I go into every Chris Sale start against the Yankees thinking the Yankees are going to lose. Why wouldn’t I? When Sale is healthy he is the best pitcher in the league and he has dominated the Yankees in his career. In 17 games and 14 starts and 100 2/3 innings, he has 130 strikeouts to go along with a 1.61 ERA and 0.894 WHIP. Me thinking the Yankees aren’t going to hit him isn’t me being a bad fan, it’s me being a realist.
But on Friday night, my thinking was different. With Sale being virtually an unknown for Game 1 of the ALDS after he limped to the regular-season finish line with two trips to the disabled list and a serious drop in his velocity, I thought the Yankees could get to him. And if the Yankees could get to him, and win Game 1, that would be the series. David Price, the biggest postseason pitching failure of all time would be waiting in Game 2, and the Yankees could go return home up 2-0 in the series.
I sat down in my seat right before first pitch and glanced over to the Pesky Pole, and all the memories I feared from the last playoff game I attended in Fenway Park came rushing back. But thankfully, I didn’t have time to focus on and worry about the haunting events of Oct. 18, 2004 as Sale delivered the first pitch of the game to Andrew McCutchen.
The Yankees didn’t score against Sale in the first inning, but they did make him throw 24 pitches, which was the next best thing to scoring. If Sale was going to be on, the Yankees would have to at least drive up his pitch count to have three or four innings against the Red Sox bullpen, which is the worst in the American League playoff field.
The Yankees traded for J.A. Happ because of his success against the Red Sox. Sure, they needed rotation help at the the trade deadline after Jordan Montgomery went down for the season earlier in the year and Sonny Gray completely lost what he had been in Oakland, and sure, Happ had been a proven AL East commodity. But the No. 1 reason for Happ becoming a Yankee was to beat the Red Sox. It was long ago determined the either the Yankees or Red Sox would win the division and the other team would be the first wild-card team, and then if that team won the wild-card game, it would set up a meeting between the two. The Yankees got Happ to beat the Red Sox.
When Happ was needed most in the regular season (during the four-game series in Boston in August), he was unavailable due to a rare illness. But now Happ had a chance to make up for the unfortunate missed start that helped determine the division race if he could beat the Red Sox and outpitch Sale in Fenway Park in the first game of the series.
Four batters into the game, Happ had two on with one out and J.D. Martinez at the plate. Boston’s lineup is weak. After the first four hitters (Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Steve Pearce and Martinez), it’s Xander Bogaerts, Eduardo Nunez, Ian Kinsler, Sandy Leon and Jackie Bradley Jr. When you factor in their shaky starting pitching and disastrous bullpen, it makes no sense how this team won 108 games, but they did so, by beating up on the Orioles and destroying the National League in interleague play.
Happ fell behind Martinez 2-0 and I thought it made sense to just put him on at that point. Let Bogaerts or Nunez beat you. Don’t let any of the first four hitters beat you. But Aaron Boone let Happ continue with Martinez, and the next pitch, a 2-0 pitch low and inside, was lined over the Green Monster. 3-0, Red Sox.
Thankfully, the Fenway Park crowd is tame. At times it felt like a church with the level of quiet in there for a postseason game. I understand it’s post-2004 and the whole place and the surrounding area has changed for the worst since, but the Red Sox have won one playoff game in the last four years and haven’t won a playoff series in the last five years and they are at home for the first game of the postseason against their hated rival. I thought all of this coupled with the first-inning home run would have resulted in some passing beer showers or something, anything. But instead, nothing.
The Yankees put three on in the first three innings and had nothing to show for it. Still trailing 3-0 in the bottom of the third, Happ completely unraveled. A leadoff double to Betts and a single to Benintendi put runners on second and third with no outs and Boone emerged to take the ball from Happ. It was an awful performance and when Chad Green came in and allowed both inherited runners to score, it made things worse. (It was funny that Boone was willing to go to Green early with a three-run deficit, but wasn’t willing to go to him with the lead early in the first game in the August series that determined the season. I know, I know, I gave Boone a clean slate after the wild-cardi win.) The Yankees were down 5-0, facing Chris Sale and needing 21 outs from their bullpen creating a complete recipe for disaster. Happ was supposed to be the Red Sox’ kryptonite and instead he was Kevin Brown: 2 IP, 4 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 HR. If all of the idiots who wanted him to start the wild-card game instead of Luis Severino had gotten their way, the Yankees’ season might have ended on Wednesday. But if the Yankees were going to get embarrassed in this series the way they had through the first three innings, it would have been better if they had lost on Wednesday.
After the third inning, the game became a night of the Yankees leaving runners on base. In the fourth inning, they left two on. In the sixth, they finally got to Sale, forcing him out the game and plating two runs that got tagged to his line. But with the bases loaded and two outs and Brandon Workman pitching, Gleyber Torres had a rookie-playing-in-the-postseason-against-Boston at-bat and went down swinging to leave three more on.
In the seventh, the Yankees loaded the bases with no one out for Giancarlo Stanton. It was his moment to prove he could come through and get a big hit in a big spot and not just pad his stats in games that already over like he had through the entire regular season and in the wild-card game. But Stanton got worked over by Matt Barnes, striking out for the third time in the game, unable to produce a productive out let alone a hit in the game-changing at-bat. Luke Voit grounded out to get a run in, but Didi Gregorius also grounded out to leave two more on.
Aaron Judge homered to lead off the ninth against Craig Kimbrel, who he always seems to hit, to get the Yankees within a run at 5-4, and it felt like maybe, just maybe the Yankees could tie the game against Kimbrel. But Brett Gardner, in the injured Aaron Hicks’ spot in the order, struck out, Stanton struck out for the fourth time in the game and Voit struck out to end the game. The Yankees had a lost a more than winnable game, which would have effectively ended the Red Sox’ chances in the series, and left 11 on base. It was a frustrating and disappointing loss and I would have rather had the Red Sox pile on to their early 5-0 lead than to have the Yankees come back, but not complete the comeback.
The Yankees made two things clear for the rest of the series:
1. Don’t pitch to the Red Sox’ 1-4 hitters as they went 6-for-14, scored all five of runs with a double, home run and five 5 RBIs, while the Red Sox’ 5-9 hitters went 2-for-16. Don’t let Betts, Benintendi, Pearce (when he plays) and Martinez be the reason you lose the series. Pitch around them.
2. The Yankees will score against the Red Sox’ bullpen. Alex Cora showed he doesn’t trust his relievers (the same way his mentor A.J. Hinch didn’t in Games 6 and 7 of the 2017 ALCS) when he went to Rick Porcello for the eighth inning after Ryan Brasier, Workman, and Barnes allowed two inherited runners to score, and earned run and six baserunners in 1 2/3 innings.
I wasn’t angry, mad or upset that the Yankees had lost the first game of a best-of-5 and would need to go 3-1 over the next four to win the series. I went into this series asking to just win one of the first two games in Boston and then return home with home-field advantage for what would then be a three-game series. That plan was still intact and with postseason-proven Masahiro Tanaka facing the postseason failure Price, it was easy for me to accept that I have nine more years after this season of watching Stanton guess wrong in the batter’s box and weakly flail at sliders away.
As I walked out of Fenway Park, I looked up at the big screen in center field, which reminded me I would be back there in a short 21 hours for Game 2. Then I glanced over to my seats from Game 5 of the 2004 ALCS, and even with the Game 1 loss, I felt this series would go exactly as I had envisioned it when I predicted Yankees in 4.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!
The book details my life as a Yankees fan, growing up watching Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams through my childhood and early adulthood and the shift to now watching Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and others become the latest generation of Yankees baseball. It’s a journey through the 2017 postseason with flashbacks to games and moments from the Brian Cashman era.
Click here to purchase the book through Amazon as an ebook. You can read it on any Apple device by downloading the free Kindle app.