Yankees Thoughts: Get Ready for One-Game Playoff

With 29 games remaining, Yankees' focus should be on winning first wild card

After starting their three-city, nine-game road trip 4-0, the Yankees end up going 5-4. The Yankees’ losing combined with the Rays’ winning has all but taken the division away as a possible postseaon path for the Yankees. Get ready for the Yankees playing in the one-game playoff once again.

Here are 10 thoughts on the Yankees.

1. The division is over. The Yankees trail the Rays by seven games and have 29 games left. If the Rays were to play under .500 and go 14-15 the rest of the way, they would finish with 98 wins. The Yankees would have to go 21-8 just to tie them. The Rays are currently on a 102-win pace and the Yankees would have to go 25-4 to win 102 games. Most likely, the Rays will win 99-100 games and the Yankees would have to go 22-7 to get to 99 wins and 23-6 to get to 100. The Yankees aren’t mathematically eliminated in the AL East, but the odds really, really bad. Fangraphs gives the Yankees a 9 percent chance of winning the division.

The two losses to the Angels hurt and hurt the Yankees’ division chances. But it wasn’t like those losses were the only ones that hurt. All 56 losses to this point have hurt with several of them coming in the final innings of games in which the Yankees led. For as good as the Yankees have been since their 5-10 start (72-46), since the second game of the July 4 doubleheader (36-15), since the All-Star break (31-13) and since the trade deadline (24-8), the Rays have been even better. When you have 31-13 run team, which includes a 13-game winning streak, you’re supposed to do serious damage in the standings. The Yankees did so in terms of the wild-card standings, but in the division, they actually lost ground on the Rays, who have gone 31-12. That’s ridiculous.

2. So now the Yankees look destined for the one-game, wild-card playoff for the third time in the last four seasons in which it was held, and the fourth time in the last six seasons in which it was held. The five-team postseason format has hurt the Yankees more than any other team. In 2015, the Yankees would have advanced to the ALDS in the old, four-team format. Instead, they lost to Dallas Keuchel and the Astros 3-0 at Yankee Stadium. In 2016, the Yankees nearly didn’t trade away Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Beltran and Ivan Nova because ownership wanted to hold on for the possibility of winning the second wild-card berth. In 2017 and 2018, the Yankees would have advanced to the ALDS in the old format, and the same will be true in 2021.

The Yankees have the best possible starting pitcher for the one-game playoff in 2021 in Gerrit Cole. Outside of Jacob deGrom, he’s the best pitcher in baseball. But it’s still one game, in which anything can happen, and any player, pitcher or team could have the best or worst game or day imaginable. Look at the starting pitchers who have shut down the Yankees in a single game this season: Matt Harvey, Michael Wacha, Jordan Lyles and Paul Blackburn, among many others. All fringe major leaguers who the Yankees couldn’t muster (Aaron Boone buzz word) any offense against. Cole could have the kind of unbelievable start he had on Wednesday night in Anaheim (7 IP, 4 H, 1 R ,1 ER, 0 BB, 15 K), and the Yankees could still lose because it’s ONE GAME. “One-game playoff” is the scariest phrase in baseball, and having gone through three others already in the last five years, I’m speaking from experience. It’s a horrible, miserable, nail-biting event that excites for everyone other than the team and the fans of the team who earned the first wild-card berth.

3. If the Yankees earn the first wild card (which they are likely to do) and start Cole (which they will do), and they win the game, well, they’re set up for failure in the ALDS. The wild-card game is on Tuesday, Oct. 5. The ALDS begins on Thursday, Oct. 7. The Yankees would have one full day off between the wild-card game and Game 1 of the ALDS. They would have to travel to Tampa and play the first two games of the ALDS against the AL-best Rays (a team that has owned them during the Aaron Boone era) at the Trop (a place they have had an extremely difficult time winning) and they would be without Cole until Game 3 of the series. Rather than have Cole for two games in a best-of-5 against the Rays, the Yankees would have him for one game, meaning some combination of Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes and Corey Kluber would start as many as four games against the Rays. The Yankees couldn’t beat the Rays in a best-of-5 last October with Cole pitching twice in the series and none of the games being at the Trop. Given the opponent, where the first two games of the series will be played and the lack of Cole, the Yankees’ chances of eliminating the Rays and advancing to the ALDS this October aren’t great.

That doesn’t mean it can’t happen, just like it doesn’t mean the Yankees can’t end their championship drought. It’s just unlikely for either thing to happen. That’s what the wild-card game is meant to do: severely obstruct the path to postseason success for the teams who have to play in it. That’s why I value each game the same from Opening Day through Game 162 because each game can be the difference between having a bye to the ALDS and being able to have three days off and set up your rotation to maximize potential success or having to play one game for your season in which you have to use your best starter and diminish your odds of winning in the first round.

4. Once again, the Yankees simply didn’t do everything they could to avoid the one-game playoff, and I truly believe they’re fine with it. “Just get in” they would say, and if it doesn’t go well, and their postseason lasts one night, Brian Cashman will be there to tell you about how baseball’s postseason is a crapshoot and success in it is random.

Without a playoff berth clinched, and barely hanging on in the division, and barely holding on to the first wild card, and even after losing four straight games to the A’s and Angels recently, Boone still gave Giancarlo Stanton the day off on Wednesday in the series finale in Anaheim.

“Just a day off,” Boone said. “I probably should have given it to him yesterday.”

Boone might as well have waved a white flag with “AL East” written on it in his pregame press conference. Trailing the Rays by eight games before the start of Wednesday’s game, Boone sat Stanton even with a scheduled day off on Thursday. In Game 133 of 162, Boone is still putting his lineup together as if the Yankees are 15 games up in the division or as if the end date of season is indefinite and will continue until the Yankees achieve first place in the division.

5. “I think guys are ticked off that we haven’t continued to roll,” Boone said about the four-game losing streak immediately following the 13-game winning streak.

The “guys” should be “ticked off” at Boone. It’s Boone who continues to change the lineup daily, never once starting the nine best available players. It was Boone who watched Kluber (in his first start in more than three months) allow three consecutive first-pitch singles and then load the bases without getting anyone up in the bullpen. It was Boone who allowed Kluber, running on fumes, to give up a grand slam in that same inning, and it was Boone who allowed Kluber to keep pitching after the slam because no one was completely warmed up after Boone failed to warm anyone up in time. It was also Boone who watched Taillon struggle to put away hitters the following night and after giving up a 3-spot in the third inning, sat there and let Taillon give up another 3-spot the very next inning, never thinking to go to his bullpen in what was still a winnable game at the time. Boone’s lack of understanding when to remove a pitcher and his seemingly need to bring in each reliever in a no-margin-for-error situation is infuriating.

6. Stanton’s unnecessary night off meant got Luke Voit back in the lineup. Stanton shouldn’t need to sit for Voit to play. Anthony Rizzo shouldn’t need to sit for Voit to play. NO ONE should need to sit for Voit to play. Voit should play every single game because he’s a great hitter, and ironically, there’s a spot in the AL batting order for a great hitter, who doesn’t have to play the field. Even with a dedicated lineup spot for someone who is one of the best hitters in baseball, but doesn’t necessarily have a position, this is how Boone has used (or not used) Voit the last few weeks:

August 15: 3-for-5, HR, 2 RBIs
August 16: 1-for-3
August 17: 2-for-5, HR, 3 RBIs
August 18: Off day
August 19: 1-for-4, 2B, 2 RBIs
August 20: 4-for-5, 2B, HR, 2 RBIs
August 21: 2-for-4, 2B, 2 RBIs
August 22: Off day
August 23: Bench
August 24: Bench
August 25: Off day
August 26: Bench
August 27: 1-for-4, HR, RBI
August 28: 1-for-3
August 29: 0-for-4
August 30: Bench
August 31: Bench
September 1: 2-for-3, 2B, 2 RBIs

7. The constant benching of Voit, despite him bashing the ball and recently winning AL Player of the Week is due to Boone’s love for Brett Gardner and his needing to play Gardner in as many games as possible. Gardner was supposed to be the team’s fourth outfielder beginning in 2018, thought he was always going to play more than a normal fourth outfielder with the oft-injured Aaron Hicks on the team and the also oft-injured Stanton and Aaron Judge. Gardner played 140 games in 2018 (86 percent), 141 games in 2019 (87 percent), 49 games in 2020 (82 percent) and has played in 113 games in 2021 (85 percent).

The problem with Gardner going from fourth outfielder to everyday outfielder every year since since 2018 is Gardner isn’t any good. In fact, he’s bad. He isn’t one of the best nine players on the team deserving of an everyday lineup spot, but he continues to be an everyday player. He hasn’t been good enough to be an everyday player since 2017. In 2018, he lost his everyday role in the trade for Andrew McCutchen. The Yankees brought him back anyway for 2019, rather than sign Michael Brantley, and thanks to the super baseball, Gardner hit 28 home runs, which were nothing more than a mirage in a season in which Gleyber Torres hit 38 (he has nine in 141 games since) and Ketel Marte hit 32 (he he has hit 11 in 110 games since). Gardner’s 2019 stats look as fake as every cast member of Friends does now except for Lisa Kudrow. Gardner was horrible again in the shortened 2020 season, until a two-week hot streak to end the season somehow made up for his last three years and led to him starting five of the Yankees’ seven playoff games.

If given the opportunity to play Gardner, Boone will always play Gardner. I can’t help but think of the scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane is forced to trade Carlos Pena and Jeremy Giambi so Art Howe has to play Scott Hatteberg at first. The only way for Boone to not play Gardner and to play the best possible lineup is for Gardner to no longer be on the team. Unfortunately, with a month left in what should be his final major league season (if this isn’t Gardner’s last major league season I may have to boycott rooting for the Yankees), Gardner is here to stay.

8. That means you should prepare yourself to see Gardner starting in center field in the one-game playoff. Gardner started five of seven postseason games in 2020. In 2019, Boone batted him third in both the ALDS and ALCS. In 2018 with the Yankees facing elimination, Boone sat McCutchen for Gardner. There’s no way Gardner will be on the bench for the one-game playoff. If everyone is healthy for the wild-card game, this will be the lineup:

DJ LeMahieu, 2B
Anthony Rizzo, 1B
Aaron Judge, RF
Joey Gallo, LF/Giancarlo Stanton, DH
Joey Gallo, LF/Giancarlo Stanton, DH
Gleyber Torres, SS
Gio Urshela, 3B
Kyle Higashioka, C
Brett Gardner, CF

(If it’s Chris Sale, Stanton will bat fourth. If it’s a right-handed starter, Boone will bat Gallo fourth to alternate righty-lefty since he thinks it’s a mandatory lineup rule when facing a right-handed starter.)

Playing with two near-automatic outs in the lineup (Higashioka and Gardner) in one game for your entire season, and what could be Boone’s job, is absolutely crazy. But Boone is going to do it. He’s 100 percent going to do it.

9. Boone has been unbelievably bad this season as his in-game management “ability” has somehow declined (something I didn’t think was possible), and it’s obvious (Boone buzz word) his communication skills (for which he was praised and essentially hired for) have fallen apart as well.

Since last October when he benched Clint Frazier for Gardner and failed to discuss Gary Sanchez’s playing time with the catcher, things have unraveled for Boone off the field. In spring training, he didn’t feel it was necessary for Scumbag Domingo German to address the team regarding why he was suspended by the league in 2019 and for 2020, until Zack Britton openly told the media “you don’t get to pick who your teammates are.” Boone publicly lied about Frazier being the starting left fielder in 2021, even though the second Gardner re-signed everyone knew Boone would give Frazier less than a week to prove himself before turning to one of his favorites. He said Sanchez would catch Cole in 2021, and Sanchez caught Cole on Opening Day and then didn’t again until Higashioka was pinch hit for in a game Sanchez won with his pinch-hit home run and didn’t again until Higashioka went down with COVID. He said Stanton would be used in the outfield as early as the beginning of the season, and Stanton finally played the outfield on the second-to-last-day of July in the 102nd game of the season. He has once again lied about injuries, injury rehabs and return dates from injuries and spent the first three-plus months of the season essentially saying, “Everything is fine” while failing to hold himself or any player on the roster accountable for the Yankees’ embarrassing performance half of the season.

I don’t see how Boone is the Yankees’ manager in 2021 unless the team reaches the World Series. In a season in which the Yankees were expected to represent the AL in the World Series and were the odds-on favorite to do so, I don’t know how the Yankees can bring him back and tell the fan base settling for yet another wild-card game and early postseason exit is acceptable.

10. The remaining 29 games are about clinching the first wild-card berth since it would take a colossal Rays collapse for the division to become in play again. Winning games and hoping the Red Sox lose games is what these remaining four-plus weeks are about. Because while the one-game playoff is scary as is, the only pitcher I’m truly petrified of the Yankees having to see in it is Chris Sale. Give me any of the A’s or Mariners or Blue Jays starters. If the Yankees lose to them, so be it. If the Yankees play the Red Sox and win, it will be like it always is: the Yankees were supposed to win. If the Yankees were to be eliminated by the Red Sox for the second time in four years and third time since 2004, losing at home in a game started by Cole in a year in which the Red Sox weren’t supposed to be competitive, it will be a very bad scene.

As is the case every day of every baseball season, the Yankees need to win and the Red Sox need to lose. More now than ever.

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