The Yankees’ season is over. That may come as a relief to some, after the long, frustrating route the club took just to secure a Wild Card spot. They couldn’t make the most of that playoff berth, falling to the hated Red Sox by the score of 6-2 in the AL Wild Card Game.
We’ll have weeks and months to dissect what happened this year as we head toward a chilly winter. For now, let’s run down the biggest takeaways from what was a dismal night at Fenway Park:
Gerrit Cole’s night was doomed from the start by shaky command
Gerrit Cole’s evening in Boston went sideways from the start, and ended after just two-plus innings. His stuff looked typically strong, but Cole’s command clearly wavered throughout the outing.
Imperfect placement of two pitches in the first inning doomed Cole right away. With two outs and no one on in the first, the count ran full against Rafael Devers. Cole had a chance to put away Boston’s stud third baseman and exit the first with a clean frame, but lost control of a payoff pitch that Devers easily took. MLB Gameday’s strike zone can barely even track the pitch:
That brought up Xander Bogaerts. A couple errant breaking balls put the shortstop ahead 2-1. In a fastball count, Kyle Higashioka tried to catch Bogaerts off-guard, putting down the fingers for a changeup. A bold, probably effective call if executed correctly, but Cole again just couldn’t manage a quality pitch:
Bogaerts knows. The @RedSox strike first.— MLB (@MLB) October 6, 2021
(MLB x @ftx_app) pic.twitter.com/ZLk7BQ6wg3
That kind of middle-middle offspeed pitch is a straight-up blunder from Cole. Not every mistake like that gets punished in the form of a homer, but this one was, with Bogaerts tattooing the change into the center-field seats.
Now, the only other run charged to Cole mostly wasn’t command-related. With two strikes on Kyle Schwarber to lead off the third, Cole dialed up the high heat. His fastball caught a little more plate than is optimal, but Cole still fired the pitch at Schwarber’s letters, prime vertical location for a 1-2 fastball. Schwarber just happened to put it into orbit.
But unlucky Schwarbomb aside, Cole threw far too many clunkers to feel confident in the ace last night. The ESPN2 Statcast broadcast of the game criticized Cole for the number of what they termed “non-competitive” offerings that showed the Red Sox, and they were right. Cole simply made far too many pitches that were either a clear ball out of the hand, or middle-middle cement-mixers to drive. On some nights, pitchers as talented as Cole can survive shaky command on pure guile and stuff. This was not one of those nights.
The Yankees had a plan against Nathan Eovaldi
The Yankees entered the game with a plan: hunt early in the count for Nathan Eovaldi heaters. On paper, this seems like a solid strategy. The Yankees have sluggers that can punish fastballs, and as any fan who watched Eovaldi’s time with the Yankees five years ago, the right-hander’s heater can be hittable, in spite of its plus velocity. It even worked just a week and a half ago in the same ballpark.
The plan just didn’t quite come together again. The Yankees put a few quality swings on Eovaldi early in counts, but they either didn’t make the best contact, or failed to see the BABIP gods smile upon them. Case in point: Anthony Rizzo’s leadoff at-bat, in which the first baseman swing at the first pitch of the night, an Eovaldi four-seamer. Rizzo ripped a 114-mph groundball that had about a coin flip’s chance of going of a hit per Statcast. The dice just didn’t happen to fall in Rizzo’s favor there, nor on Gleyber Torres’ 104-mph lineout in the second, or Aaron Judge’s 100-mph flyout in the third.
This is the crux of a one-game playoff. The stakes are ultra high, the drama palpable. The tradeoff is that a fair, even well-executed, game plan can simply be swamped by variance. The Yankees came in with a reasoned strategy, and used it get a few good swings early in the count against Eovaldi. It didn’t work. C’est la vie.
Aaron Boone managed well enough, but it might not save his job
Aaron Boone pulled Cole with two on and none out in the third inning. One could argue that this was a batter or two too late, but still, after just six recorded outs, the manager yanked the highest-paid pitcher on the planet from exactly the kind of do-or-die game that Cole was signed to pitch. Boone didn’t let Cole’s status or pedigree distract from the fact that he needed to leave the contest extremely early, and benched the team’s best pitcher in favor of Clay Holmes.
Ultimately, the bullpen outside of Holmes didn’t give the Yankees what they needed. Pressed into duty, the relief corps yielded three runs across six innings, a reasonable result, but not good enough given the situation.
But Boone did at least press the right buttons, even if the buttons didn’t respond exactly right. He went to Holmes, looking for a double play to get out of a jam. He went to Luis Severino to try get more than three outs in the middle innings, and went straight to his high-leverage firemen, Jonathan Loáisiga and Chad Green, once things got sticky. That’s essentially the order of operations that most fans would have prescribed to Boone prior to the game.
Of course, even on a day when Boone handled his bullpen with urgency, he didn’t pinch-hit for Higashioka with Gary Sánchez in the fifth inning in a game where the Yankees needed runs (and Cole was gone from the game). Now, the difference between one Higgy at-bat and a Gary at-bat doesn’t change this game from a loss to a win, but it’s still a notable apparent misstep in a game that the Yankees were chasing from the word Go.
All that said, the Yankees were never likely to determine Boone’s fate based on one game. If he managed well and they won, that wouldn’t have locked the four-year manager into the team’s future plans, and if he managed poorly and they lost, the club’s brass surely still would look at the bigger picture before moving on.
The bigger picture isn’t all pretty. The Yankees underperformed in both 2020 and 2021, and Boone’s tactical wherewithal — one decent Wild Card Game notwithstanding — leaves plenty to be desired. It remains to be seen whether the team’s topsy-turvy campaign and early playoff exit are enough to shake Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman’s confidence in the man they picked to lead the Baby Bombers four seasons ago. I don’t think it would surprise most of us if it was.