After their first Wild Card Game win since the game’s introduction in 2012, the New York Yankees are preparing for their first American League Division Series since that same year and a matchup with the Cleveland Indians. What better rest for the Yankees than a team that won 22 straight games and 33 of their final 37 en route to finishing with a 102-60 record.
For some teams, especially those in a “transition” year, simply making it to the ALDS would be enough to celebrate and raise a banner. But these Yankees, one led by American League MVP candidate Aaron Judge and a deep pitching staff, are looking for more than a brief trip to the postseason dance. Do the Yankees, a year after beginning the stages of a rebuild, have a chance to pull off their biggest playoff upset since the 1996 postseason?
Let’s take this time to look at five ways the Yankees can upset the Indians, a team many believe will walk away with their first World Series win since 1948, and move onto the ALCS.
1. Sonny Gray has to pitch efficiently
If there’s one early benefit for the Yankees and starter Sonny Gray, it’s that the midseason acquisition likely won’t be pitching at Yankee Stadium this series. Over his final three starts in the Bronx this season, Gray allowed 15 runs and 17 hits — six of which were home runs — across 15 and two-thirds innings, fishing with a 5.65 ERA in five home starts. Interestingly, that’s despite Gray only allowing a 0.227 average against, likely a casualty of him being used to pitching in a bigger park with the Athletics.
In six away starts, however, Gray pitched to a 2.21 ERA and only allowing three home runs. With Girardi following in the footsteps of his one-time mentor, former Yankees manager Joe Torre, and saving his best available starter (CC Sabathia) for game two, Gray will need to pitch in Cleveland the way he has on the road this year.
For what its worth, Gray made his Yankees debut against Cleveland on August 3, scattering four hits and four runs — two of which were earned — in six innings, striking out six on 98 pitches. If the Yankees can get a repeat of that while playing better defense, Gray should be looking at his first career postseason win.
2. Keep Aaron Judge – and the lineup – the way they are
Joe Girardi hasn’t earned his nickname of “Binder Joe” because it sounds cool. After infuriating some fans by refusing to move struggling veterans like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez down in the lineup, Girardi has earned ire in recent years for his heavy reliance on a binder. Playing the matchups is one thing, especially when using sabermetric stats, but living and dying by the binder is only partially why the Yankees are playing in their first ALDS since 2012.
Tuesday night, Girardi avoided what the binder may have said about hitting Aaron Judge cleanup or keeping Luis Severino in the game to battle his way through the first inning. Every decision Girardi made on Tuesday, especially with regard to hitting Judge second, Gary Sanchez third, and starting Todd Fraizer at third base should be repeated this series if the Yankees want to move onto the ALCS.
Look for designated hitter Matt Holliday, who has struggled mightily against right-handers this season, to stay on the bench until one of the Indians’ left-handed relievers comes in. If the baseball gods are watching, Holliday will hit a go-ahead home run against Andrew Miller in Game 2.
3. Test Luis Severino as a reliever
After Luis Severino’s meltdown on Tuesday night when he gave up more runs (three) than recorded outs (one), some speculated Severino would make sense as a bullpen option not as a demotion, but because the Cy Young contender pitched brilliantly in relief last season. In 11 games as a reliever last season, Severino was 3-0 with a 0.39 and 25 strikeouts in 23 and one-thirds innings; the then-22-year-old, who started two games when the Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention, also held opponents to a 0.105 batting average.
“[Yankees manager Joe Girardi] could use me out of the bullpen,” Severino said, via the New York Daily News. “I’m ready. I want to get back out there. But if they want me to start, I’ll be ready for that, too. I was just too quick [Tuesday] night.”
Severino has been in this situation before as a reliever when the Yankees needed him most. If a situation arises prior to game four — when Severino is currently scheduled to start if the Indians do not pull off the sweep — where he’s needed in a jam, would it really hurt the Yankees to use him?
4. Don’t fear Jose Ramirez
What has made the Indians’ run to the postseason this year, which included a record-breaking 22 game winning streak along the way, so fascinating is the rise of infielder Jose Ramirez. With All-Stars Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis each battling injuries this season, Ramirez stepped up to post a 6.9 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and slash 0.318/0.374/0.539 with 29 home runs, 83 runs batted in, and 17 stolen bases. After Jose Altuve and Judge, there is an extremely realistic chance Ramirez is going to finish third in the American League MVP voting and for good reason.
With that said, how do the Yankees prepare to pitch against a hitter like Ramirez? Simple: don’t fear him. Ramirez is another hitter, one who hit 0.268 last postseason and was 1-for-17 in the ALCS against Toronto. That’s not to say Ramirez isn’t a fine player, but there are very few active players that are true players to fear in the postseason — and even then, that shouldn’t change much in the approach.
5. Feed off Yankee Stadium
With the Yankees playing only one postseason game over the past five seasons prior to Tuesday night, a narrative had been published that Yankee Stadium is boring and lacks the atmosphere of the old stadium. True, the current building may not have the same aura and mystique that allowed for 26 titles in the first Yankee Stadium, but Tuesday night showed what can happen when the Bronx Bombers play meaningful baseball.
From their thumbs down celebrations to fictional in-game dugout interviews, the Yankees have done a fantastic job this season of feeding off their fan base, and Game 3 should be no exception. Aura and mystique have been replaced with creativity and excitement. Not a bad trade-off, especially not if it results in a World Series win.
[Featured Image by Kathy Willens/AP Images]