NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees are heading to the American League Division Series. The Yankees dispatched the Oakland Athletics in the AL Wild Card Game on Wednesday night to set up an ALDS showdown with the rival Boston Red Sox. The final score was 7-2 on Wednesday (box score). The ALDS begins Friday.
As expected, the Wild Card Game essentially became a bullpen game for both teams. The A's all but announced they would go with a true bullpen game Wednesday night, and that's exactly what they did. The Yankees wound up relying on their bullpen quite a bit as well.
Let's break down the Wild Card Game and the inning-by-inning pitching decisions. Come with me, won't you?
The Yankees tabbed Luis Severino to start the Wild Card Game and holy cats, he was electric in the first inning. Two strikeouts wrapped around a ground ball in a 1-2-3 inning. Last year Severino allowed three runs and recorded one out in the Wild Card Game, so, needless to say, his first inning in this year's Wild Card Game was much better.
Liam Hendriks drew the start after closing out the regular season with seven scoreless "opens." It did not go well. He walked Andrew McCutchen on five pitches -- McCutchen drew 22 walks in 25 regular season games with the Yankees -- then served up a two-run home run to Aaron Judge. It was a bomb:
At 116.1 mph, that was Judge's hardest hit ball since June 4. He missed close to two months with a wrist injury, remember. His hardest hit regular season batted ball following the injury was 112.1 mph.
Hendriks did settle down to retire the next three batters, but by then the damage had been done. The opener allowed two runs in his inning.
Severino was sent back for the second inning, understandably, after his dominant top of the first. The second inning was much more laborious. Severino struck out Khris Davis on five pitches, then walked Matt Olson on nine pitches to give the A's their first baserunner. Olson fouled away three two-strike pitches in the at-bat.
With Olson on first and one out, Severino ran the count full to Stephen Piscotty, then struck him out. He then ran the count full to Ramon Laureano, and struck him out too. Severino struck out three in that second inning but needed 27 pitches to do it. He walked Olson and went to three full counts. The Athletics really made him work.
"It's all going to be play-it-by-ear," said A's manager Bob Melvin prior to the Wild Card Game when asked whether he knew who would be his first man out of the bullpen. "We have a semi-script. But it just depends on what the situation will be. So it's a bit of a play-it-by-ear."
With the A's down 2-0, that first man out of the bullpen was Lou Trivino, the club's setup man for much of the season. Trivino struggled a bit down the stretch in September, and he was greeted by a Didi Gregorius infield single and a Miguel Andujar four-pitch walk. As good as he was this season, walking Andujar on four pitches isn't easy.
Oakland pitching coach Scott Emerson made a trip to the mound after the first two batters of the second inning reached base, and whatever he told Trivino, it worked. Trivino got Gary Sanchez to banged into a 4-6-3 double play to short-circuit New York's rally, then was able to strike out Gleyber Torres on three ugly swings to escape the inning.
Yankees skipper Aaron Boone had no reason to remove Severino at this point, even after he walked Marcus Semien to begin the inning. That made it four straight batters to see a full count. A Jonathan Lucroy ground out, a Nick Martini fielder's choice to first base, and a Matt Chapman fly out to right ended the inning. Severino did go to a full count on Chapman. That made it five full counts in the span of seven batters.
"Sevy set the tone and really came out on a mission. And I thought he threw the ball so well," said Boone following the Wild Card Game. "Credit to the A's though. They made it tough on him. And they battled him and he was able to make some big pitches when he really needed to, but kind of really made him work hard to that point."
The A's carried 11 pitchers on their Wild Card Game roster and it seemed entirely possibly they would use nine pitchers in nine innings. Or maybe eight pitchers in nine innings with Blake Treinen going for a six-out save.
Rather than go to a fresh reliever in the third, Melvin stuck with Trivino, who rewarded with him with a 1-2-3 inning on 12 pitches. Against the top of the order too: Trivino retired McCutchen, Judge, and Aaron Hicks. After Hendriks had a bad first inning and allowing the first two runners to reach base in the second inning, Trivino had retired six straight batters and restored order.
"We have dominant bullpen guys," said Melvin prior to the game. "(They've) had to acclimate to this type of style, too, but they've done it. But the bullpen has definitely been our strength."
Through three innings the Athletics had two walks, six strikeouts, and no hits. No real hard-hit balls either. After the first inning Severino was surviving more than dominating, however, and the fourth inning was his messiest inning. Jed Lowrie flew out on the first pitch, then, for the third time on three ground balls, a Yankees corner infielder made a bad throw. This time Andujar short-hopped a throw to first on Davis' ground ball and Luke Voit couldn't make the scoop at first.
Olson worked his second walk of the game to put two runners on base and, at that point, I started looking out toward the Yankees' bullpen. They led 2-0 at the time, but Severino was getting wobbly, and the tying run was on base. He'd thrown 66 pitches up to that point too. Instead, Boone let it ride with Severino, who got a fly ball from Piscotty and then walked Laureano to load the bases. It was a heck of an at-bat; Laureano split on four pitches just off the plate after falling behind in the count 0-2.
The walk to Laureano prompted the call to the bullpen. Not to replace Severino. Just to get someone warmed up. That someone: Dellin Betances, New York's eighth-inning reliever all season. Because he had just started warming it up, it meant Severino would face Semien with the bases loaded and two outs, and Severino escaped the jam with some seriously high-octane gas:
The A's were literally the worst hitting team in baseball against 95-plus mph fastballs during the regular season. Dead last in batting average and slugging percentage. The pitch Semien swung through for strike three was 99.6 mph. It was Severino's fastest pitch of the night. Boone stuck with his starter rather than go to the bullpen and it worked out.
On only one occasion this season did Trivino throw three innings in an outing during the regular season. It came on April 18, when he threw 49 pitches in his second appearance of the year. He hadn't even thrown full innings in a game since July 14. But, when a guy is throwing well in a do-or-die game, you stick with him, and Melvin sent Trivino out for a third inning of work. He retired the side on 13 pitches with two strikes. Three shutout innings for Trivino.
"We settled in pretty good and Trivino came in and did a nice job, and it remained 2-0 a while," said Melvin following the game. "We felt pretty good about it if we get some good at-bats together."
"Severino, he could pitch very easily deep into this game and it wouldn't surprise me and I think he's very capable of it," said Boone before the game when asked how quickly he would turn to his bullpen. It seemed like Severino was done after striking out Semien to end the high-stress fourth inning. He'd thrown 81 pitches up to that point and emptied the tank against Semien.
Instead, Boone opened himself up for some second guessing. He sent Severino out to begin the fifth, and after back-to-back singles to start the frame -- those were the A's first two hits of the game -- Boone pulled his starter. Sending him back out seemed unnecessary.
Betances, who'd warmed up in that fourth inning, entered the game with two on and no outs in the fifth. He hadn't entered a game that early since 2014, his breakout year. Betances hadn't entered a game earlier than the seventh inning all season. He'd been Boone's eighth inning guy all summer.
Consider the situation, however:
- The Yankees led 2-0.
- The A's had runners on first and second with no outs.
- The 2-3-4 hitters were due up in Chapman, Lowrie, and Davis.
- It's a winner-take-all postseason game.
If that situation doesn't scream "I need to use my best reliever here" to you, nothing will. To hell with a guy's "usual" inning. The Yankees needed their best reliever to escape a jam.and escape the jam Betances did. Chapman flew out to right, Lowrie flew out to center, and Davis struck out. Inning over, runners stranded. As good as New York's bullpen is, does a lesser reliever like David Robertson or Chad Green escape that mess? Boone wisely didn't bother trying to find out.
"We wanted Dellin for that part of the order. So I was willing to go to him obviously as early as we were," Boone said. "Sevy had an opportunity to get through those guys. And had he done that, you know had he gotten those first two guys out, we would have stuck with Sevy there. But we're prepared, if a couple guys got on there and just because they were making them work so hard, we were prepared to go to Dellin if we felt it was necessary. And after the first two guys got on I believe that it felt like time."
Trivino had reached his limit. Three innings and 41 pitches made for his longest outing in months. With three right-handed hitters (Andujar, Sanchez, Torres) due up in the fifth inning, Melvin called on right-handed slider specialist Shawn Kelley. After an infield single, Kelley retired the next three batters on 12 pitches. Three pitchers, five innings, two runs allowed. Would Melvin and the A's have taken that going into the Wild Card Game? I think so.
Back in 2014 and 2015, when he first established himself as one of the top relievers in the game, Betances would routinely go multiple innings each time out. He was Josh Hader, basically. Use him for two or three innings at a time, give a few days rest, then turn him loose again.
Betances doesn't really do that anymore. As the innings mount and the wear and tear builds, that second inning of work doesn't come as easy as it once did. Still, in an important postseason game, Boone leaned on his best reliever and Betances delivered a three-up, three-down frame. He entered with two runners on base and no outs in the fifth inning, and retired all six batters he faced. It was the first time Betances recorded at least four outs since August 11 and the first time he threw two complete innings since May 23.
"I've been waiting on this moment for a long time.," said Betances, who was persona non grata in the postseason last year because he struggled so much with his control.
If you want to second guess anything Melvin did in the Wild Card Game, this is probably the inning. The Yankees were nursing their 2-0 lead at the time and the 2-3-4 hitters were due up. Melvin called on Fernando Rodney, who's still quite good at age 41, but no longer great. Judge squibbed a leadoff double inside the first base bag and scored on an Aaron Hicks double into the right-center field gap ...
... that was juuust out of the reach of a leaping Semien, who was behind the second base bag in the shift. Four pitches into the inning, the Yankees had back-to-back doubles and an insurance run. A first-pitch wild pitch to Giancarlo Stanton moved Hicks to third with no outs.
At that point, Melvin did something drastic. He went to Treinen, his closer, with no outs in the sixth inning. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The A's were down 3-0 with a fourth run 90 feet away. They needed to stop the Yankees from scoring right there.
"We just got to get our best in there at that time," said Melvin. "They knew everything was kind of up for grabs tonight depending on what the situation of the game was. So we're not (going to do that) with Treinen earlier in the year, but the point in time in the game we're, trying to cut if off."
My question: If Melvin was willing to use Treinen in the sixth inning, why not have him start the inning so he could face Judge? Ultimately, Treinen could not stop the bleeding. He walked Stanton after an eight-pitch at-bat, then gave up booming two-run triple to Voit. It was very nearly into the Yankee Stadium short right field porch for a three-run home run.
It should be noted Voit worked Treinen for nine pitches and fouled away three of his turbosinkers with two strikes to stay alive. It was a monster at-bat. Let the record show I called Voit coming up with a big hit in my Wild Card prediction. Granted, pretty much every other part of my prediction was wrong, but small victories. Voit's triple gave the Yankees a 5-0 lead. He then scored on a Gregorius sacrifice fly to stretch the lead to 6-0. Replay confirmed he slid around Lucroy's tag.
"He kept coming in with sinker, sinker, sinker, and I was trying to keep pushing him out, and he kept coming back in," said Voit. "I faced him before and I knew he was going to go to a slider at some point and I got a pitch to hit on the ninth pitch."
With six innings in the books and a three-run lead, it was time for the Yankees to begin ticking away the outs. Robertson tossed a 1-2-3 seventh inning and got some help from Adeiny Hechavarria, who replaced Andujar for defense in the third inning.
Boone and the Yankees have routinely lifted Andujar for defense late in games this season. Usually in the eighth or ninth inning, however. Andujar was pulled for defense in the sixth inning in the Wild Card Game and the move paid off in the seventh. Three pitchers and seven innings into the night, the Yankees had a 6-0 lead.
Once Treinen entered the game, Melvin was going to max him out. Treinen had thrown as many as three innings in a game this season, and 19 times in 68 appearances he recorded at least four outs. Melvin was going to get as much out of his All-Star closer as possible. Treinen issued a two-out walk to Judge in an otherwise uneventful seventh inning.
Boone was able to use Betances in the fifth and sixth innings because he had Zach Britton, an accomplished closer, in reserve for the late innings. Britton entered with the Yankees up 6-0 in the eighth inning and he faced the middle of the A's lineup. Their ground ball rates:
- Chapman: 40.3 percent (58th lowest among 140 qualified hitters)
- Lowrie: 33.2 percent (seventh lowest)
- Davis: 35.3 percent (20th lowest)
- Olson: 35.9 percent (25th lowest)
The A's have a fly-ball dominant middle of the lineup -- they were years ahead of everyone else on the launch angle thing -- and Britton has been baseball's most extreme ground ball pitcher for years now. His ground ball rate with the Yankees was 77.8 percent this year. It was 77.7 percent with the Orioles from 2015-17. The Yankees went with their ground ball specialist against the A's fly ball specialists and, well, Davis did this:
The two-run home run got the Athletics on the board and cut New York's lead to 6-2. Britton did get three ground ball outs in the inning, however, so the plan did kind of work out. Either way, the Yankees were through eight innings with a 6-2 lead.
Going into the eighth inning Treinen had thrown 38 pitches to get six outs. Only twice did he throw that many pitches in the regular season: 44 pitches on April 18 and 40 pitches on July 21. He also had a 37-pitch outing on May 2.
Melvin sent Treinen back out for the eighth inning, and while it would be easy to second guess this move given how many pitches Treinen had thrown, I can't fault a manager for sticking with his relief ace in a must-win game. Stanton hit Treinen's 42nd and final pitch of the night damn near to the moon for a solo home run and a 7-2 lead.
Never once during the regular season did Treinen allow more than one earned run in a game. You have to go back to September 4, 2017, for the last time he allowed multiple earned runs in an outing and June 29, 2017, for the last time he allowed as many as three earned runs in an outing. Also, only 13 times in 68 appearances during the 2018 regular season did Treinen fail to strike out a batter. Then he did it in the Wild Card Game.
Melvin brought Treinen into the game in the sixth inning -- he was very aggressive with his ace closer -- but it just didn't work out. Give the Yankees credit for working Treinen hard, not swinging and missing, and driving the ball when they got something to hit. Melvin went to Jeurys Familia to finish off that eighth inning and he retired the next three batters after Stanton's home run on 10 pitches.
With a 7-2 lead in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, Boone gave the ball to his closer Aroldis Chapman. And, even if Chapman made a mess of things, he still had the Green available as a safety net. Chapman allowed a leadoff single to Semien before retiring the next three batters to close out the game and send the Yankees to Boston for the ALDS.
As expected, Wednesday's AL Wild Card Game devolved into a bullpen game for both sides. For the A's, it was intentional. They planned a bullpen game at the outset. They just didn't expect Hendriks to put them behind in the first inning, or for Treinen to be something less than untouchable. Six A's relievers combined to allow seven runs in eight innings.
The Yankees, meanwhile, leaned on their bullpen after Severino got them through four innings plus two batters. He was electric in the first inning and had to grind thereafter. Four Yankees relievers combined to throw five innings and allowed just two runs, on the Davis homer. The Wild Card Game had a pretty good chance to become a battle of the bullpens, and that's exactly what happened, with the Yankees coming out on top.
"I think it's different (managing in the postseason)," said Boone after the game. "I think it is certainly different than the regular season, with the aggression and you're willing to push guys and push certain relievers on a given night, yeah. But it changes a little bit every day."