The Yankees’ first launch decision in the strategy storyline for the Division series was that Gerrit Cole, of course, would go into Game 1, followed by the more complicated choice of bringing him back to a short rest if there was a Game 5.
Aaron Boone refused to publicly say it was the plan. But Brian Cashman confirmed for The Post that this is how the Yankees started the process and are aligned, with the concept that Cole would stop this best of five if he went far. So what the Yankees had to finalize was how to handle 2-3-4 games against the Rays.
Cashman described a process that was, “Not unlike any other decision,” citing, as an example, what went into starting Brett Gardner on Clint Frazier on the left for the two rounds of wild card games against the Indians. The various departments of the Yankees process contingencies and a recommendation, present it to Boone, and the necessary coaches and discussions ensue.
“In the end, you give all the information and talk to the manager, who absorbs everything and makes the final decision on the starting lineup or who is starting,”
Cashman, however, added: “I was 100% in agreement with the call we made. I’m not moving away from that in any shape or form. We check all the options and consider the best way to maximize what we have. “
This unified decision did not work well. Garcia gave up racing in the first. Happ gave up four innings by 2 ² / ₃. The Yankees pitch could never have taken control of the game until it was too late – with a closing inning from both Jonathan Holder and Nick Nelson – in what would have been a 7-5 defeat he allowed the Rays to draw the series one game each.
Look, there’s no way to know if the Yankees just used Garcia or Happ as traditional starters how it would turn out. Maybe the defeat had so much to do with Happ that he knocked out a clay player or home referee C.B. Bucknor calling anything that landed in California a strike as much as the decision to start and lift Garcia quickly.
But since the Yanks will have to decide how to orchestrate around Game 4 starter Jordan Montgomery, a few thoughts on why I didn’t like what they did in Game 2:
1) If you want to run a double team at LeBron James or Anthony Davis, I get it. They are two of the best players in the world. But you would never do it against, say, Alex Caruso. The Yankees did a lot of throwing gymnastics to try and tackle Alex Caruso – the Rays were 12th in the majors in racing. Yes, Tampa Bay creates all kinds of platoon advantages with flexible formation. But the totality of all those left-to-right flip-flops were a good but not great offense.
2) Why play Rays? Tampa Bay is the pioneer of opening, and the Rays began relying on it regularly in 2018 to make up for the lack of good early launch options. Therefore, once Game 2 becomes a bullpen scramble, it not only plays with a Tampa Bay strength – depth of relief – but it’s a style the Rays are familiar with and comfortable with, especially compared to the Yankees. Also, it’s a sign that the 12th highest-scoring team is in the opponent’s head.
3) The Yanks took away the chance to see if Garcia or Happ in a traditional start could have done well, which would have prepared the team for the rest of the series. And let’s say the opposite happened, and Garcia traditionally started and didn’t pitch well, Boone could have had a quick hook to a relief like Holder to get out of an inning before turning to Happ for length. Instead, both pitchers were put into unfamiliar roles: Garcia knowingly on a leash and Happ in relief. Happ was clearly annoyed.
4) Part of the reasoning for using Garcia for only a few hitters was to force the Rays to start the lefties and then decide whether to go right when lefty Happ entered. But Garcia actually faced more lefties this year and kept them essentially at the same OPS versus (.579) as Happ (.577). Were the Yankees really getting a huge lead in putting pitchers in unfamiliar roles?
5) Another reason Garcia was used briefly was to have him available for Race 4, perhaps behind Montgomery. But this is just a quirk: Can Garcia, after a day off, be an effective relief? At this time of year, pitchers are specifically asked to change roles and push for the good of the team. But why ask if there were strategies to avoid it?
6) The Blue Jays faced a similar puzzle in the wild card series. They decided to start their ace, Hyun-jin Ryu, in Game 2 because they had a bullpen at rest for Game 1 to mix and match against the interchangeable formation of the Rays in the opening. Toronto thought Ryu would provide length (especially with extra rest) in Game 2, which would leave more bullpen available if there was a Game 3.
But Toronto let the “trailblazer”, the right Matt Shoemaker, pitch three innings while he was successful (no run) before turning to southpaw, Rob Ray (three innings, one run). This strategy worked even when Toronto lost.
The Yanks decided to start Tanaka in Game 3 thinking that Cole would provide length in the opening, allowing for bullpen depth for Game 2 before Tanaka (with extra rest) gave length in Game 3 to allow for plenty of bullpen for Montgomery. in Game 4. But what the Yanks didn’t allow – as Toronto did – there was a rope to see if Garcia could throw effectively. With no days off in this round, trying to make sure you don’t use too much pieces is key, but I wouldn’t be nice to worry about tomorrow when winning a playoff game still remains so valuable.
Ultimately, the rush for the App didn’t have enough perks to outweigh the potential downside, which could also include a clubhouse wondering why exactly the decision-making process led to a decision by Boone to field an unknown style to try and counter the 12th highest offense score in the majors.