Yankees-Twins ALDS Game 1 Thoughts: D(erek) J(eter) LeMahieu Leads the Way

The Yankees’ regular-season MVP was their MVP in the series opener

The wait between Game 162 of the regular season and Game 1 of the ALDS felt like sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room all week. It’s been a long time since the Yankees had such the extended layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason because it’s been a long time since they reached the postseason without playing in the wild-card game.

It’s also been a long time since the Yankees played a meaningful game. The division was essentially won back at the end of June and with the organization’s half-hearted attempt in September to win home-field advantage, the Yankees have essentially been playing exhibition games since shortly before the All-Star break. Nearly the entire regular season was a formality — the way it was many times between 1995-2012 — and the last six-plus months have been about preparing for Friday night and the postseason.

I got to my seat in Yankee Stadium just in time to see the sad sight of Dellin Betances hobbling to the first-base line on crutches. The second-best relief pitcher in Yankees history and the one true bright spot on the team during the dark years between 2013 and 2016 deserved to be able to pitch in his free-agency year and in these playoffs. I felt sad for Betances on a night that would be stressful and hopefully end in happiness. But outside of James Paxton’s pitching performance, I wouldn’t be sad again.

I wanted the rotation to be Luis Severino in Game 1 followed by Paxton in Game 2 and Masahiro Tanaka in Game 3. I wanted Severino in the first game because he’s the team’s best pitcher and innings-wise his arm is in early April when he’s at his best. There’s no fatigue with Severino after a season of 30-plus starts and he looked like his usual self in his three short starts in September. I wanted Tanaka in Game 3 because I trust him more than the other two to make adjustments mid-game (the guy completely changed the grip of his signature pitch which has made his career) and not get rattled on the road. I would then have slotted Paxton second because he’s the lone lefty to give a different look between the righties and because of his post-July success.

Paxton’s first-inning troubles returned at the worst time. He allowed a solo home run to Jorge Polanco in the first, but settled down with a scoreless second before allowing a two-out solo home run to Nelson Cruz in the third. As Cruz walked to the plate, I joked that he scares me more than David Ortiz, and then Cruz sent the first pitch of the at-bat over the right-field wall, coincidentally tying Ortiz with 17 postseason home runs.

Paxton wasn’t good in his 4 2/3 innings aside from racking up eight strikeouts. He allowed three earned runs, six baserunners and two home runs. Yes, the Twins have a deep and dangerous lineup and he gave the team two more outs than they probably felt they needed, but three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings isn’t going to work this month unless the offense is going to hit the way it hit last night.

It’s crazy to remember DJ LeMahieu wasn’t in the Opening Day lineup. He has been the team’s best and most valuable player since the first weekend of the season and continues to impress with each game. I expect LeMahieu to come through in every at-bat at this point, and he always seems to. Thankfully, his odd second-inning error didn’t result in any Twins runs, but he more than made up for it anyway with a home run, which gave the Yankees an important insurance run in the sixth, and a bases-loaded, bases-clearing double to break the game open in the seventh. He was the team’s most valuable player all season and was again in Game 1 of the ALDS.

I recently joked about ending up in the emergency room if the Yankees batted Brett Gardner third in the playoffs. It was one thing (though still ridiculous) to bat Gardner third in May when the entire team was on the injured list, but in the playoffs? Sure enough, there he was, batting third for Game 1. Gardner probably wouldn’t even be in the lineup if Aaron Hicks were healthy, and outside of Didi Gregorius, he’s the worst hitter on the team, yet somehow is batting ahead of Edwin Encarnacion, Giancarlo Stanton, Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez. Just because he bats left-handed doesn’t mean he has to bat third, and there’s no need to have to break up all of the righties. Gardner hit a solo home run and the Yankees won, so I’m sure he will be back in the 3-hole for Game 2, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right move, especially long-term in these playoffs.

The quick hook on Adam Ottavino all season and again in Game 1 continues to be puzzling. I have been scared of Aaron Boone’s faith in Tommy Kahnle and lack of faith in Ottavino and have worried about Kahnle blowing a playoff game and he was on his way to on Friday. Thankfully, Boone didn’t have any say or impact on the game because the offense put up 10 runs and no type of bullpen management could ruin a blowout win. If only the Yankees could score 10 runs every game in October and take their manager out of the game.

For all of the postseason wins over the Twins since 2003, they have mostly come as a result of late-game heroics or wild comebacks. There haven’t been many “easy” wins, especially in Game 1.

I have always felt the division series should be more than a best-of-5 because after a six-month grind to reach the postseason, your season could essentially be over in 24 hours if you have two bad games. The Yankees have a chance to essentially end the Twins’ season on Saturday in Game 2, and it will be Masahiro Tanaka and his 1.50 ERA in five postseason games who can put the Yankees up 2-0.

One down, 10 to go.