When it was announced that Nestor Cortes would start (or open) for the Yankees on Tuesday and when the lineup against the Tigers was posted and DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge and Luke Voit weren’t in it, I shook my head in disbelief like Lee Trevino in Happy Gilmore. The Yankees were once again trying to erase a game on their schedule rather than trying to win home-field advantage for the postseason.
The Yankees have made it clear in recent weeks they aren’t going to go all out to win home-field advantage, but now they aren’t even trying to win. With an eight-game division lead and only 16 games remaining, the Yankees are being managed as if they have won everything when they haven’t won anything. It was bad enough when Boone managed the season finale against the A’s like a mid-March game in Florida, but Tuesday night’s managing took the Yankees’ late-season, huge-division-lead approach to a whole other level.
It began with the decision to start Cortes, a pitcher the 2018 47-win Orioles didn’t want, and someone who was bad when the Yankees called him up and somehow has gotten progressively worse. Entering Tuesday, Cortes had a 5.13 ERA and 1.468 WHIP this season and has managed to remain not just in the Yankees’ system all these months with those numbers, but on the major league roster. With an opportunity to sweep the worst team in baseball and put the pressure on the Astros to keep pace, the Yankees were giving the ball to Cortes for his major league start. Cortes lasted 2 1/3 innings and was pulled after he put seven batters on and turned a six-run lead into a two-run lead.
Next up was Luis Cessa, who entered Tuesday with a 3.80 ERA from 80 appearances in the lowest of low-leverage situations. He has somehow picked up quite the number of fans this season, who seem to have short memories when it comes to Cessa having any success and who seem to be OK with disregarding his career as a whole, only focusing on his ability to protect seven-run leads in the eighth and ninth innings or hold six-run deficits in the middle innings. Cessa, trying to hold a small lead on Tuesday, failed to do so like he has so many times in his career, and the Yankees’ early six-run lead was erased. (The lead might have been saved if not for a Gleyber Torres error, but could the pitching staff pick up their star middle infielder for once after all the times he has picked up the pitching staff this season? Instead, Torres would later pick himself up with a solo home run to retake the lead.)
After Cortes and Cessa made the six-run lead disappear like the magicians they are, Cory Gearrin was next out of Boone’s bullpen. Gearrin, who was let go by the 59-win Mariners, has become a Boone favorite, pitching just about every other day since becoming a Yankee in late August despite pitching to a 6.48 ERA. Gearrin faced three batters and two of them singled. With an 8-7 lead in the sixth and two on with one out, the situation called for a strikeout from one of the Yankees’ actual major league relievers. Or at least it would have if the Yankees were actually trying to win. Instead, Jonathan Loaisiga got the call.
Single, sacrifice fly, single, walk, walk is how Loaisiga’s night went. He allowed both inherited runners from Gearrin to score and one of his own for good measure. The Yankees had lost leads of 6-0 and 8-6 and Boone had seen enough. To stop the bleeding he went to the one and only Ryan Dull.
Dull came to the Yankees with this 2019 line: 9 IP, 19 H, 13 R, 12 ER, 4 BB, 8 K, 4 HR. Throw in the one batter he hit and he put 24 baserunners on in nine innings before becoming a Yankee. Since his September 1 call-up, he had only appeared in one game for the Yankees (1 IP, 2 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 2 BB, 1 K), but here he was, the next in line in a long line of pitchers who don’t belong in a major league bullpen. I have always been for 40-man rosters in September, but this game changed my stance. Give me the 28-man September rosters next season, so the Yankees are forced to be managed to win.
After Dull miraculously recorded an out without allowing a baserunner, the Yankees took the lead back thanks to a two-run home run from Edwin Encarnacion. At 11-10, Boone decided he was going to try to win the game. He went to Adam Ottavino, but after a walk, passed ball and single, the game was once again tied.
Boone stayed with his major league relievers in the eighth, pitching Zack Britton, who had 1-2-3, nine-pitch inning. But then after proving he did in fact want to win the game, Boone went back to his pregame and early-game strategy of using the entire 40-man roster, calling on Chance Adams for the ninth inning. I expected the game to end with a ninth-inning, leadoff, walk-off home run off Adams, but it didn’t end until three batters into the inning. The Yankees might have lost 12-11 to the worst team in baseball, but to Boone and management it was a win: they didn’t pitch Ben Heller, Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle or Aroldis Chapman and they were able to give complete days off to LeMahieu and Judge, and that is more important than winning a game or winning home-field advantage for the postseason.
It’s clear the Yankees don’t care about having home-field advantage throughout the postseason. They don’t care to face the wild-card winner in the ALDS after that team will have already burned their best starting pitcher just to reach the ALDS the way the Yankees had to the last two years. They don’t care about facing Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS in Houston rather than New York and they don’t care about boarding a plane for a cross-country flight to Dodger Stadium for the first two games of a potential World Series to face the second-best home team in baseball. The Yankees are content with being the 2-seed in the American League. They are content with not having any and every edge they can obtain for October. They are content with taking the path in the postseason filled with “Go Back to Start” obstacles.
For a team which allows analytics to drive every decision, how could the Yankees not care about home-field advantage? How could they not remember the toll the wild-card game took on their rotation and bullpen the last two seasons and not want to face the wild-card winner in the ALDS? How could they not see the Astros’ 56-18 home record and feel it would be best to avoid playing the first two games of a series at MinuteMaid Park and an extra game in a series there as well? How could they not remember how the home team won every game of the 2017 ALCS and how could they forget that they scored three totals runs in the four losses in Houston in that series?
The Yankees are setting themselves up for their right-handed heavy lineup, which has a propensity to strike out excessively, to face the two best power pitchers in baseball, who sit 1 and 2 atop the strikeout leaderboard, and who also happen to be right-handed. They are setting themselves up to have to win at least one road game against Verlander, Cole, Verlander again or Zack Greinke. They are setting themselves up to have their entire season ruined because they took their foot off the gas for the final month of the season, playing as if they had clinched the best postseason possibilities when they hadn’t even clinched the division.
There’s certainly the chance the Astros could be upset in the ALDS and don’t reach the ALCS. There’s also the chance the Yankees could upset the Astros in the ALCS despite not having home-field advantage. But the odds of either happening aren’t likely and aren’t in the Yankees’ favor, and the Yankees’ entire organization is based on decisions made to put the odds in their favor. Why is it that the Yankees care about lefty-righty matchups in every situation and extreme defensive shifts tailored to probability percentages, yet when it comes to being the 1-seed in the postseason, something which will decide their season more than anything, they could care less?
The Yankees have determined days off are more important to achieving postseason success than home-field advantage. For a team which now holds the all-time record for the most players put on the injured list in a single season, you would think the players have had enough days off this season. If the Yankees are wrong in their decision to favor days off over home-field, their season will end early for the 10th straight year. At least then, the players can have more days in October off.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!