I was all for Deivi Garcia starting Game 2 of the ALDS. Sure, it was risky, and sure, it was going against the easy logic of letting Masahiro Tanaka, one of the best postseason pitchers of all time start, but if the Yankees could pull it off and win Game 2 without using Tanaka, they would essentially have the series won. They would have Tanaka on extra rest to close out the Rays in Game 3. That plan I was OK with. What actually transpired with I wasn’t OK with. I don’t think there’s a Yankees fan out there who was OK with it.
As Garcia was battling against Austin Meadows in the top of the first, and also battling against home plate umpire CB Bucknor, who had one of the worst postseason games imaginable calling balls and strikes, J.A. Happ began to warm up in the bullpen. Garcia hadn’t even retired the first Rays batter of the game and Happ was throwing in the Yankees bullpen. I assumed it was protection for Garcia if he were to melt down like Luis Severino in the 2017 wild-card game and unable to give the Yankees anything. Then came the bottom of the second with the game tied at 1, and in came Happ.
Happ wasn’t warming up for protection, he was warming up as part of a set plan and “strategy” by the Yankees. The Yankees had gotten the Rays to build a lineup to face Garcia, inserting many left-handed hitters into it. Now with Happ in the game, the Rays would either have to start removing position players for pinch hitters to get right-left matchups or send left-handed hitters to the plate against the left-handed Happ. The Yankees had decided to try to trick the Rays rather than do what was best for their own team in the second game of a best-of-5 series. The same way the Yankees are always worried about their own lineup construction for late-game situations and scenarios that might never present themselves, the Yankees built their pitching plan for Game 2 based on how the Rays would then have to react.
Have you ever seen a commercial so bad you can’t understand how a group of executives sat around a conference room table and came up with the idea and how many people had to sign off on it to make the bad idea actually come to fruition? That’s what happened with the Yankees in Game 2. Someone employed by the most prestigious organization in major sports said, “What if we name Garcia as our Game 2 starter, so Kevin Cash puts a lot of left-handed bats into the lineup, and then after the first inning, we go to J.A. Happ to start with a clean inning?” Then everyone including Aaron Boone, Brian Cashman, a bunch of unnamed Ivy league graduates who have tried to prove “being hot” and “hot streaks” and “clutch” don’t exist and baseball lifers who have only ever known playing and working in the game agreed on that plan to the point that it came to fruition.
In theory, you could maybe make the case it’s a sound strategy and a good idea, but in that theory, the left-hander coming out of the bullpen is Clayton Kershaw or Blake Snell or someone with actual ability. Not Happ.
I wrote and talked all season about how bad Happ is, and how untrustworthy he is. I called for the Yankees to stop giving him starts completely after his two disgraceful starts to begin the season, and I begged the Yankees to give Garcia or Clarke Schmidt the opportunity to be part of the rotation. I wrote and said all of this as Happ was struggling to get through four innings in his starts, while he was feuding with the Yankees through the media about them working around his $17 million option for 2021. Happ was miraculously able to put together a string of good starts, but those came against horrible teams who weren’t close to sniffing the playoffs in a season in which 16 of the league’s 30 teams reach the playoffs. This fooled some into thinking Happ had turned back into the pitcher the Yankees traded for at the 2018 deadline. It didn’t fool me.
I have said for weeks Happ couldn’t be a part of the postseason plan. He hasn’t been good enough to start a postseason game since the moment before he threw a pitch to J.D. Martinez in the first inning of Game 1 of the 2018 ALDS, which resulted in a three-run home run and ruined that game. Since that inning, Happ has been bad to very bad to being on the brink of being in the majors as a Yankee spanning the entire 2019 regular season, 2019 postseason and 2020 regular season, outside of a few starts when he beat the Orioles, Red Sox and Mets. And now the 2020 postseason can be added to the list as well.
Happ relieved Garcia and my first thought was This better fucking work. The Yankees were removing a 21-year-old kid completely capable of shutting down the Rays’ lineup for four or five or even six innings to bring in a 37-year-old who was last good enough to pitch in the postseason two calendar years ago. The first batter, the left-handed Joey Wendle, singled. Three batters later the Rays had a 3-1 lead after Mike Zunino hit a home run. After Zunino, the left-handed Meadows walked. Happ was supposed to neutralize the left-handed heavy lineup the Rays had constructed to face Garcia, and he had allowed two of the four left-handed bats he had faced to reach base.
The second inning was bad, but the third inning was the nightmare I had expected with Happ pitching in the postseason. Ji-Man Choi (another left-handed bat) walked with one out, and then Manuel Margot hit a two-run home to straightaway center. The Rays now led 5-1, and Happ had allowed as many runs (four) as outs recorded. The left-handed Wendle came up next and singled off Happ for the second time in as many innings and then Willy Adames reached on an error by Happ himself.
In the top of the fourth, the Yankees closed the deficit to one run after Giancarlo Stanton hit his second home run of the game and his third in as many at-bats to make it a 5-4 game. The Yankees would have five innings and 15 outs to tie the game or take the lead, and Boone was now going to have to actually manage and not just go off the script given to him by that front office idiot who had come up with this plan. Boone’s first decision in what was now a one-run game was to stick with Happ, who put two more on base before Boone finally pulled him. Happ needed 69 pitches to get eight outs. In his 2 2/3 innings, he allowed nine baserunners, four earned runs and two home runs, walked three, hit a batter and made an error. He was even worse than I could have ever envisioned him being.
The untrustworthy duo of Adam Ottavino, who can’t throw strikes or hold runners, and Jonathan Loaisiga, who is essentially the Nicaraguan Nathan Eovaldi with his high-90s, but very straight and very hittable fastball, made sure the Yankees didn’t come back by allowing a pair of runs. And the Yankees’ offense didn’t look like they could come back anyway, setting a team record for strikeouts in a postseason game with 18. 18! Jonathan Holder (1 IP, 0 ER, 1 K) and Nick Nelson (1 IP, 0 ER, 2 K) proved to be the two best Yankees pitchers in the game.
If you had told me yesterday at 8:09 p.m. the Yankees would score four runs off Tyler Glasnow, Stanton would hit two home runs and Glasnow would only last five innings, I would have started worrying about the Astros and an ALCS rematch. Instead, the Yankees’ best-of-5 against the Rays is now a best-of-3.
It was always going to be extremely difficult to beat the Rays in a short series because they are essentially built to beat the Yankees. They hit Gerrit Cole well, they have two hard-throwing right-handed power pitchers in Glasnow and Charlie Morton, and a never-ending stable of trustworthy right-handed relievers who match up perfectly against the right-handed heavy Yankees. The one advantage the Yankees might have had in the series was the mystery and unknown of Garcia, who the Rays had never seen before. But instead of using that mystery, the Yankees chose to let Happ give them one more parting gift on his way out the door as a now impending free agent by taking a giant dump on the Petco Park mound.
Now it’s up to Tanaka to save the Yankees’ season, the same way it was up to him when the Yankees trailed the Indians 2-0 in the 2017 ALDS and when the Yankees trailed the Red Sox 1-0 in the 2018 ALDS after Happ’s memorable start. No, the Yankees aren’t trailing in this series like they were in those two, but they need to play, pitch and mange like they are because Game 3 is a must-win game, considering the Yankees don’t have a Game 4 starter. It’s not that they don’t have a Game 4 starter because they haven’t announced one like they did with Game 2. It’s that they actually don’t have a Game 4 starter.
It’s 100 percent not Happ. It can’t possibly be Jordan Montgomery. It has to be Garcia who only threw 27 pitches on Tuesday, the only 27 pitches he has thrown in 10 days. But maybe the Yankees will try another unconventional strategy. Maybe they will give the ball to Michael King, who they inexplicably let open so many games this season, and he will go three innings and give up his mandatory quota of at least three earned runs, and then they will turn it over to Holder or Nelson or Luis Cessa.
The Yankees now have to win a best-of-3 against a team they are now 3-8 against this season in order to erase the monumentally bad Game 2 pitching decision which was first-guessed when it was made and not second-guessed after the fact. The Yankees will have forever to think about their regrettable decision to not just go the easy route and go with Tanaka or to not commit to Garcia for a real start in Game 2 if they go on to lose this series and their season ends this week and another season of their current championship window is wasted. At least they have the right pitcher going in Game 3 to make sure that doesn’t happen.
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