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Aaron Boone has passed his first playoff test

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The Yankees have to be encouraged with the way their manager has used his bullpen through two October games.

MLB: ALDS-Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Joshua Diemert looked at what we hoped Aaron Boone had learned after last season’s disappointing ALDS exit. As Josh noted, that loss to the Red Sox was defined in large part by Boone’s apparent missteps in managing his bullpen. Sure, the Yankees were outscored by 13 runs in four games, meaning the players themselves hold most of the responsibility for that failure, but perhaps the strongest narrative emerging after last season was Boone’s tactical mismanagement.

You remember the gaffes. Bringing Lance Lynn, not Chad Green or Dellin Betances, into a crucial situation in Game Three. Leaving CC Sabathia in too long in a do-or-die Game Four. The kinds of mistakes seemingly every fan could see coming, yet still were allowed to happen on the game’s biggest stage.

We are just two games into this postseason campaign, and October could take any number of twists and turns from here. However, with this limited sample, we can say one thing; Boone really does appear to have learned from his mistakes.

Again, I must stress that anything can happen in the pressure cooker of the playoffs, but the early returns are truly promising. In Game One of the ALDS, Boone demonstrated a level of aggressiveness with his bullpen that was not always on display during last year’s divisional series.

James Paxton was pitching a fine game, with two home runs allowed but eight strikeouts against just one walk. Yet Boone acted on the front foot, not trying to squeeze one more inning, or even one more out, out of Paxton. With two outs and one on in the fifth inning, rather than try to let Paxton qualify for a win in his first postseason start, Boone proactively brought Adam Ottavino into the game.

That was only the beginning. Ottavino walked a batter, and Boone immediately went to Tommy Kahnle, who ended the fifth. Kahnle looked shaky in the sixth, but Boone had Chad Green at the ready. Kahnle and Green each only recorded two outs, with Zack Britton coming on in the seventh, an inning earlier than was typical for the lefty during the regular season.

This kind of over-aggressiveness could seem risky during, say, Game Four of a potential ALCS, when the Yankees would likely have to play three games in a row. But in a best-of-five series, with off-days galore, and no more than two games in two nights? Boone fully understood he could empty out his bullpen at any time without fear of wearing his men down.

The same went for Game Two. The Yankees of course broke the game open early, thanks to Didi Gregorius’ epic third-inning grand slam. Masahiro Tanaka worked five strong innings, and left with an 8-1 lead. That didn’t deter Boone from treating the rest of the game like it was still high-leverage.

The first man out of the bullpen was Kahnle for the sixth. Ottavino followed for the seventh. With a seven-run lead, the Yankees had little chance of losing the game. Boone could have called on Luis Cessa or Jonathan Loaisiga, and attempted to goad the middle innings out of his lesser relievers.

Again, with the full understanding that an off-day loomed around the corner, Boone determined using his top relievers was the best way to take the Yankees from “almost guaranteed to hold this seven-run lead” to “absolutely guaranteed to hold this seven-run lead.” There was every chance for Boone to play games and try to Cessa his way through a blowout. The Boone that tabbed Lynn for a tight spot last year, or the Boone that let Sabathia face the Boston lineup a second time, might have tried to wring a couple innings out of a mop-up guy.

Today’s version of Boone didn’t. It’s just two games, but these two games have shown us a manager completely capable of mastering modern playoff tactics. It may not make for the most aesthetically-pleasing viewing experience, what with short starts and ample timeouts for new arms to trot out from the bullpen. Yankee fans likely won’t care if the games stretch on a bit longer, though, if it means their manager is pushing all the right buttons.

Things will get tougher should the Yankees finish off the Twins. A potential seven-game series with the Astros presents a new set of challenges. The Yankees’ pitching staff would have an enormous task in front of them. They would have fewer off-days to rest, and they would pitch knowing that Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke are busy not allowing runs on the other side.

The Yankees will have to be near-perfect in run prevention to win that series. That includes Boone using his bullpen brigade early and often. If the returns so far are any indication, he looks up for the job.