The Yankees clinched their spot in the American League Wild Card Game last Saturday, and their magic number to claim home-field advantage has been reduced to one as they head into the final three games of the regular season. Barring a complete and unprecedented collapse, that winner-take-all affair on October 3rd will be held at Yankee Stadium.
When Aaron Boone announced the rotation for this weekend’s series at Fenway Park, some inferred the manager’s intentions regarding the Yankees’ Wild Card Game starting pitcher. With J.A. Happ bumped ahead of Lance Lynn to pitch Friday, and Luis Severino scheduled to start Sunday, Boone seemed to anoint the former while eliminating the latter. Perhaps he did, but maybe not.
About three weeks ago, I wrote that the Yankees should start Happ in the Wild Card Game. The 35-year-old had been New York’s most effective and consistent starter, while Masahiro Tanaka was experiencing a resurgence and Severino was struggling. I argued that it made sense to go with Happ, while holding Tanaka back for what could potentially be two starts against Boston — including the decisive Game Five. Some things have since changed, though.
Tanaka struggled mightily in his last two outings. He was hammered for five runs on eight hits by the Red Sox on September 20th, and got pulled with no outs in the fifth inning after allowing the first two batters to reach on hard hits. On Wednesday against the Rays in St. Petersburg, the Yankees handed Tanaka a 3-0 lead before he threw a single pitch. He gave back all three runs in the bottom of the first, coughed up the lead run on a homer in the third, and departed after allowing a lead-off single in the fifth. With the way he has pitched lately, Tanaka cannot be trusted to make two crucial starts against Boston in the Division Series.
Happ remains the Yankees’ best starter since being acquired from Toronto at the end of July. The Bombers are 8-2 during his outings, while the southpaw has produced only one dud. That came all the way back on August 30th against Detroit, when he got tattooed for five runs on 10 hits and failed to make it out of the fifth inning. In four starts since, Happ twice allowed only one run, and he held opponents scoreless in the other two. Overall, Happ has permitted two runs or fewer in eight of his starts as a Yankee.
During his most recent outing on Sunday, Happ limited the Orioles to just one run on five hits over five frames. He didn’t have his best stuff, but pitched well enough to win the game for the Bombers. The problem is, the bullpen’s “B” team couldn’t hold the lead, while New York’s bats fell completely silent after scoring three times in the first inning. The embarrassing loss was not Happ’s fault.
By the way, Happ’s lone bad start against the Tigers came with Kyle Higashioka behind the dish. Happ seems to be at his best when Gary Sanchez calls the game, as evidenced by his microscopic 0.78 ERA and .210./270./358 slash line against over 23 innings throwing to The Kraken. Barring an injury, Sanchez will certainly catch every inning during the Yankees’ postseason run this year.
Happ stands head and shoulders above the other Yankees starters, which is precisely why he should be held back from starting the Wild Card Game in favor of two starts during the ALDS. Besides, Happ’s track record of success at Fenway Park is one of the reasons the Yankees targeted the journeyman at the trade deadline. In nine career outings (eight starts) spanning 46.1 innings, Happ carries a 2.91 ERA with a .233./303./372 line pitching against the Red Sox on their home field.
Boone recently said that he won’t choose a starter for the Wild Card Game while looking ahead to the Division Series. Saying that in public is smart, but it would be irresponsible to actually make such decisions without taking the larger picture into consideration.
Severino has pitched well of late, limiting opponents to two runs or less in each of his last three starts. He earned victories in the last two, and now boasts a career-high 19 wins on the season. Sevy’s trending in the right direction, so it makes sense to go with him in the winner-take-all bout for the second straight year.
If Severino falters, the bullpen will be ready. New York will enjoy two full days off before playing the Wild Card Game, so the vaunted relief corps will have plenty of time to rest for that “all hands on deck” contest. The relievers already performed a dress rehearsal for such an occasion this week against the Rays, and they passed the test with flying colors.
Whether the Wild Card Game turns into a bullpen day or not, the Yankees will be set up for the best-of-five showdown with the Red Sox. I like New York’s chances with Happ in Game One, followed by CC Sabathia, Tanaka, Severino, and then Happ again in the finale. Call me sentimental, but tabbing Tanaka for ALDS Game Three at Yankee Stadium could prove brilliant. His Koufaxian performance last year against Cleveland to prevent the Yankees from being swept was epic.
While the Wild Card Game is a “must win,” simply making it to the Division Series is not the overall goal. In fact, many would view elimination in the ALDS as a failure. In order to give the team the best possible chance to get back to the League Championship Series and beyond, Boone must make his decisions with that in mind. I believe the Yankees’ best route to the World Series begins with Severino starting the Wild Card Game.
If Boone remains undecided, then this weekend’s rotation announcement actually provides him with maximum flexibility. Severino could easily be scratched from his start on Sunday, which I think is likely, especially if Happ pitches lights out at Fenway on Friday. It’s possible that Boone has already decided on Sevy, but named him to start Sunday as part of a stratagem. Why convey your game plan to the Athletics so far in advance, while simultaneously giving your own pitcher a week to think about a playoff start? Better to tell Severino now that he’s going for his 20th win this weekend, but then pleasantly surprise him with the change of plans on Sunday morning.
Ultimately, if Boone opts to start Happ in the Wild Card Game, I can hardly quibble with the choice. After all, the rookie skipper guided his team to a postseason berth, and has the Yankees on the precipice of winning 100 games for just the 20th time in franchise history.
How do you think Boone should set up the Yankees’ playoff rotation? Let us know in the comments section below.