NEW YORK — In stark contrast to the proficiency with which he handled staff ace Luis Severino in the Yankees’ AL Wild Card win, pulling the right-hander after four electrifying (if wild) innings, manager Aaron Boone appeared to be caught flat-footed last night in Game Three of the AL Division Series against the Red Sox.
Well equipped to handle Severino’s heat, the Boston lineup — featuring four players who didn’t start Game Two — hit scorcher after scorcher off the 24-year-old righty through the first three innings, building up a 3-0 lead in the process. By the time Boone came out of the dugout, three batters into the fourth inning, he was too late. The pitcher to whom he turned offered little relief, too. The resulting seven-run outburst broke the game open, paving the way for the Red Sox to humiliate the Yankees 16-1, the most lopsided postseason loss in the franchise’s history and one that pushed them to the brink of elimination in the best-of-five series.
The small fraction of the 49,657 attendees who stuck around to the bitter end witnessed not only that bit of history but another, as well, as Red Sox second baseman Brock Holt became the first player ever to hit for the cycle in a postseason game. The coup de grâce came in the form of a two-run ninth-inning homer off Austin Romine, normally the Yankees’ backup catcher but here just the second position player ever to pitch in a postseason game.
High velocity was on order via the night’s starting pitching matchup, which pitted the two AL starters with the fastest average fastballs in Severino (97.9 mph, per Pitch Info) and Nathan Eovaldi (97.5). Both had fared well against the other team this year (Severino 3.56 ERA and 2.53 FIP in 30.1 innings, Eovaldi 1.93 ERA and 2.82 FIP in 23.1 innings), but the truth is that the Red Sox came in well set up to counter Severino. Via Statcast, they owned the majors’ highest xwOBA, second-highest batting average, third-highest slugging percentage, and fourth-highest wOBA against fastballs from righties of 96 mph or higher. The Yankees, meanwhile, placed anywhere from 10th to 17th by those measures:
The insertion of Holt at second base in place of Ian Kinsler was a key part of the Red Sox’ strategy. While much was made in some quarters regarding his career 1-for-15 showing against Severino, the Statcast numbers within what’s above dramatically favored him over Kinsler. On 27 such pitches that he put into play, the 30-year-old lefty hit .407 and slugged .815, while the 36-year-old, righty-swinging Kinsler hit .200 and slugged .286.
Said Cora before the game of that choice, “You look at [Holt’s] numbers, and they don’t look great, but if you look at his numbers throughout his career, lefties have done better against [Severino]. He’s still a tough matchup, but the way Brock was swinging the bat, we do feel he can put good at-bats against him. Hopefully, he can get a hanging slider to right field and put it into the stands.”
Sound logic, though Cora couldn’t have known that the slider would come from Romine. “Play the Powerball tomorrow, and hopefully I can get it,” he joked afterwards.
For what it’s worth, third baseman Rafael Devers, who didn’t start either of the series’ first two games, was 0-for-12 career against Severino, with no clear advantage against velocity over Eduardo Nunez, though like Holt, he is left-handed. Anyway…
The tone for the night was set on the game’s first pitch, a 95.5 mph four-seamer from Severino that Mookie Betts turned into a 104.0 mph laser to center field — a very loud out. Severino escaped the inning without allowing a run, but walking J.D. Martinez helped run his pitch count to 15, and he gave up another 100-plus mph screamer to Xander Bogaerts, also on a fly ball to center field. He then labored through 29 pitches in the second inning as the Red Sox scratched out their first run thanks in part to their hardest-hit ball off of him, a 115.7 mph drive into the right-field corner by Devers that Aaron Judge played well enough to hold him to a single. Devers stole second while Steven Pearce (playing first base in place of the injured Mitch Moreland) chased strike three, took third on a grounder to the left side, and scored on a sharp comebacker off a low two-strike slider to Christian Vazquez that squirted past Severino as Devers scampered home.
Severino began the third by allowing back-to-back singles to Betts (105.8 mph) and Andrew Benintendi, with the latter taking second on a throw to third base by left fielder Andrew McCutchen. Martinez’s sharp liner to left was deep enough to score Betts and increase Boston’s lead to 2-0. At 101.5 mph, it was the fifth ball with a triple-digit exit velo; a sixth, a single off the bat of Xander Bogaerts (105.3 mph), quickly followed, and Benintendi scored on Devers’ grounder to second base.
By this point, Boone had righty Lance Lynn and lefty Stephen Tarpley warming up in the bullpen. Down 3-0, there was little apparent reason to stick with his starter, and even less so once Holt and Vazquez punched back-to-back singles on his first two pitches of the fourth. From the press box, it didn’t seem hard to read catcher Gary Sanchez’s body language as he looked over to the dugout for the signs: “Go get him now? [Hit] Okay, how about now?” Yet Boone stayed in the dugout until a four-pitch walk of Jackie Bradley Jr. turned the lineup over for Betts with the bases loaded and nobody out.
“Just hoping [Severino] could get something started to get through the bottom of the lineup there,” said Boone afterwards, “And then we would have Lynn ready for Betts no matter what. And then once the first two guys got on there, thinking Bradley is in a bunting situation, thinking we’re going to take him out and go to the pen there.”
The Red Sox had seven sacrifice bunts all season, none of them by Bradley, who hasn’t laid down a sacrifice bunt since 2015.
With the inning ablaze and the lineup turned over, Boone finally went to get Severino, whereupon his choice came down to Lynn, who made 29 starts but just two relief appearances all year, only one with runners on base, or Chad Green, who made 63 relief appearances. Lynn struck out 23.0% of the batters he faced while walking 10.9%, Green struck out 31.5% while walking just 5.0%, the 11th-best differential among relievers this year. The only arrow that might have pointed to Lynn in that spot is his high ground-ball rate, 49.7% to 31.4% for Green — a choice that would be mindful of the chances of a double play. Still, with 18 outs needed from the bullpen and Game Four on Tuesday night, it likely would have made more sense to use Green or another power arm to miss bats and escape the jam, with Lynn providing some length thereafter.
Boone explained afterwards that Dellin Betances, the first reliever out of the bullpen in both the Wild Card Game and Game Two of this series, was available for only one inning, but he did not explain bypassing Green in favor of Lynn, who walked Betts on four pitches to force in a run, then allowed a bases-clearing double to Benintendi and, two batters later, an RBI single by Bogaerts, running the score to 8-0. Only then did Boone go to Green, by which point it scarcely mattered that he gave up a couple more hits to put the Red Sox up 10-0. The 27-year-old righty wound up throwing 29 pitches while soaking up 1.2 innings, likely ruling him out for Game Four except in an emergency.
“Certainly in hindsight, we could have started the fourth inning with Robbie [David Robertson] or something,” said Boone. “We really felt like Sevy could at least get us a couple outs in that fourth inning before turning it over to Lynn, and then we could roll out our guys. But we just couldn’t stop the bleeding at all.”
Severino was ultimately charged with the first six of the Red Sox’ runs, conceding seven hits and two walks over the course of his 70 pitches. The seven balls with exit velocities of at least 100 mph matched his season high, but that previous appearance was was a mundane six-inning, three-run start against the Royals in an 8-3 win on May 19. While the TBS broadcast reportedly made an issue out of him beginning his pregame warmups late, at 7:32 pm for a 7:40 start, Boone dismissed that as a non-issue. The rookie manager had enough other problems.
By the time the barrage ended, the Red Sox had collected 18 hits, the most by any team in a postseason game in the new Yankee Stadium and the most allowed by the Yankees at a home playoff game since Game Three of the 2005 Division Series, when the Angels peppered them for 19 hits. The 16 runs were the most allowed by the Yankees in any postseason game, surpassing the 15 the Diamondbacks scored upon them in Game Six of the 2001 World Series. Every Red Sox starter collected at least one hit, with Betts, Benintendi, Bogaerts, Devers, and Vazquez (who started in place of Sandy Leon) each collecting two, and Holt his cycle, via a single and a triple in the fourth inning (the latter off Green), a double in the eighth (off Tarpley) and then the homer off Romine in the ninth.
With Boone following Green with Jonathan Holder (2.0 innings, 38 pitches) and Tarpley (1.0 inning, 31 pitches) and down 14-1 heading into the ninth, the Yankees manager at least gave the fans who stuck around a bit of novelty in the form of Romine, just the second position player to pitch a postseason game in history, after the Blue Jays’ Cliff Pennington in Game Four of the 2015 ALCS against the Royals. Holt, due up fourth in the ninth, admitted he wanted to face Romine and was trying for a homer once he got in the box:
“You get a little antsy when a position player is on the mound. I told everyone, ‘Get me up, I need a home run for the cycle.’
“I scooted up in the box a little bit, and I was going to be swinging at anything and try to hook anything… I was trying to hit a home run. That’s probably the first time I’ve ever tried to… I rounded the bases, and seeing everyone going nuts in the dugout was a pretty cool moment for me.”
Eovaldi, for his part, had relatively little trouble with the Yankees lineup, scattering five hits over seven innings and 97 pitches, striking out five without a walk. The Yankees’ lone run came in the fourth inning, after they were down 10 runs; adding insult to injury, it scored on a double-play grounder in the only inning where the Yankees collected two hits (by Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton).
The game did feature one more bit of weirdness: first-base umpire Angel Hernandez made four calls that teams challenged; three of them were overturned. Still, in the company of Boone, Severino, and Lynn, he was hardly the one who had the worst night.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.