Yankees’ Pitching Comes Through, Saves New York’s Season and Forces Game 5

Beyond Giancarlo Stanton going electric and Gerrit Cole proving that investing $315 million in him was one of Brian Cashman’s better decisions, not a whole lot else has gone right for the Yankees against the Rays. Going into Game 4 needing a win to stay alive, they’d found no answer to the Ruth and Gehrig cosplay of Randy Arozarena and Ji-Man Choi. They’d struggled to do much of anything when faced with Tampa Bay’s best relievers. Most of the lineup aside from Stanton, Aaron Hicks, DJ LeMahieu and (unexpectedly enough) backup catcher turned starter Kyle Higashioka hadn’t shown up. New York had come by its series deficit and a potential trip home fairly.

But the biggest problem for the Yankees in this series is the one that was the biggest problem in the 2019 playoffs and the biggest problem in the 2018 playoffs and the biggest problem in the 2017 playoffs: a pitching staff that hasn’t performed consistently. Granted, that’s a small sample, with only six starts so far and two of those belonging to Cole. But Masahiro Tanaka, normally the postseason stalwart, has been bludgeoned in his two turns, including Game 3. Aaron Boone’s attempt at a Rays-style opener gambit in Game 2 quickly went pear-shaped. Game 4 rested on Jordan Montgomery, who hadn’t pitched in over two weeks and could at best provide three or four innings in what would be his postseason debut. If he went south early, making it to Game 5 was highly unlikely.

Yet for the first time this month, Boone got a capable start from a non-Cole pitcher, and his bullpen was able to hold it together for a 5–1 win. Even better, Game 5 will be in the hands of Cole, who held the Rays in check in Game 1, bulldozed the Indians in the Wild Card round, and would be a popular pick league-wide for “man you most want on the mound in an elimination game.”

Even with the Rays utilizing a bullpen game on Thursday — sidearmer Ryan Thompson as the opener followed by bulk guy Ryan Yarbrough — they were still the favorite heading into the night, per the ZiPS projection odds, at 53.2%. New York was at the pitching disadvantage and has been every time Cole hasn’t been the one making the first pitch, and Game 4 looked to be the same outcome on paper. The difference was Montgomery, who despite sitting idle since his last start of the regular season back on September 24 allowed just one run in four innings. He faced the minimum through the first two frames, then wobbled in the third. Holding a 2–0 lead, he allowed a leadoff walk to Willy Adames and a ground-rule double to Kevin Kiermaier and loaded the bases with a one-out walk to Yandy Díaz. Brandon Lowe drove in a run with a grounder up the middle, but LeMahieu’s diving stop saved multiple runs from scoring, and Montgomery got out of trouble by getting Arozarena to ground out, New York’s lead intact.

Arozarena and Choi were finally kept in check by Yankees pitching. Montgomery beat the Cuban outfielder by staying off the plate with breaking and offspeed stuff, keeping him from zeroing in on fastballs as he has all series; he went hitless for the first time this postseason. Choi, meanwhile, picked up only a single in three at-bats (though he has to be just about the only hitter on that team looking forward to facing Cole, given his bonkers career numbers against him).

With those two silenced, the rest of the Rays’ offense followed suit, never mounting a serious threat after that bases loaded squander. They had two on with two out in the fourth against Montgomery only for Kiermaier to ground out to first. After that, the next 11 Rays hitters went down in order, five by strikeout, against Chad Green and Zack Britton. Aroldis Chapman finished things quietly, coming in with two outs in the eighth and working around a walk by striking out Arozarena to close that inning, then tossing a 1-2-3 ninth.

Green and Britton deserve the lion’s share of the praise for the win. They tossed 3.2 perfect innings and kept Tampa Bay off the board while New York expanded its lead thanks to Gleyber Torres. In the sixth, he cracked an enormous two-run homer off Yarbrough that went 108 mph off the bat and smashed into the windows of the third floor of the Western Metal Supply Co. building beyond Petco Park’s left-field wall. That was all the extra offense the Yankees would need, though they tacked on a run in the ninth for insurance.

All told, four pitchers combined for the win, and while it was excellent work on their parts, it illustrates how much spit and gum the Yankees have to use right now beyond Cole to make things stick together. Despite a payroll over $200 million and one of the best player development systems in the game, New York stumbled into the postseason with a patchwork rotation and weakened bullpen. With James Paxton still on the Injured List and J.A. Happ struggling, Boone doesn’t have much beyond Cole and the now mortal Tanaka. Argue if you want in the comments (and you definitely will) over Boone’s decision to pull Deivi García for Happ in Game 2. But just as it was against Houston in 2019 and ‘17 and Boston in between, the end result is a New York rotation lacking in depth or consistency.

Cole was the bid to change that, and so far he has in each of his starts. On Friday night, Boone will likely be able to relax ever so slightly knowing that his team’s playoff hopes are with the right man. But if the Yankees do make their Game 4 stand count and move on to face the Astros (yet again) in the ALCS, they need Tanaka to get right or to trust that García can hold his own or that Montgomery is able to give them three or four useful innings. They need for Green and Britton to come up big each time out and for Chapman not to wobble and for someone in that grouping of Adam Ottavino and Jonathan Loaisiga and Jonathan Holder to give them some help.

Those are a lot of conditionals, and it’s why even with a dangerous offense and Cole leading the way, the Yankees are in the predicament they are, needing another win to avoid an 11th straight season without a World Series trophy coming back to the Bronx. Game 4 probably isn’t replicable. But something like it is going to have to be the foundation, given the lack of off-days in the ALCS. It’s a problem with no easy solution, and one New York is going to have to figure out regardless.

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3 years ago

The Rays need to concentrate on high heat and use everyone who can throw it. With the exception of one at bat by Fraser, the Yankees have been futile at hitting the the 99/100 that a broad selection of the Rays can throw. For some reason they keep mixing in low pitches which the Yankees thrive on hitting for homers.