I was ready for exactly what unfolded on Tuesday. I expected the Yankees’ offense to disappear the way it always does in big games, especially in October, and I was prepared for Gerrit Cole to continue to pitch the way he has since injuring his hamstring on Sept. 7. I wrote I had a bad feeling about the wild-card game, and that feeling came to fruition as the Yankees’ 2021 season ended after a single “postseason” game.
The 2021 Yankees spent six months and 162 games foreshadowing how a one-game playoff would play out, and the nine-inning debacle perfectly portrayed the season. Cole sucked the way he had sucked since his Sept. 7 start against the Blue Jays. The offense that scored less runs than the Indians and Angels this season and that scored six total runs over the final three games of the season with a postseason berth on the line showed up. Aaron Boone mismanaged his bench and let Cole, Luis Severino and Jonathan Loaisiga all go longer than they should have, which has become a staple of his managerial style. Phil Nevin inexplicably sent Aaron Judge home on a play in which Judge wasn’t even in the camera’s view with the ball already waiting for him at the plate. Ultimately (to use Boone’s second-favorite word after “obviously”), the Yankees lost a game that ended four batters into the bottom of the first inning.
I’m not mad. I’m not angry. I’m not upset. I’m not even annoyed or frustrated. I’m accepting of the Yankees’ disappointing ending because it was a disappointing season, and it was made possible by the Yankees’ belief they could bring back the same manager and essentially the same roster which hadn’t been good enough the last few seasons and think it would magically be good enough this season.
The Yankees built 40 percent of their Opening Day rotation on arms that hadn’t pitched in two years due to injury. Another 20 percent of the rotation was made up by an arm that had been suspended since the second half of 2019. They went into the season with two reliable and healthy starters in Cole and Jordan Montgomery, praying Clarke Schmidt and Deivi Garcia would emerge, if needed. Schmidt was injured on the sixth day of spring and Aaron Boone said he would miss “three to four weeks.” He began a rehab assignment more than five months later. After Garcia showed promise in the majors in 2020, he walked 68 in 90 2/3 innings at Triple-A and got torched in his two starts with the Yankees in 2021, taking more than just a step back in his progression in what is a serious issue for the organization’s player development. By the 13th game of the season, the preseason favorite to win the American League was using Nick Nelson as an opener in an important game against the Rays, a game in which Nelson allowed four earned runs in 1 2/3 innings.
I call an April 16 game against the Rays an “important game” because every game is important. Every single game. The Yankees didn’t lose the ability to play the wild-card game at home in the final weekend of the season when they couldn’t win a home series against a Rays team with nothing to play for, the same way they didn’t lose the division when they lost 12 of 15 after their 13-game winning streak. The Yankees blew the first wild card and they blew the division over the entire season beginning on Opening Day when Nelson was used in the 10th inning in Game 1 on April 1.
This season was miserable. Despite winning 92 games, you could count the enjoyable moments of the season on one hand, as the majority of those 92 wins were painful, nail-biting affairs until the final out. The Yankees started the season 5-10, were 41-41 on July 4 and lost 12 of 15 after their 13-game winning streak. They went 25-24 against the Orioles, Tigers, Indians, Phillies, Angels and Mets, and lost three of six to the Orioles in September.
Starting 1-5 against the Rays, 0-7 against the Red Sox and getting swept by the Tigers was a sign of things to come and also a cry for help. That help came when after vehemently denying that being all-right handed would hinder the Yankees’ chances at success, Brian Cashman pivoted at the trade deadline and acquired two left-handed bats in Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo. Rizzo hit an OK .249/.340/.428, while Gallo was a disastrous .160/.303/.404. To bolster an injured rotation and worn down staff, Cashman acquired Andrew Heaney, who allowed 29 earned runs in 35 2/3 innings and was designated for assignment on the day of the wild-card game. To fill the void left by trades of the always-uninspiring Luis Cessa and the flat-out awful Justin Wilson, Cashman brought in Joely Rodriguez in the Gallo deal and traded for Clay Holmes from Pittsburgh. Rodriguez was solid and Holmes became arguably the team’s best reliever alongside Jonathan Loaisiga.
Aaron Boone spent his fourth season lying, exaggerating and mismanaging the team to countless losses, showing no signs of improvement as a manager who was hired without coaching or managerial experience at any level. His sole job as manager is to put his players in the best possible position to succeed, and after using one hand to count the enjoyable moments of the season, you can use the other to count the amount of times Boone did just that. (You’ll likely have some fingers left over.)
The lying began on the first day of spring training when Boone said Gary Sanchez would catch Cole in 2021 after separating the two in 2020. Sanchez caught Cole on Opening Day, once out of necessity when he pinch hit for Kyle Higashioka and once when Higashioka was on the COVID list. The same day Boone said Sanchez would catch Cole, he also said Clint Frazier would be the team’s starting left fielder. In the third game of the season, Brett Gardner was starting in left field. To compound his lies about Sanchez and Frazier on that February day, Boone told the media Giancarlo Stanton would play the outfield. He said the same thing in March, April, May and June. Finally on the second-to-last day of July, Stanton played the outfield.
The exaggerating came after nearly every game. You can use those remaining fingers to count the amount of times Boone didn’t mention his starting pitcher having “great stuff” despite the team losing 71 of their 163 games. Boone spent six months telling fans the Yankees “would be fine” or that they would “turn the corner” or “start rolling.” They weren’t fine, never turned the corner and didn’t roll anywhere other than to another early offseason. Between Boone’s endless uses of “obviously” and his daily tipping of his hat to the opposing starter (even when it was Michael Wacha, Matt Harvey, Jordan Lyles, Bruce Zimmerman or any one of a number of fringe major leaguers) came unbelievable defenses of his nonsensical decisions and his players’ underperformance.
The most memorable example of this came when Boone idiotically declared Hicks the team’s No. 3 hitter in spring training, and after Hicks went 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts in the first series of the season (in which the Yankees lost two of three), Boone was questioned about moving Hicks out of the coveted spot. He answered by saying, “Hicks will be fine.” Eight games later, Hicks was batting sixth, and four games after that, he was hitting seventh before eventually being lost for the season after playing in only 32 games. (Hicks has now played in 493 of a possible 870 regular-season games as a Yankee or 57 percent over six years.)
The 2017 Yankees came within one game of the World Series and replaced Starlin Castro, Chase Headley and Jacoby Ellsbury with reigning NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and budding (at the time, but no longer) star Gleyber Torres. In four years Boone took that roster and won one division title, lost in the ALDS twice, the ALCS once and now the wild-card game as well. Boone has overseen two postseason exits to the Red Sox and was the manager for the most lopsided home postseason loss in Yankees history. The Yankees as a team have gone backward with Boone at the helm and the core of players he inherited have all regressed during his tenure.
Tuesday’s loss wasn’t on Boone, even as he started Higashioka with the season literally on the line, didn’t pinch hit for the weak-hitting Higashioka until the eighth inning when the remainder of the game was a formality and used Rougned Odor before Sanchez. But the Yankees playing in that game and that game being played in Boston? Boone had a lot to do with that. As did his starter in Cole.
There was a time when I would have argued Gerrit Cole being the best pitcher in baseball. I won’t make that argument again anytime soon.
Cole’s performance was an embarrassment. “Sick to my stomach,” he said after the game, after making Yankees fans sick to their stomach over his final five September starts, in which he left early against the Blue Jays, needed 108 pitches to get through five innings against the Orioles, allowed seven earned runs and 12 baserunners in 5 2/3 innings against the Indians, got bailed out by the offense in Boston and allowed the most extra-base hits in a single game in his career in Toronto. Cole allowed 19 earned runs in his last 26 1/3 innings of the regular season with hitters batting .311/.364/.566 against him. Why anyone thought he would just turn it on like a light switch on Tuesday against a team he didn’t pitch well against when healthy on a mound he has never pitched well on in his career is beyond me.
And I use “when healthy” because Cole clearly isn’t healthy. Following the hamstring injury on Sept. 7, he was basically the right-handed version of Heaney for the rest of the season culminating with him throwing batting practice at Fenway Park in the wild-card game. But as Derek Jeter used to say, if you’re out on the field playing (or in Cole’s case pitching) then there’s no excuses. Cole deemed himself healthy enough to pitch and to take the ball in an elimination game and now he must own the humiliating effort.
Maybe a 12th straight championship-less season is for the best. Maybe the Yankees needed this finish to their season to make real organizational changes because that’s what they need: organizational change. Had the Yankees won on Tuesday and then inevitably got trounced by the Rays in the ALDS, the front office would easily give Boone a new contract, let Boone talk about how “slim the margin is between the Yankees and the team that wins the World Series” and chalk up another first-round exit to the “randomness of the postseason” as Cashman likes to do.
Immediately after the wild-card loss, while still wearing his Yankees uniform for possibly the last time, Brett Gardner said, “There’s a lot of uncertain, uncharted waters with this team heading into the offseason … Hopefully we’ll have a chance to run it back.” Run it back? Again? That’s the last thing this organization needs to be doing with this roster. They had their chance to run it back in 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021, and with each season they have grown progressively worse.
Cashman gave up on Sonny Gray after 2018, saying, “I don’t feel like we can go through the same exercise and expect different results,” and yet, the Yankees just went through the same exercise in 2021 as they did the previous three seasons, and to no surprise the result was the same: an early postseason exit. Ownership and the front office can’t possibly think about bringing back the same manager and the same roster. Not after finishing third in the AL East and fifth in the AL in a season in which they were the odds-on favorite to represent the AL in the World Series.
Following Tuesday’s season-ending loss, Boone oddly talked about how “the league has closed the gap” on the Yankees. It was a confusing comment normally reserved to compare emerging teams to a recent champion, not a team that hasn’t won a championship in what will be 13 years next October and hasn’t even played for one in that amount of time.
There’s no gap to be closed on the Yankees. They’re the ones who need to close the gap. As long as Boone is manager and this roster remains intact, the gap will only grow wider.
Subscribe to the Keefe To The City Podcast. New episode after every game during the season.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!