We find ourselves here again, the agony of a one-game playoff. Unfortunately, no team has been in more of these games than the New York Yankees. It’s a weird consequence for making the playoffs every season, but it is the nature of the game. With several iterations of elite Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Rays teams having propped up the past decade, it makes sense that the Yankees have participated in this winner-take-all game three times already, with today bringing the fourth.
The Yankees have had decent success in these games. They’ve won two out of three. However, the wins came with lots of bullpen help. That’s been the theme for the Yankees in their recent playoff runs. The relief corps has been taxed, and it’s come back to haunt the team in the latter parts of their runs. I’d like to revisit these games, and how they affected the teams’ playoff pushes. We’ll go in chronological order.
Does everyone remember when Dallas Keuchel used to dominate the Yankees? He was their kryptonite during his elite two-year peak in Houston. In the 2015 AL Wild Card game against the Yankees, he shoved for six scoreless innings in the Bronx. Greg Bird, then a promising Baby Bomber managed a single, but the Yankee lineup sorely missed its best hitter: Mark Teixeira, whose All-Star resurgence ended in September with a leg fracture.
Despite a solid performance by Masahiro Tanaka, who threw five innings and surrendered two runs, the Yankees still fell 3-0, and were eliminated from the postseason due to no offensive output. This was also the era of throwing Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller every chance they could. They combined for 2.2 innings in this game, with Betances giving up a run on a single to Jose Altuve. This was the last postseason hoorah without the primary Baby Bombers. They followed in the next season, starting with Gary Sánchez’s second-half flurry of homers. But that’s a different story.
Following the mini-rebuild in 2016 where the Yankees just missed the postseason, they returned to the AL Wild Card game to face the 85-win Minnesota Twins in 2017. While we all know the Yankees dominate the Twins, no matter the time of year, these one-game playoffs are a crapshoot, and anything can happen. After Luis Severino’s awful first inning, one that saw three runs cross before Joe Girardi remove d the young ace, we were all scared of what would follow. The Yankee bullpen would need to save the day once again.
Thankfully, Didi Gregorius stepped up in the Yankees’ first opportunity to score a few runs themselves.
After this, the Yankees bullpen was fantastic, giving up one run over the course of 8.2 innings. They were led by heroic performances from David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle, who delivered multi-inning outings.
This game also featured Aaron Judge’s first postseason home run, which came at the hands of José Berríos.
This two-run shot put a dagger in the Twins’ hopes of a playoff run and catapulted a great streak by the Yankees which was eventually ended by the Astros in the ALCS.
The Yankees found themselves back in the Wild Card Game in 2018, this time against the Oakland Athletics. The A’s opted to use the opener that night, and well, it didn’t go as planned. Right off the bat, the Yankees jumped on Liam Hendriks for two runs. Judge tanked Hendriks for a two-run bomb, which was almost a spitting image of his wild card homer in the previous season.
Severino was much better this time around, but still only managed to give four innings. He looked electric at points during this outing, which is why he didn’t give up a run, but was erratic at times, and once again the Yankees put their fate in the hands of the bullpen. Starting your playoff run with every one of your best relievers pitching in the first game is never quite ideal.
Other than Zack Britton’s two runs surrendered, the bullpen was once again lights out and not much more offense was needed. Luke Voit delivered a two-run triple in the bottom of the sixth to make it 5-0, and that pretty much put things out of reach for a dormant Athletics offense.
As we all know, this run was also ended too soon, this time due to the lightning rod that was the Red Sox 2018 season. Severino and the rest of the rotation failed to give any length again in the Division Series and the Yankees became short staffed very quickly. They were dominated in the series, losing in four games.
These bullpen-taxing Wild Card games have put weight on the shoulders of the pen arms from day one of the playoffs. That’s been an issue for the Yankees in recent postseason runs. The pen is dominant. But there comes a point when the pen is taxed, and more likely to spring leaks late in games.
This season is a bit different. Gerrit Cole is a horse, and he is on the bump for the Wild Card Game. You can’t ask for much more. A healthy Cole is one of the best pitchers in the league. He gives the Yankees a trump card.
Aaron Boone will hope that he doesn’t have to yank his ace early in the game. If that’s the case, and only a reliever or two need to be used and to grab a win, then the Yankees are in a prime position to face Tampa Bay with a rested pen. The hope has to be that this year is different. Cole averaged just about six innings a start during the regular season. That’s all the Yankees need from him. After that, hand the reins to another dominant Yankees bullpen, but just for a few innings, rather than taxing the unit for most of the game.