NEW YORK — As he prepared to manage his first winner-take-all elimination game, New York Yankees skipper Aaron Boone recalled an all-or-nothing night from his time as a player.
The day after the 1999 regular season ended, Boone took the field in the National League wild-card tiebreaker, playing third base and batting eighth for the Cincinnati Reds against the visiting New York Mets.
So what happened?
“I remember Al Leiter pitching really well,” Boone deadpanned.
Completely dominated, the Reds scratched across only two hits against the lefty, who went on to earn the complete-game win in a 5-0 Mets victory. Four years later, Boone would enter Bronx Bombers postseason lore forever with an American League Championship Series-winning home run against the Red Sox. That night in Cincinnati, though, there were no heroics — last-minute or otherwise — from Boone, who went 0-for-3.
When Boone leads this current crop of Bronx Bombers into Wednesday night’s American League wild-card game, he’s hopeful it won’t take long for his offense to supply some firepower. He’s also hopeful his starting pitcher will turn in an outing a la Leiter — or that he’ll at least get enough from ace Luis Severino for a smooth handoff to his electrifying bullpen.
“Hopefully he pitches deep into this game,” Boone said.
Said Severino: “I just want to win. Whatever happens, if I can go four good innings and then the bullpen comes, that would be great.”
But what if Severino, who will take the mound Wednesday night against the Oakland Athletics, doesn’t start strong? What if he gets hammered early, much like he did in last year’s wild-card game against the Twins, when he was pulled after just one-third of an inning by former manager Joe Girardi?
If that’s the case, don’t be surprised if history repeats itself.
“Obviously with our bullpen and what we’ll have available at our disposal,” Boone said, “we’ll also be very aggressive in making moves or trying to set up the best matchups, depending on the game.”
Very aggressive. That’s the approach the Yankees plan to take all night, whether it entails pulling a pitcher early, swapping in a pinch runner midgame or changing out catchers.
“You tend to be a lot more aggressive in the things you do in these kind of games,” Boone said, “especially when there’s no tomorrow.”
Lose this one, and tomorrow the season is over. Win it, and the Yankees head to Boston for the division series and another postseason battle with the Red Sox.
With the stakes so high, Boone’s starting pitcher isn’t the only one who could get an early hook: The Yankees have put three catchers on their wild-card roster. With a diminished need for starting pitchers in a one-game scenario, New York can afford to sacrifice a starting pitcher’s spot for an extra bench player. But three catchers?
It would appear that if there are any major defensive struggles for the embattled Gary Sanchez, backups Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka could see action. Or one of them could take over behind the plate if Boone opts to pinch run for Sanchez in a key spot.
“If I can get that fastball inside, and if that slider is sharp, I can get through that lineup.”
Luis Severino on his wild-card game start against Oakland
Outwardly Boone contends he’s not wavering on Sanchez — who turned his scuffling bat around this past week, hitting two home runs — despite a major league-leading 18 passed balls (in just 76 games catching) and a .186 batting average this season.
Two of Sanchez’s passed balls came while catching Severino’s 2⅔-inning outing at Oakland last month. Both players chalked up those miscues, and two other wild pitches in that game, to miscommunication issues. They reiterated Tuesday that those issues had been resolved.
“I’m confident they are in a good place, will be on the same page, and they give us a great chance to win,” Boone said.
Beyond staying in rhythm with his catcher, Severino’s focus for this game rests with his pitching repertoire.
“If I can get that fastball inside, and if that slider is sharp, I can get through that lineup,” Severino said.
Anchored by the likes of Khris Davis (who hit an MLB-best 48 home runs this season), Oakland’s lineup poses a significant threat. But even if Davis & Co. rough up Severino within the first three innings, Boone believes in his options.
Of the 10 pitchers New York is keeping on its wild-card roster, four are starters. In addition to Severino, Lance Lynn, Masahiro Tanaka and J.A. Happ — presumed to be the Yankees’ Game 1 ALDS starter if they make it that far — will be available.
Ideally, the Yankees won’t need any of them. Their dream scenario would be for Severino to get through at least four innings. Based upon its rollout of relief pitchers in recent weeks, New York would likely turn to Chad Green in the fifth. David Robertson, one of the relievers who, like Green, stopped the bleeding in last year’s wild-card victory over Minnesota, would get the sixth.
Aroldis Chapman could then get the seventh, Dellin Betances the eighth and Zach Britton the ninth. The Yankees also could switch around Chapman and Britton. In the two weeks since Chapman returned from the disabled list, both pitchers have been given chances to close.
Among big league bullpens this season, the Yankees ranked fourth in ERA (3.38) and second in strikeouts (753). Tampa Bay’s relievers, some of whom opened multiple ballgames as part of the club’s innovative “bullpenning” tactic, was just ahead of them, with 754 strikeouts.
“We’ve seen, really over the last five or 10 years, just how big a factor the bullpen has been in a lot of teams’ run to a world championship,” said Boone, who will see a bullpen game from Oakland on Wednesday. “We know the A’s have a ton of really good arms over there that present a lot of challenges for us, and we’ll just be prepared as best we can to handle that and to succeed.”
Reliever Liam Hendriks will open for Oakland. The last time he did that against the Yankees, the A’s used him for only the first inning in a game New York eventually won 5-1.
According to ESPN Stats & Information research, the Yankees this season went 19-16 with a .771 OPS in games where they faced six or more opposing pitchers. In the final week of the regular season alone, they faced four planned bullpen days. The Yankees hit 10 home runs and won three of the four games — partly by sticking to their usual game plan.
“Even if they bring a starter in and you beat him up a little bit, you’ve got to expect a bunch of different pitchers each inning,” Giancarlo Stanton said.
Still, first baseman Luke Voit, who had eight hits and two homers in last week’s four bullpen games, takes a different approach to facing a revolving door of opposing pitchers.
“You almost have to treat it like it’s the fifth or sixth inning right away,” Voit said. “Just because we know we’re going to get all those guys and we’re probably only going to get one at-bat against each guy. It’s different because usually you get two or three at-bats against the starter.”
Veteran Brett Gardner is one Yankee likely looking at minimal at-bats Wednesday. Since Andrew McCutchen has essentially taken over his post in left field, Gardner has been relegated to the bench. McCutchen is hitting .253 with five homers and a .421 on-base percentage since arriving via a waiver-deadline trade a month ago.
Gardner closed out the regular season filling in for center fielder Aaron Hicks who temporarily had a tight hamstring. Against Oakland, he and fellow speedster Tyler Wade could be a late defensive or baserunning addition.
“I know that there aren’t many guys in our lineup that are probably going to be pinch hit for, but in case something happens, we’ve got to be prepared,” Gardner said. “It’s been a little bit of a learning process. And I can credit Neil [Walker] with a lot of this. He’s helped me out with a lot of routines during the game, because he’s been a full-time player for his whole career, and then this year obviously he’s been kind of on and off and dealing with some part-time stuff. And he’s really good at coming in the game and being ready.”
The Yankees skipper — who earned the nickname Aaron Bleepin’ Boone in Boston after his 2003 ALCS walk-off — is battle-tested in the playoffs. Time will tell if he can bring that magic as a manager.
“There’s very few things you get to experience in life that will rival those kind of moments wearing this uniform,” Boone said. “Hopefully some guys here will have some moments ahead of them as this month unfolds.”
For this month to go the way the Yankees want it to, they first have to win this game. That’s why to a man they contend the next round, for now, doesn’t exist. There is no chance of facing Boston again if they don’t first handle matters Wednesday.
“You pour everything you can into Wednesday,” Boone said. “It’s truly all hands on deck to try and win a game.”