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New York Yankees vs. Tampa Bay Rays: ALDS Preview

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The Yankees will need to lean heavily on their ace as they look to avenge their defeat in the season series.

Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

After five days off to rest, recover, and gameplan, Yankees baseball is finally back! We’ve got an instant classic brewing between the two juggernauts of the AL East as the Bombers take on the Rays in the ALDS. Forget the fact that the Rays took eight out of ten from the regular season series; the playoffs have wiped the slate clean and Tampa Bay faces a healthier, hungrier Yankees squad. This matchup is surely going to come down to pitching, so that will be the focus of today’s preview.

Speaking of good pitching, the Yankees sure made mincemeat of the presumptive AL Cy Young winner. Their comprehensive twelve run performance in Shane Bieber’s Game One start — with seven earned runs charged to the Cleveland ace — proved once and for all that this Yankees lineup can stand up to any starting pitcher. That’s a good place to be considering the Yankees are about to come up against three aces in a row.

As for the Rays, well, they’re experts at being a royal pain in the rear. Their starting lineup is studded with seemingly no-name players who show a pesky habit of making the opposing pitcher work. They placed second in MLB in strikeouts and were third behind the Yankees and Athletics in walks, so you know they are going to see a lot of pitches. On the other side of the ball, the Rays pitching staff is one the most dominant from top to bottom in baseball. They were second in the AL in ERA, tops in groundball rate, and third in home run limitation and strikeout rates. Safe to say the Yankees have their work cut out for them.

Monday: Gerrit Cole vs. Blake Snell

Game One is always most important, and the Yankees have the best man for the job lined up to take the mound. Gerrit Cole put together an impressive first season in pinstripes, aided by a dominant final stretch of games pitching to personal-catcher Kyle Higashioka.

I gave a more detailed breakdown of Cole’s keys to success here, but suffice to say he needs to perform better than he did in his three regular season outings against the Rays. His 4.96 ERA and five home runs surrendered in 16.1 innings is not going to cut it. If his 13-strikeout gem against Cleveland is any indication of what we can expect from Cole for the rest of the playoffs, the Yankees will feel comfortable handing him the ball as often as possible.

The good news for the Yankees is that Cole has a recent history of success against Tampa Bay in the playoffs. Last season with the Astros Cole won both of his ALDS starts against the Rays, giving up a lone earned run while striking out 25 in 15.2 innings. Hopefully he will be able to lean on the confidence from those games as well as his dominance in the Wild Card Series when he pitches tonight.

Opposite Cole in Game One will be Blake Snell. He was very impressive in his win over the Blue Jays in the Wild Card round, tossing 5.2 shutout innings of one-hit, nine-strikeout ball. He was equally impressive in the regular season, going 4-2 with a 3.24 ERA, 4.35 FIP, 1.200 WHIP and 63 strikeouts in 50 innings.

However, as my colleague Josh pointed out yesterday, he is far from invincible. He has returned middling results against the Yankees in his career, pitching to a 4.31 ERA but also striking out 92 across 77.1 innings. The Yankees can expect a lot of fastballs from the lefty hurler, and would do well to remember their blueprint against Shane Bieber. Hunting heaters in the zone while spitting on the curveball should put the Bombers on the path to victory.

Tuesday: Masahiro Tanaka vs. Tyler Glasnow

This matchup will come down to which version of each pitcher shows up.

If Playoff Tanaka shows up, it’s tempting to call it curtains on this one. However if it’s the Tanaka that pitched in Game Two of the Wild Card Series, Tuesday night could prove to be stressful for the Yankees faithful.

Even with his weather-worsened clunker, Tanaka owns a stellar 2.70 ERA and 0.880 WHIP across nine starts and 50 innings in the postseason. And while the long ball is typically an issue for Tanaka in the regular season, that trend does not carry over into the playoffs, where he boasts a measly 0.7 HR/9 ratio.

As for Glasnow, the Yankees saw two very different versions during the regular season. His first two appearances were rather pedestrian, as he yielded six earned runs in 8.1 innings, albeit striking out 13. In his final start against the Bombers, they were acquainted with his full Decepticon form, as he held the Yankees to two hits, striking out nine across six scoreless innings.

Unfortunately for New York, it appears the latter version showed up for the playoffs. He limited the Blue Jays offense to two runs and struck out eight in his six inning start in the Wild Card Series. When he’s really on, Glasnow has probably the best raw stuff in the game. He effortlessly touches triple digits on his fastball while his curveball is the pitching equivalent of Thor’s hammer. Luckily for the Yankees, he throws it in the zone less than a third of the time. So, ya know, don’t swing at it.

Wednesday: J.A. Happ vs. Charlie Morton

The first of the three potential clinching games sees the elder statesmen of the respective staffs face off.

J.A. Happ has pitched admirably for the Yankees this year, especially when you discount his first two starts. Subtracting those two hiccups, Happ is 2-1 with a 2.34 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 0.87 WHIP across seven starts and 42.1 innings. He stands to benefit the most of the Yankees starters from playing in Petco Park, too. Fly balls down either line that would end up beyond the Yankee Stadium short porches would instead find gloves. Also encouraging is the fact that Happ has pitched brilliantly against the Rays in pinstripes. Across 22.1 innings, he owns a stingy 1.61 ERA, 2.79 FIP, and 1.030 WHIP.

Happ will face his former teammate with the Pirates in Charlie Morton. The tall righty’s season was shortened due to injury, but New York cannot let their guard down for one second against the wily veteran. The Yankees will remember him well from the 2017 ALCS, when he turned in polar opposite performances. In the first game, he gave up seven runs in 3.2 innings. However in the all-important Game Seven, he completely neutralized the Yankees lineup, as they managed only two hits and no runs in five innings. Interestingly, Morton had to leave after two innings in both of his starts against the Yankees this year, which will add yet another wrinkle to an already intriguing matchup.

Thursday (if necessary): TBD vs. TBD

Given this game and the next are not guarantees, both teams have understandably held back on naming a starter. An educated guess for the starters would be Deivi Garcia for the Yankees and Ryan Yarbrough for the Rays.

Handing the ball to a 21-year-old rookie making his postseason debut is a huge responsibility to put on his young shoulders. But as my colleague Dan Kelly showed early last month, Garcia’s impressive makeup allows him to thrive in the highest pressure situations. He has cited the calm he feels on the mound when asked what has contributed to his success early in his big league career.

There is so much to be impressed by with this young man, not least of which was his ability to turn the page after an ugly outing against Red Sox in his penultimate start. He came right back in his season finale, turning in a quality performance in the Yankees’ final win of the regular season. On the year, Garcia is 3-2 with a 4.98 ERA, 4.15 FIP, 1.194 WHIP, and 33 strikeouts in 34.1 innings.

As for the Rays, they are likely to turn to their lefty finesse guy. Normally a reliever, Yarbrough was pressed into action as a starter after the Rays’ rotation was decimated by injury. He’s a sinker-cutter-changeup guy who may not touch 90 all game. He still gets batters out in bunches. His average exit velocity against and hard hit rate stood in the 99th and 98th percentiles respectively. For the season, Yarbrough was 1-4 with a 3.56 ERA, 3.80 FIP, and 1.186 WHIP across nine starts and 55.2 innings.

Friday (if necessary): TBD vs. TBD

Even though a lot needs to happen for the series to arrive at a do-or-die Game Five, it’s fairly safe to assume Cole and Snell would be given the nod to keep their teams’ playoff dreams alive. This presents a bit of a wrinkle for the Yankees should they advance to the ALCS, as handing the ball to Cole on Friday all but guarantees he will only be available for one start in the next round. However, given the choice of maximizing the chance of winning by starting Cole vs. preserving Cole for the next round, the Yankees are always choosing the former.