NEW YORK — It was a nice, tight AL Wild Card Game until Fernando Rodney showed up. Through five-and-a-half innings, the Yankees led the A’s 2-0 on the strength of a two-run first-inning homer by Aaron Judge off opener Liam Hendriks and an effectively wild four innings from Luis Severino, backed by a pair of dominant frames from Dellin Betances. The Oakland lineup had managed just two hits to that point while striking out 10 times, yet the A’s were still in the game thanks to the four scoreless innings they got from the two pitchers who followed Hendriks — namely, Lou Trivino (who matched his season high with three innings) and Shawn Kelley. A’s manager Bob Melvin, who had elected to bullpen his way through the game, had another decision to make with Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Giancarlo Stanton due up for the sixth.
He chose poorly. The much traveled 41-year-old Rodney, who had been acquired from the Twins on August 9, had not pitched particularly well for the A’s, turning in a 3.92 ERA and 4.52 FIP in 20.2 innings; in September, he was rocked for an 8.38 ERA while walking 10 in 9.2 innings. Melvin literally had half-a-dozen alternatives upon which to call for what might be the most daunting and important stretch left on the table. Nobody would have raised an eyebrow if he’d tabbed Jeurys Familia, Yusmeiro Petit, or rookie J.B. Wendelken, all of whom fared better than Rodney in September.
Rodney got a called strike on a first-pitch sinker, but his second offering was doubled down the right-field line by Judge. Two pitches later, Hicks doubled to center field, expanding the Yankees’ lead to 3-0. A wild pitch sent Hicks to third base as Stanton stepped in, and Melvin had no choice but to pull him and call upon Blake Treinen to save not the game but the season.
Afterwards, Rodney told ESPN’s Marley Rivera, “Once I saw how Judge hit the ball, I though to myself, this is over,” which, while admirably honest, doesn’t exactly speak to the 16-year veteran’s self-confidence in that key spot — which in turn raises questions about Melvin’s choice.
With regard to Treinen, for as lights out as the 30-year-old closer had been this season (0.78 ERA, 1.82 FIP), his magic deserted him here. Stanton battled him to an eight-pitch walk, then stole second, shortly after which Luke Voit finished off a nine-pitch at-bat by tripling off the top of the right-field wall.
The 27-year-old Voit, a first baseman who was acquired (stolen?) from the Cardinals on July 29, debuted with the Yankees on August 2. While he was briefly sent to the minors in the middle of that month, he has been the AL’s hottest hitter since the start of August — and the most impactful of any moved at the trade deadline, hitting .333/.405/.689 with 14 homers and a 194 wRC+ in 148 PA.
A Didi Gregorius sacrifice fly scored Voit and ran the lead to 6-0, effectively ending the game. With their 7-2 loss, the A’s were eliminated. For all of the thrills they provided while winning 97 games on the majors’ lowest payroll and for all of the stellar performances that helped them produce an MLB-best 63-29 record after June 15, they couldn’t clear the next hurdle, a problem that has plagued the franchise for decades. This isn’t just the second time they’ve lost the Wild Card Game in four years, it’s the eighth consecutive time they’ve lost a winner-take-all postseason game, a streak that began in the wake of the 1973 World Series. What’s more, it’s the 14th time in 15 tries since 2000 that they’ve lost a game where a victory would send them to the next round.
It’s unfair to call one game a referendum on anything, but the A’s all-bullpen strategy, borne of necessity due to so many starting pitcher injuries, didn’t work the way it was supposed to on Wednesday night. Though the six pitchers used by Oakland held the Yankees to seven hits, five were for extra bases, and all of them, including a towering eight-inning homer by Stanton off Treinen (443 feet with an exit velo that set a postseason record with a 117.4 mph exit velocity), figured in the scoring.
On the other side, Yankees manager Aaron Boone’s decision to go with Severino, overlooking his rough 11-start stretch from early July to early September and his first-inning exit in last year’s AL Wild Card Game, paid off handsomely. The Yankees had chosen Severino not just for the talent that placed him among the AL’s top five in both FIP (2.95) and WAR (5.7) but because of his ability to deal velocity. Oakland’s .187 batting average and .279 slugging percentage against fastballs (of all types) 95 mph and higher both ranked as major-league worsts according to Statcast — by 31 and 41 points, respectively — and no starter in baseball had a higher average fastball velocity than Severino’s 97.9 mph.
The 24-year-old righty came out throwing smoke. He needed just 10 pitches to get through the first inning, nine of them four-seam fastballs. He bookended the inning by striking out leadoff hitter Nick Martini and No. 3 hitter Jed Lowrie on fastballs just south of 99 mph on the outside edge; the former took his for a called strike, the latter tipped it into catcher Gary Sanchez’s glove. Needless to say, his performance roused the Yankee Stadium crowd of 49,620 — and chased away the ghosts of last year, when Severino retired just one of six Twins batters he faced, allowing two home runs and putting the Yankees in a 3-0 hole before they even swung a bat.
“Electric,” said Severino when asked to describe the atmosphere in the first. “I don’t know how to say it in words. When I stepped to the mound, every time I had two strikes — it was so thrilling.”
Severino threw just one slider in the first inning, which kept the A’s hitters off balance. “I think that they were looking with two strikes for the slider,” he said. “So I attacked with the fastball.”
After the first, once Severino did get to his slider, his night grew more labor intensive. He didn’t allow a hit through his first four innings, but four walks and a throwing error by third baseman Miguel Andujar jacked his pitch count up to 81. He needed 27 pitches to complete the second inning, during which he notched three strikeouts on sliders, and 26 to get through the fourth, escaping a bases-loaded jam by striking out Marcus Semien on a 99.6 mph heater, his fastest pitch of the night. In all, he struck out seven of the 19 batters he faced.
The A’s finally collected their first two hits when No. 9 hitter Jonathan Lucroy and Martini stroked back-to-back singles. Blessed with a a bullpen that collectively set records for WAR (9.7) and strikeout rate (30.2%), Boone didn’t hesitate to make a move, calling upon more high-90s heat in the form of Dellin Betances, who needed just 11 pitches to retire the A’s Nos. 2-3-4 hitters, Matt Chapman, Jed Lowrie and Khris Davis, the last one swinging on a cutter in the dirt.
For as excited as Severino’s first-inning performance and subsequent strikeouts got the crowd, Judge got them even more pumped. Hendriks, the 29-year-old righty who had made eight starts totaling 8.2 innings in September, struggled to find the strike zone from the outset. He walked leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen on five pitches and fell behind 2-1 against Judge, who then rendered a verdict on a 96 mph inside fastball that was harsh and swift: a 116.1 mph exit velocity — tied for his third-hardest of the year and the hardest hit in the postseason to that point — and an estimated distance of 427 feet.
The home run was just Judge’s second since returning from a chip fracture in his right wrist, suffered on July 26. He missed 45 games and batted a meager .220/.333/.341 in 51 PA from September 14 on, and didn’t hit his first homer until September 28 against the Red Sox. “People had questions about the wrist. I wouldn’t have been playing the past couple weeks if it wasn’t good,” he said. “I felt like [my swing was back] the first game I was back. Like I never left.”
While Hendriks retired the next three hitters he faced after Judge’s home run, the initial damage was done, and the A’s couldn’t sustain a rally to get back in. After Betances’ six-up, six-down performance, during which the lead expanded from two runs to six, David Robertson pitched a spotless seventh. Zach Britton served up a two-run homer to Davis in the eighth, but that was the only extra-base hit from among their five hits all night. Aroldis Chapman finished the job with a scoreless ninth. Now the Yankees will move on to face Boston in the Division Series, the first time the two rivals have met in the postseason since 2004 and the first time they’ve ever met in a best-of-five series rather than a best-of-seven.
At several turns, the Yankee Stadium crowd chanted, “We want Boston! We want Boston!” Judge, the worldly veteran of two-plus seasons, claimed not to notice, saying, “I’ve got a job to do. I’m focused on that play.”
Voit, the boyish rookie, was much more exuberant: “They took the division from us, and we want to take it back!” They’ll get their chance starting on Friday in Boston.
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.