After a disappointing (and somewhat embarrassing) loss on Saturday, the Yankees looked like themselves on Sunday, winning their first series of the season against a bad Giants team. Beating up on bad teams is what the Yankees should do, and they did just that in two of the first three games to open the season.
Opening Day was awesome. It was as good and as clean of an Opening Day win as you could ask for, and it made for an enjoyable Thursday night, Friday and first half of Saturday, being able to bask in the glory of starting the season 1-0. I wrote about Opening Day here, so while the Thoughts typically cover the entire most recent series, I’m just going to keep this to the games on Saturday and Sunday.
1. Clarke Schmidt was filthy on Saturday … the first one-and-one-third times through the order.
Here is what Schmidt did in the first three innings: 3 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K
Here is what he did in the fourth inning: 0.1 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 2 HR
The Schmidt we saw in innings 1 through 3 was the guy I expected him to develop into in now his fourth season of getting innings in the majors. The guy we saw in the fourth inning is the guy I feared he would be with the Yankees needing him to step up with 60 percent of their expected rotation on the injured list.
2. Schmidt was bad, but he wasn’t the only one. Michael King, pitching for the first time since July 22 (and since his offseason comments about the Astros can’t beat the Yankees when healthy) allowed five baserunners and two runs in 1 2/3 innings. Clay Holmes (who is supposed to be the Yankees closer despite losing all fan trust in the second half of last season) allowed two runs on three hits and couldn’t even complete a full inning.
I’m not worried about the Yankees’ bullpen because of its depth and because Jonathan Loaisiga, Wandy Peralta and Ron Marinaccio are all outstanding (even if Aaron Boone had Marinaccio throw two innings and a career-high in pitches in a five-run game on freezing cold Opening Day and then had him throw another 1 1/3 innings on Sunday). But I’m worried that Boone will continue to use King and Holmes as his Nos. 1 and 2 relievers like it’s June of last year and not a completely new season.
3. Because Yankees pitching allowed seven runs to the mediocre-at-best Giants on Saturday, the Yankees trailed 7-4 entering the bottom of the ninth. Aaron Hicks made his 2023 debut as a pinch hitter for Jose Trevino and was immediately granted a 1-0 count because of a pitch timer violation on Camilo Doval. Hicks worked what should have been a walk in the at-bat to lead off the ninth, but got screwed by home plate umpire Andy Fletcher and ended up striking out. (I need robot ball-strike calls or ball-strike challenges in 2024. Enough is enough.) After the Hicks strikeout, Anthony Volpe singled and DJ LeMahieu walked. Aaron Judge singled in Volpe and then Anthony Rizzo walked to load the bases for Giancarlo Stanton with the Yankees trailing 7-5.
Doval got behind Stanton 2-0 and this had been Doval’s appearance to that point: a strikeout that should have been a walk, a single, a walk, another single, another walk, two pitch timer violations and now a 2-0 count to Stanton. Stanton should have laid his bat down and stood in the box batless, because there was absolutely no way Doval was going to throw three strikes before two more balls (unless Fletcher helped him out again). But I knew better than to think Stanton would take. Just as Doval came set, I said to my wife, “He’s swinging at this 2-0 no matter where it is.” Sure enough, Stanton swung and banged into a 6-4-3, game-ending double play.
Upon replay, it looked as though Thairo Estrada wasn’t on second base when he caught the ball for the first out of the double play, and it looked like LaMonte Wade may have not been connected to first when he got the ball for the second out either. There was a chance everyone on the play would be called safe after a review, but at worst, it looked like Rizzo would be safe at second, Stanton out at first with LeMahieu scoring to make it 7-6 and runners on second and third with two outs. Instead, the league office decided the call on the field would stand and the game was over.
You can complain about the horrendous called strike to Hicks (and I will) or you can question how the league office couldn’t recognize Estrada’s foot off the base (it was), but what Saturday’s loss comes down to is you can’t allow seven runs to this Giants team.
4. Outside of the seven runs allowed on Saturday, the Yankees didn’t allow any runs in the other two games. Eighteen scoreless innings from Yankees pitching in Games 1 and 3 of the series and season. Six of those were from Gerrit Cole on Thursday, and on Sunday, in his major-league debut, Johny Brito shut out the Giants for five innings.
With Carlos Rodon and Luis Severino expected back in a month (pray) or so (“or so” is more likely) there will still be a need for a fifth starter in the rotation since Frankie Montas has likely thrown his last pitch as a Yankee. Schmidt bombed in his first audition for that role, while Brito looked every bit the part of a major-league starter in his first opportunity. (Even if Domingo German dazzles on Tuesday, I want no part of German winning the spot in the rotation.)
Brito was phenomenal in first taste of the majors (5 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 6 K), and for a pitcher who barely walked anyone in the minors, that carried over to the majors. I love everything about Brito, but especially the lack of walks. Make the opposition beat you. Don’t nibble and don’t give free passes. Give me more Jhony Brito!
5. The power continued its presence as Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Kyle Higashioka all hit home runs, and nearly everyone contributed to the win. If you didn’t watch the game, I’m sure you can guess who didn’t contribute. That would be the dynamic duo of Josh Donaldson and Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who went a combined 0-for-7 with a walk and two strikeouts.
When the lineup was posted on Sunday, all I could do was laugh. DJ LeMahieu wasn’t in it, needing a day off after playing second base on Thursday, getting a day off on Friday and DHing on Saturday. With LeMahieu’s foot issue from last season, Boone and the Yankees are going to take the load management to a whole new level with their leadoff hitter this season. Even if there’s no proof it will keep his foot healthy or prevent him from injuring something else. But that wasn’t even the most egregious lineup decision for the third game of the season. That honor would go to Kiner-Falefa starting in center field.
Kiner-Falefa entered Sunday with zero career appearances in the outfield. He just started getting time in the outfield two weeks ago in spring training, yet here he was playing center field in Yankee Stadium, while a guy the Yankees gave $70 million to (of which they still owe three years and $30 million on) to play center field was on the bench. To make matters worse, the Giants’ starter on Sunday was the right-handed Ross Stripling. Kiner-Falefa is a right-handed bat. The $70 million Hicks is switch hitter who can therefore bat left-handed against right-handed starters.
The decision was more than puzzling. If Hicks isn’t going to play his most customary position over someone who has never played the position before, then why is he on the team? That’s before you even factor in Kiner-Falefa being a right-handed-only bat and Hicks being a switch hitter against the right-handed Stripling. It’s hurting my head trying to simplify this as I write about it.
6. Before the game, Hicks was asked by The Athletic about his playing time and he didn’t hold back.
“I have no idea what my role is,” Hicks said. “It’s kind of uncertain.”
“Uncertain” is a nice way to put it when you’re getting passed over for Kiner-Falefa.
“I just want to play,” Hicks said. “I don’t want to come off the bench and face closers all day. I want to play the field, I want to play every day, and it’s just what I want to do. I want to start. I really don’t know what else to say.”
Hicks must have a short memory. Luckily, I don’t. Last August, in the middle of one of his many benchings during the 2022 season, Hicks said, “If I’m a guy that’s in the lineup, cool. If I’m not, it is what it is.” He did his best to say he didn’t care if he played or not last season and now all of a sudden he wants to play every day?
“If you would have told me (in spring training) that I wouldn’t have started the first three games, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Hicks said. “But it is what it is. But there’s nothing I can do about it. Just sit around and wait for my opportunity and try my best.”
No one likes saying “It is what it is” more than Hicks. I’m just glad he’s going to try his best when he plays. That’s nice of him.
Word of Hicks’ unhappiness got to Boone who was asked about it.
“He’ll play even though he hasn’t been in the lineup these first few,” Boone said. “It was kind of the last two days, didn’t love that matchup. But likely in there the next two days.”
7. Hicks wasn’t good enough to play in any of the first three games, but now he’s automatically playing the next two games? If Hicks plays that means someone sits,. Someone who deserves to play. You have to admire the Yankees’ inexcusable stubbornness to plan out their lineups days in advance and to begin giving their regulars scheduled days off not even a week into the season.
It’s obvious Boone doesn’t like Hicks, and I can’t blame him. Boone benched him outright on at least three occasions last season and pulled him from that September 9 game against the Rays when Hicks misplayed two fly balls in a row. In February, Hicks spoke about that benching and said, “Boone was like, ‘I’m sorry, I read the situation wrong. I understand what you’re going through … blah, blah, blah.'” And Boone responded by saying, “I don’t know if I said it like that … It was my decision to make and one I felt like I had to make in the moment. It’s as simple as that.”
8. As I stood at my seat at the Stadium in October during Game 5 of the ALDS and watched Boone help Hicks limp off the field following his season-ending collision with Oswaldo Cabrera, I figured it was the last time I would ever see Hicks play for the Yankees. I’m sure Hicks thought the same thing. I’m sure Boone, helping Hicks, thought the same thing. I don’t think Hicks expected to be a Yankee in 2023. I’m sure he thought they would eat money or attach a prospect to his contract to move him. They tried and no one wanted him. The only way another team will want him is if he’s released and then owed just the veteran minimum by the new team. That’s where this is headed, and until it gets there, if Hicks can’t even play his customary position over an infielder with no outfield experience, let alone center field experience, he’s just wasting a roster spot.
9. “I was concerned about things that shouldn’t be concerned about,” Hicks said in February reflecting on last season. “I should have been playing the game, trying to win the game, that’s it. I felt like I allowed myself to get wrapped up in the position change, the dropping down the order. I got really wrapped up in my performance, too.”
Hicks said all of that less than six weeks ago, and it seems like he’s headed down the same road. Rather than replying, “I’m here to do whatever is needed to help the team,” or “I’m just waiting for my chance and I’ll be ready,” or using some other boring, generic answer when asked by The Athletic about his role, Hicks decided the hours before the third game of the season was the time to publicly voice his displeasure with his playing time.
On a day when the Yankees won a game, won a series, posted their second shutout in three games to the start the season and received an impressive effort from a pitcher making his major-league debut, Hicks should be the farthest player from creating a story or headline considering he didn’t appear in the game and has contributed one non-productive at-bat through the first three games of the season. That’s what is called a distraction. The Yankees don’t need an unnecessary distraction, the same way they didn’t needed to extend Hicks and haven’t needed to stand by and wait for him to overcome injury after injury and disappointing season after disappointing season. But they keep rostering him, keep trying to make it work, keep trying to make him happy and now his mere presence is taking away from the actual on-the-field result.
10. When it comes to the schedule, it’s not necessarily about who you play, but when you play them, and the Yankees will play their three games against the Phillies this season this week when the Phillies are without Bryce Harper and when the Yankees will be able to miss seeing Zack Wheeler (as he started on Saturday). The Phillies are off to horrible start, winless in their first three games. They blew a five-run lead on Opening Day, got blown out 16-3 on Saturday and then scored one run on Sunday night. They will be hungry for a win and manager Rob Thomson will be hungry to shove the decision to pass over him for Boone in the face of the Yankees’ front office over the the next three days at the Stadium.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!