Sluggers Back Cortes’ Short-Rest Brilliance as Yankees Knock Out Guardians

Giancarlo Stanton
Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — During the regular season, the Yankees went 27–2 in games in which their two towering sluggers, Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, both homered. The tried-and-true recipe worked once again in the fifth and deciding game of the Division Series against the Guardians, with Stanton smacking a three-run homer in the first inning off starter Aaron Civale, keying an early departure, and Judge adding a solo blast in the second off reliever Sam Hentges. The long balls gave starter Nestor Cortes, who was working on three days of rest, an early cushion, and he cruised through five innings, allowing just just one run before yielding to the bullpen, which locked down a 5–1 victory.

“Incredible,” Cortes said in describing Stanton’s homer. “I knew from that moment on, all I had to do was throw strikes and be able to get us as deep as possible…. I didn’t know how far I was going to go. I didn’t know what my pitch count was. It was basically how I looked out there. And for him to give us that three-run lead in the first from the get-go to was huge for me and calmed me down to go out there and do what I do.”

Pushed to the brink of elimination when their bullpen collapsed in the ninth inning of Game 3, the Yankees will now move on to face the Astros in the American League Championship Series, which begins Wednesday in Houston. This will be the fourth time in eight seasons that the two teams have met in October; the Astros won the 2015 Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium and beat the Yankees in a seven-game ALCS in ’17 and in a six-game ALCS in ’19.

The Yankees, who hit twice as many homers as the Guardians during the regular season (a league-leading 254 to a 14th-ranked 127), out-homered them nine to three in the series, with Judge and Stanton each going deep twice and Harrison Bader doing so three times. Game 5 marked the fourth time Judge and Stanton both homered in the same postseason game, a total tied for second behind Carlos Correa and George Springer, both of whom have since departed Houston.

The Yankees’ homers went a long way figuratively (if not always literally) in a low-offense series. The Guardians collected 44 hits to the Yankees’ 28, but power and patience (a 17–9 edge in walks) produced a .643 OPS (.182/.273/.370), which outdid the Guardians’ .626 (.247/.289/.337), and they outscored Cleveland by a combined score of 20–14. While the Guardians collected 12 hits with runners in scoring position to the Yankees’ five, New York handily outproduced them there as well via a .926 OPS (.227/.296/.636) and 11 RBIs to Cleveland’s .535 (.255/.280/.255) with 10 RBIs. As my former Baseball Prospectus colleague Joe Sheehan likes to say, “Ball go far, team go far.”

At the outset of the series, Yankees manager Aaron Boone planned to bring Game 1 starter Gerrit Cole back on regular rest in the event of a Game 4 and turn to Cortes on short rest in the event of a Game 5. The thinking made sense: not only did Cortes out-pitch Cole this year via a 2.44 ERA and 3.13 FIP, but also, as I noted in my series preview, the Guardians managed just an 84 wRC+ against lefties, as even their righties besides Amed Rosario and Oscar Gonzalez struggled.

Those plans changed after last Thursday’s rainout, which forced the rescheduling of Game 2 and wiped out the series’ planned travel day, leaving Cortes on just two days of rest for Game 5, which was originally scheduled for Monday. Boone initially planned to go with Jameson Taillon for the rubber match, but when rain forced another postponement, his Plan A was back on. Guardians manager Terry Francona, on the other hand, never gave strong consideration to turning to Game 2 starter and staff ace Shane Bieber on three days of rest, wary of taxing the righty after he missed about half of 2021 due to a right shoulder strain. He instead planned to go with Civale, who scuffled to a 4.92 ERA and 3.87 FIP during an injury-marked season but pitched well down the stretch, for Monday night and stuck with that plan even given the extra day.

Boone’s plan couldn’t have worked out any better, and Francona’s plan couldn’t have gone worse. Though he allowed a leadoff single to Steven Kwan, Cortes needed just eight pitches to work the first inning. Rosario, attempting to bunt, hit a pop foul that catcher Jose Trevino easily grabbed, then José Ramírez popped to shortstop, and Gonzalez hit a soft liner to third base.

Civale, on the other hand, got into trouble immediately, walking leadoff hitter Gleyber Torres on four pitches, then working the count full against Judge, though he retired the slugger swinging at a curveball; had he been in a better groove than just 2-for-16 in the series to that point, he might have demolished it. After Anthony Rizzo fouled off a pair of two-strike pitches and worked the count to 3–2, Civale plunked him in the left thigh, at which point pitching coach Carl Willis came to the mound and the Cleveland bullpen began to stir. Stanton, just 1-for-12 in the series to that point, followed by mashing a 2–0 cutter on the outside edge of the zone for a three-run homer to right-centerfield. The shot was his second of the series and 10th in the past 15 postseason games dating back to the aforementioned 2019 ALCS against Houston.

After Josh Donaldson followed Stanton by beating out an infield single, Francona brought out the hook for Civale, who had thrown just 12 of 26 pitches for strikes and retired only one batter. Had Francona used an opener to protect Civale — who was hit for a .317 wOBA by righties (.257/.305/.422) and faced four of them out of five total hitters — or gone with a bullpen game, things might have turned out better for the Guardians.

“He just didn’t come out commanding very well,” Francona said afterward. “I felt terrible taking him out that quickly, but I just didn’t think we could give up any more. I knew it was a big ask with our bullpen. I thought they actually did terrific just to hold it to kind of what they did.”

The Guardians’ four relievers (Hentges, Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak, and Emmanuel Clase) held the Yankees to four hits and three walks, striking out 11, but the two runs they allowed dug a hole from which the team could not escape. Hentges escaped the first inning and retired the first two batters in the second, but Judge extended the Yankees’ lead to 4–0 by smacking a hanging curveball for a 113.2-mph, 394-foot solo homer; its 41-degree launch angle matched his season high:

It was Judge’s second homer of the series and his fourth in a winner-take-all game, a major league record that owes something to the Yankees having played in three Wild Card Games during his career (he homered in 2017 against the Twins and ’18 against the A’s).

Cortes remained sharp in a 10-pitch second inning, retiring Josh Naylor, who received a real Bronx cheer before his plate appearance and a “Who’s Your Daddy” chant after flying out, and then striking out both Gabriel Arias and Andrés Giménez on low fastballs, the former looking, the latter swinging.

The Guardians got something cooking in the third, however, when Austin Hedges singled to left-center and, one out later, Kwan reached on a messy bloop single to left field. Rookie Oswaldo Cabrera, who had been moved from left field to shortstop after Boone tired of Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s mistakes in the series’ first three games, gloved the ball but did not catch it, then collided with Aaron Hicks, who got the worst of it; the Yankees later said he suffered a left knee injury, and a postgame MRI ruled him out for the remainder of the playoffs. The left fielder ended up limping off the field with assistance and was replaced by Marwin Gonzalez.

It was the last of several times in this series in which balls hit into the no-man’s land of short left field became trouble as the shortstop and left fielder converged, calling to mind the rally-kindling bloops by Ramírez in the 10th inning of Game 2 and Myles Straw in the ninth inning of Game 3, plus Ramírez’s RBI single in the third inning of Game 4.

After that mishap, Rosario walked to load the bases, and Ramírez followed with a sacrifice fly, cutting the lead to 4–1. Cortes recovered to retire Gonzalez, then worked two clean innings, though the Yankees caught a break in his six-pitch fourth inning when Rizzo raced Giménez to first base after fielding a grounder. First base umpire Mark Ripperger called Giménez out, but though replays showed that he beat Rizzo to the bag by a hair, the Guardians — incorrect on two previous challenges in Game 4 (h/t Mike Axisa for that reel) — did not call for a review.

The Yankees struck again in the fifth. Stephan, who had relieved Hentges in the third, ran his streak of consecutive Yankees retired to 16 before issuing a leadoff walk to Torres. He struck out Judge swinging at a slider before departing, but Torres stole second base, then scored easily when Karinchak surrendered a single to Rizzo.

Cortes departed after an efficient five innings, during which he threw just 61 pitches, 39 for strikes, and yielded two hits and two walks. Though he got just three swings and misses and two strikeouts, the Guardians averaged just 81.5 mph on their 16 balls in play against him, and only two of those topped 95 mph: Hedges’ single and Naylor’s fourth-inning groundout.

“I thought I induced a lot of weak contact today. I wasn’t trying to strike out the world. I wasn’t trying to do anything different,” said Cortes when asked to compare his performance to his start in Game 2. “I thought the cutter was really good early on. I combined that with the heater. That combo was effective today.”

“I thought his stuff was a little better actually,” said Boone when asked the same question. “He was in and out there a little bit. But, man, what an effort. You know, honestly going in, I would have been really excited about ten batters, getting through Kwan that second time. Best case was getting through Naylor in the middle of the order the second time through. For him to get through two times and then get Kwan out the third time and give us five innings on three days just set us up so well.”

Indeed. Jonathan Loáisiga worked two scoreless innings, with Clay Holmes and Wandy Peralta each following with one. Only Holmes’ eighth inning was spotless, but the other two relievers worked out of jams successfully. Loaisiga gave up back-to-back singles to Rosario and Ramírez to start the sixth, then retired the next two hitters, Gonzalez and Naylor, on one pitch apiece, and struck out Arias on a 99.7-mph sinker high and inside to end the threat. Peralta, who set a record by pitching in all five games of the series and who got the save in Game 4, gave up a one-out single to Arias and a two-out single to Luke Maile. So depleted was the Guardians’ bench that with their season on the line, a backup catcher with an 81 wRC+ took an at-bat — and was followed by Straw and his 64 wRC+, who ended things by grounding into a 6–4 force, with Torres mimicking Naylor’s post-homer cradle-rock after securing the final out.

The Yankees’ bullpen entered the series in disarray, with Holmes and Peralta having missed time in late September due to injuries, Ron Marinaccio out with a shin injury, and Chad Green and Michael King having long ago been lost for the season, plus Aroldis Chapman’s absence. But for all of that and some postgame controversy regarding Holmes’ availability for Game 3, the unit pitched to a 2.70 ERA for the series, striking out 18 and walking just three in 16.2 innings. The Guardians’ bullpen was better, with a 1.57 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 23 innings, but the Yankees got much better starting pitching (2.79 ERA in 29 innings to a 6.43 ERA in 21 innings). Between that and the decisive edge in home runs, it’s no mystery why they’re advancing.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 months ago

I’m looking forward to all of the offseason pieces on the Guardians pointing out that they’re well poised to take a big step forward if only ownership would spend some money to address one or two of the black holes in their lineup.

3 months ago

They could trade Bieber and do that also

3 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

But trading your best pitcher when you’re trying to contend is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

I understand the Guardians aren’t going to spend $$, but, I don’t see trading Bieber as something that will make them better overall.

Left of Centerfield
3 months ago

The big issue with the lineup is the lack of power. That doesn’t work well in the playoffs when you’re facing top starters and can’t string hits together.

I also think they need to address the back end of the rotation. Civale and Plesac just aren’t cutting it and guys like Espino, Logan Allen, and Gavin Williams aren’t ready yet. I’d like to see them trade some of their farm capital to get a 2/3 starter whose under team control for a few years.

3 months ago

Honestly, I could live with the lack of power, but when the 7-8-9 hitters in your lineup are as comically bad as Hedges/Straw/Miller your margin for error is greatly reduced. Just too many free outs given to the other team.