Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 1, 2017

Postseason On Tap, Three Starters Tell Three Stories

“You can never have too much starting pitching” is one of the fundamental truisms of the Great Game. Proof of that can be found at Citi Field, where a once promising Mets season ended in despair in no small part due to a host of injuries to what had so recently been deemed one of the best starting rotations in baseball. While the Metropolitans may be this season’s prime example of the adage, they are just the latest franchise to see hopes come a cropper when starting pitchers underperform.

What is true over the grind of the longest season is amplified once the playoffs begin. Whether it’s the crap shoot of the Wild Card play-in game, the best of five Division Series, or the best of seven League Championship and World Series that follow, teams that can send out reliable hurlers capable of shutting down opposing batsmen through the first five or six innings are at a decided advantage. Those with a truly dominant ace, one who can work his magic deep into a contest’s later frames, begin the postseason with at least one hand on the Commissioner’s Trophy.

Over their final three meaningful games of the 2017 regular season, the Yankees reminded their fans of the crucial role of the starting pitcher. The first of those contests was Thursday evening in the Bronx, the final of a three game set against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Yankees had won the first two and were assured of hosting the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday. But they were hoping for a sweep as they continued their longshot chase of the Boston Red Sox for the AL East title. New York was three back of Boston with four to play as the teams took the field. Sonny Gray, the 27-year old right hander acquired from Oakland at the trade deadline was given the task of holding the visitors’ bats in check.

That he might have trouble doing so quickly became evident. After striking out the Rays’ leadoff hitter, Gray sent a four-seam fastball in to Corey Dickerson, who deposited it into the second deck in right field to give Tampa Bay a 1-0 lead. While that was the only run plated by the Rays, before the inning was over Gray walked Lucas Duda, the first of four free passes he issued in just the first three innings.

Yankee batters did their part. Brett Gardner evened the score with a leadoff home run in the bottom of the first, and Aaron Judge followed with a long ball of his own, his league-leading 51st of the year. Todd Frazier singled home Jacoby Ellsbury in the 2nd, and Greg Bird smacked the third New York homer of the game in the 4th inning, giving Gray a 4-1 lead.

But as Gray took the mound in the 5th the vibe in the Stadium was not what one might expect given the score. It had taken the Yankees’ starter until the 4th inning to hurl a clean frame. He’d been saved in the 2nd when a fine throw by left fielder Gardner gunned down Daniel Robertson, who was trying to score from second on a Mallex Smith single. Just as fans feared, the roof caved in on the shaky Gray. In the course of twenty-six increasingly labored pitches, he surrendered two sharp singles, allowed runners to advance and score on a pair of errant deliveries – the first ruled a wild pitch, the second, although arguably just as wild, a passed ball – issued yet another walk and then gave up a lead-changing home run before yielding one last single. By the time manager Joe Girardi pulled his starter the 4-1 lead had vanished, and the Rays were on their way to a 9-6 victory.

Less than 24 hours later the Yankees were back out on the Stadium’s field, this time facing the Toronto Blue Jays in an unusual Friday afternoon game, the start time of which reflected the franchise’s desire to get the game in before the start of the Yom Kippur holiday. This time it was Masahiro Tanaka on the mound, and this time the feeling in the Stadium was different from the start. Tanaka struck out the side in the 1st before the Yankees plated a pair to take the lead after the opening inning. New York’s starter added another strikeout in the 2nd and two more in the 3rd. Mixing splitters and sliders with extraordinary movement, and the occasional fastball to keep Blue Jay hitters guessing, Tanaka retired the first fourteen batters he faced before Ezequiel Carrera managed an infield single with two outs in the 5th. Carrera stole second, which apparently angered the normally mild-mannered Tanaka. After four pitches to the next hitter, Tanaka suddenly whirled and picked Carrera off with a perfect throw to shortstop Didi Gregorius.

When he walked off the mound at the end of the 7th inning, Tanaka had allowed no runs and just three hits. Striking out at least one batter in every inning, New York’s starter finished with a career high fifteen K’s and no walks. Tanaka acknowledged the raucous standing ovation with a tip of his cap after perhaps his finest outing as a Yankee. David Robertson, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman finished up the 4-0 shutout.

Saturday afternoon’s start went to the 37-year old veteran CC Sabathia. The one-time fireballer now relies on guile more than power, and with his contract at an end and his right knee in a brace every time he pitches, this was almost certainly his last regular season appearance in pinstripes. If so, the pitcher who was instrumental in bringing a championship to the Bronx in 2009 made it a memorable one. For 5 2/3 innings he flummoxed Toronto batters with a mix of pitches. Sabathia struck out six and walked no one while allowing only four hits and just one batter to reach second base. Always proud of his work, Sabathia has been known to argue with Girardi if he feels he’s being pulled too soon. But on Saturday he left the mound with a big grin even as Yankee fans rose as one to salute him.

By that time New York had a 2-0 lead, thanks to Aaron Judge doing what Aaron Judge does; namely sending a ball 484 feet into the wind over the left field bleachers and onto a walkway in front of the wall displaying retired numbers. Judge’s 4th inning monster blast was followed by a second run plated in the more mundane way of single, advance on a wild pitch, score on another single. While the Blue Jays did finally end their scoreless streak with a run in the 8th, the fine outing by the Yankees’ starter paved the way to a 2-1 New York win.

The Yankees and all other major league teams played one final game on Sunday, with the new tradition of all games on the season’s last day starting at the same time. But this year there was not a single race or even postseason seeding at stake, so in place of scoreboard watching the longest season’s final day saw fifteen exhibitions. Now it’s on to the playoffs, which open in the Bronx Tuesday evening with the AL Wild Card play-in game between New York and Minnesota.

So many months ago, when teams broke training camps in Florida and Arizona and headed for Opening Day, the biggest question mark for the Yankees was the quality of their starting pitching. Now a team that was supposed to be in a rebuilding year is in the playoffs, about to face another feel-good story in the Twins, who rebounded from 103 losses in 2016 to the second Wild Card this year. As Yankee fans saw this weekend, how far their heroes or any of the ten playoff contestants go will depend ever so much on their starters. Because as someone once said, you can never have too much starting pitching.

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Responses

  1. Never heard “come a cropper” before and if I once knew the Mets were actually the Metropolitans, I long since forgot it. Great piece.

    Don


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