Masahiro Tanaka was supposed to start Wednesday's game against the Blue Jays. This would have come to pass if the National League was not a wretched hive of scum and villainy determined to watch pitchers flail around and attempt to hit. During Friday's game, Tanaka felt a twinge in his hamstring while running the bases. He's now been diagnosed with a Grade 1 hamstring strain. Tanaka apparently feels that he can pitch on Tuesday but the Yankees understandably want to make sure he's as healthy as possible for the playoffs. Joe Girardi thinks that Tanaka will only miss one start. Unfortunately, this means that Ivan Nova will be starting on Wednesday.
Nova's last start was against these same Blue Jays. It went so poorly (six runs in 1 2/3 innings) that he was removed from the starting rotation. Nova has been quite bad since coming back from Tommy John surgery. That's to be expected, as control is the last thing to come back when a pitcher returns from that operation. The problem is that Nova never really had a whole lot of command in the first place.
Nova was originally supposed to pitch out of the bullpen, and if Tanaka truly is only gone for one start, then Nova will probably find himself back in a relief role. Now he hasn't pitched since the 12th, and will be staring down the best offense on the planet. The odds are not in New York's favor, to say the least. So, the question has to be asked; how the heck do the Yankees feasibly try to win this game?
There's a theory that Wild Card games should be managed to maximize matchups at all times. The idea goes that a team deploys its best starter for the first fifteen batters or so (one time through the lineup and the meat and potatoes of the opposing offense), then hands the ball over to the theoretically nastier arms in the bullpen. This method of attack only works if one has a darn good bullpen, of course, so teams such as the Twins should not attempt this under any circumstances.
Fortunately, the Yankees have something resembling a good bullpen. The Yankees also really, really want to win this game. The reasoning behind lifting the starting pitcher so early is that every time a starter turns over a lineup, the batters he faces have a better shot at getting a hit. This is because of both fatigue on the pitcher's part and the hitters getting repeated looks at the pitcher's repertoire. This effect is amplified quite a bit with ineffective pitchers like Nova. This article from my Beyond the Box Score compadre Chris Teeter looks at just what turning over the lineup means. The data is a little antiquated at this point, but it gets the point across. Repeated looks are bad. When there's a lineup in which Jose Bautista isn't the best hitter in the group, you probably don't want Ivan Nova pitching to them for very long.
So let's say that Nova doesn't completely implode. It's not a given that Nova will implode. Maybe the extended rest will be good for him. Maybe there will be some adrenaline at work, too. Let's also theorize that if Nova knows he's working on borrowed time, he'll allow himself to work a bit harder and throw harder. If Nova can get past the heart of the Toronto order a second time with minimal damage, that's a boon for the Yankees.
This is where Bryan Mitchell comes in. Mitchell has been shaky of late, but this entire enterprise is a gamble. Joe Girardi would need a safety net ready for Mitchell at any given moment, and for every reliever after him. If the Yankees decide to take this route (and they likely won't, as this is purely an exercise in self-indulgent theorizing), the game will be won and lost in the middle innings. The Yankee bullpen has been rather ineffective outside of the Justin Wilson/Dellin Betances/Andrew Miller troika, hallmarked by the sudden meltdown of Chasen Shreve and transition of Adam Warren to the rotation. If the Bombers can navigate their way to the back end of the bullpen. they can maximize their matchups as much as they want. September callups allow for a clown car full of relievers to be at the manager's beck and call at any given moment. Girardi wants to play platoon advantages with every single batter in the sixth inning? He can do it.
This is a bit of a radical idea, especially for a regular season game, so it likely won't happen. But if the Yankees want to squeeze as much good out of Ivan Nova as they can without getting burned, this is the way to do it.
Nicolas Stellini is a staff writer at Pinstripe Alley, where he writes about the Yankees and covers the Double-A Trenton Thunder. His national coverage can be found at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.