Opening Day always puts me in a good mood, and after the way the 2021 season played out, followed by six months of no Yankees baseball, sandwiched around a three-month lockout that delayed the start of the season by a week, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. on Friday wondering how I would get through the next seven-and-a-half hours. Twenty minutes after waking up, I was reminded how I would get through the next seven-and-a-half hours when the 18-month-old down the hall woke up and let me know he was energized and ready for the day since he hadn’t stayed up watching late-night baseball like yours truly. With my pregnant wife (who’s due in less than a week) sleeping, I would be starting this Opening Day with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.
Even though the offseason had been a huge disappointment with the Yankees purposely choosing to gamble on their entire 2022 season, not even the penny-pinching Hal Steinbrenner or the still-whining-about-2017 Brian Cashman could damper my mood. As I sat through my 243rd career viewing of Mickey and Professor Von Drake trying to restore all the colors of the Clubhouse, I started to think about the Opening Day lineup.
Josh Donaldson has to lead off. Anthony Rizzo will bat third because Aaron Boone feels he has to break up Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. There’s no way DJ LeMahieu won’t be in the lineup. Gleyber Torres can’t play over LeMahieu.
Before I could think about how the bottom of the order would be constructed, I was being handed The Very Hungry Caterpillar to read.
As the morning went on, Judge’s contract extension became the focal point of the day, overshadowing the start of a new season. Judge had set a soft (and fake) deadline of first pitch of the season to agree to an extension with the Yankees (since if the Yankees offer him $300 million midseason, I’m pretty sure he’s not going to tell them the deadline had passed), and he had turned down the Yankees very fair offer of a seven-year extension from 2023 through 2029 at $30.5 million per season. For someone who will become a free agent for the first time at the advanced age in the baseball world of 30, and for someone who has missed 24 percent of the Yankees’ game since his major-league debut for various injuries, Judge comes off as rather foolish to reject the deal. I’m not sure if he’s in tune with how the free-agent market has played out in recent years, but a couple of weeks ago, Carlos Correa, whose three years younger than Judge and plays the more premium position, had to settle for a contract.
Cashman openly told the media and public the terms of the deal, so that the media and public would turn on Judge for not accepting the deal rather than turning on Cashman and ownership for not getting a deal done. Three-plus years ago the Yankees didn’t even meet with then-26-year-old free-agent Bryce Harper because they had Giancarlo Stanton locked up for a billion years, had Aaron Hicks who they were close to extending for seven years, had Clint Frazier waiting for his chance to be given a full-time or regular chance in the majors and would have to pay Judge, of course. Since then, the Yankees have done everything they can to not let Stanton play the outfield, Hicks has missed 68 percent percent of games following his extension, Frazier was released for nothing this offseason and now Judge still hasn’t been paid or extended. Nearly everything the Yankees have told their fans over the last four offseasons has been a lie. But again, Steinbrenner and Cashman couldn’t ruin my Opening Day.
The only people who could ruin my Opening Day would be Gerrit Cole, or the Yankees’ offense or Boone, or some combination of the three.
Cole tried his hardest to ruin the day, just like he had ruined the last game the Yankees played, against the same Red Sox in the one-game playoff in October, and just like he had ruined September by pitching like Nick Nelson, which had forced the Yankees to play that one-game playoff on the road.
Cole walked Kike Hernandez to begin the game and none of the four pitches were even close to the zone, as he looked like 2011 Dellin Betances trying to throw strikes. Cole needed to find the zone, so he grooved a first-pitch fastball to Rafael Devers, who took it for a strike. Cole went back to his fastball, and Devers planted it in the right-field seats. Two batters and six pitches in, and the Yankees trailed 2-0.
Four pitches later, Xander Bogaerts had himself an off-the-left-field-wall single, and 10 pitches into the season, the Yankees were conducting a mound visit. I couldn’t believe what I was watching, but at the same time, I could very well believe what I was watching as Cole has always struggled against the Red Sox, even during his time with the Astros, and he has also had trouble as a Yankee pitching well against the Blue Jays and Rays, all of which is a very big problem. It felt like I was reliving the wild-card game, but worse since Cole at least got two outs in that game before it unraveled and ended the Yankees’ season. So far he had faced three batters and hadn’t recorded an out.
After four batters, Cole still didn’t have an out. J.D. Martinez doubled down the right-filed line, and the Red Sox’ lead increased to 3-0. I wanted to laugh in order to not cry, but all I could do was sit in stunning disbelief. All I could think was thankfully my wife being due at any moment had prevented me from wasting my time, money and day at Yankee Stadium for this game.
Cole eventually got out of the first, needing 27 pitches to do so. For someone on a 15-20 pitch pitch count, he had just used 34-36 percent of his daily allotment of pitches to get three outs. Entering the game, the Yankees were likely going to need 12-15 outs from their bullpen, and now they were likely going to need to get something like 15-18 outs from their bullpen, which would impact their entire weekend. The game was on the brink of becoming a disaster, not just for Friday, but for Saturday and Sunday, and leading into the Blue Jays series as well.
With my most despised player in all of baseball in Nathan Eovaldi on the mound, Josh Donaldson swung at the first pitch of his Yankees career and grounded out to second. Judge swung at the first pitch of his post-turned-down-a-$30.5 million-per-year extension and blooped a single to right. Anthony Rizzo took the first pitch of his at-bat and then sent the next one into the right-field seats. The Yankees now trailed 3-2.
Cole settled in to put up zeros in the second, third and fourth, and Giancarlo Stanton hit a Yankee Stadium special for a solo home run to tie the game in the fourth. Cole’s day was over and the game was tied 3-3. Eovaldi didn’t have much left either, and so it would become a bullpen game for the last five innings, where the Yankees would have a decisive advantage, being able to rely on the strongest facet of their team with the Red Sox needing to rely on the weakest facet of theirs. The only thing that could screw it up would be the one who would decide which Yankees relievers would be used: Boone.
First Boone went to Chad Green, who pitched a scoreless fifth. Then he went to Clay Holmes, who did his job getting three ground balls (his specialty) with expected batting averages of .170, .250 and .120. The .170 went for a double inside the third-base line. The .250 moved the runner over to third. The .120 resulted in an RBI single with the infield pulled in. Holmes had done exactly what he was expected to do and the Yankees were once again losing, 4-3.
I can’t hear Garrett Whitlock’s name without thinking of the Yankees not protecting him in the Rule 5 draft to retain Nick Nelson and Brooks Kriske. And here he was, following former Yankee bust Eovaldi with scoreless inning after scoreless inning against the Yankees. The Yankees’ lineup was going down with ease over and over, and I was just waiting for the Red Sox eventually add an insurance run or two and put the game out of reach.
There has been an unnecessary amount of talk of late about whether LeMahieu or Torres should play second base regularly, and it’s been hard to hear and stomach. It’s inexplicable that Torres could play over LeMahieu. This isn’t the beginning of 2019 when Torres was coming off an unbelievable rookie season and LeMahieu was signed as a super utility player and wasn’t in the 2019 Opening Day lineup. This is the beginning of 2022, and Torres has been barely a playable option since the start of the shortened 2020 season, while LeMahieu bad been the team’s MVP in 2019 and 2020 before playing through a hernia injury in 2021.
Thankfully, Boone made the sensical decision to play the two-time Gold Glove-winning LeMahieu at second base on Opening Day. As one of the only Yankees to have success against Eovaldi, the Yankees needed both LeMahieu’s bat and glove in the lineup, not Torres and the prayer that he might ever again become the player he was in 2018-19. With one out in the eighth, LeMahieu hit a game-tying home run off Whitlock. 4-4.
The game remained 4-4, and in the bottom of the ninth, Judge doubled with two outs, and the Red Sox chose to intentionally walk Rizzo to bring up Stanton against Hansel Robles. Stanton struck out on three pitches in one of the least competitive at-bats you’ll ever see, which included him swinging at the first pitch that bounced several feet before reaching the plate.
The gimmicky automatic runner on second in extra innings rule had found its way into Opening Day for the Yankees for the second straight season, and the Red Sox plated that automatic runner to take a 5-4 lead. In the bottom of the 10th, Boone would call on Torres to make his season debut as a pinch hitter for Kyle Higashioka, who had the kind of forgettable day at the plate that he will have most times as a now everyday catcher in the majors. Torres was able to lift a fly ball to center to tie the game at 5. (After the game on YES, John Flaherty said he was confused why Boone pinch hit Torres for Higashioka. Apparently, Flaherty has never watched Higashioka play baseball.)
In the 11th, Michael King worked a perfect inning, looking as sharp as he always has out of the bullpen. (He should never be allowed to open or start a game. Just use him out of the bullpen.) And in the bottom of the 11th, Donaldson led off with a single up the middle to score the automatic runner and win the game for the Yankees.
Cole tried to ruin the game, and nearly did. The Yankees’ offense tried to ruin the game, and nearly did. The only one of my fears who never came close to ruining the game was Boone.
From batting Donaldson first, to playing LeMahieu over Torres and batting LeMahieu fifth, to pulling Cole after the fourth and going to Green then Holmes then Miguel Castro then Jonathan Loaisiga then Wandy Peralta then Aroldis Chapman then King, to pinch hitting Torres for Higashioka and to not bunting in extra innings, it was a masterpiece for Boone. It was easily the best managed game of his time as Yankees manager. Don’t get me wrong, all of these decisions were simple and logical, but nothing comes easy to Boone, so when he does so many things right in a single day, it’s remarkable and worth praising. Boone had many chances to screw up Friday’s game and he never did.
Four batters into the game, I had been dreaming about the lockout and how glorious those three months were without the Yankees to get worked up and angry about and to lose sleep over. By the end of the game, I was celebrating a walk-off win over the Red Sox with my 18-month-old son. (OK, I was celebrating and brought him into the celebration.) He didn’t know dad had just staved off a -170 money line loss, the Yankees had avoided yet another embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Red Sox, Cole once again couldn’t pitch well in a big game against not just a division rival but the rival, LeMahieu looked like his old self and Boone had finally displayed some semblance of being able to manager a Major League Baseball team.
The result was there in that the Yankees beat the Red Sox, even if the way the Yankees went about getting the result was excruciating and painful. It was a big win since every win is big, as proven by last year’s standings tie, which forced the Yankees to play the one-game playoff on the road, and it was mostly made possible by the decisions of Boone. What a way to start the season.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!