan Holder and Stephen Tarpley navigated an inning each before Sonny Gray came in for the third. Gray ran into trouble in the fourth, when a leadoff double by Tommy Pham and infield single by Joey Wendle put runners on the corners. Gray escaped with minimal damage, with the Rays evening the score when Brandon Lowe grounded into a double play.
The Yankees put together a two-out rally in the fifth to quickly retake the lead. With two down and none on, Aaron Judge worked a walk against Ryan Yarbrough, then took second on a passed ball. Brett Gardner brought Judge home with a base hit to right, and scored on a Giancarlo Stanton double to the wall to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead.
Worrisome was that Gardner was in for Aaron Hicks, who left the game with an injury:
Aaron Hicks left tonight's game with a tight left hamstring, #Yankees announce.— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) September 25, 2018
With Didi Gregorius’ status uncertain going forward, the last thing the Yankees want to hear is that another productive bat could be lost.
The procession of relievers continued on unabated, with Chad Green tossing a scoreless fifth and David Robertson coming on for the sixth. Robertson worked into trouble, walking the first two batters of the inning. He retired the next two hitters, before Gardner made a sensational catch at the wall to end the inning and preserve the lead.
The Yankees added to the lead in the seventh, with McCutchen doubling for his second extra-base hit of the game. Judge brought him home with a double of his own to make it 4-1. Aroldis Chapman came on for the bottom half of the frame, as the Yankees continued to ease him back toward his typical closer role. Chapman’s velocity was still down, topping out at 98.1 mph, but he mixed his slider in effectively in working a clean inning.
Dellin Betances submitted a perfect eighth, though one without a strikeout, breaking his streak of consecutive appearances with a strikeout. Aaron Boone tabbed Zach Britton as his closer for the night, and the lefty retired the Rays in the ninth to notch his third save with the Yankees.
The Yankees managed to give the Rays a taste of their own medicine, eliminating Tampa Bay from playoff contention while using the kind of bullpen day the Rays have become infamous for. Eight relievers combined to allow just two hits, striking out 13. The effectiveness of the bullpen day provides a bit of comfort should they ever need to use the strategy in the playoffs, as they essentially had to last year when Luis Severino left the Wild Card Game in the first inning. They’ll look to take the series tomorrow night with Severino on the mound.