The first Yankees starting pitching decision in plotting strategy for the Division Series was that Gerrit Cole would, of course, go in Game 1 followed by the trickier choice to bring him back on short rest should there be a Game 5.
Aaron Boone declined to publicly say that was the plan. But Brian Cashman confirmed for The Post that was how the Yankees began the process and are lined up, with the concept Cole would bookend this best-of-five if it went the distance. Thus, what the Yankees needed to finalize was how to handle Games 2-3-4 against the Rays.
Cashman described a process that was, “No different from every other decision,” citing, as an example, what went into starting Brett Gardner over Clint Frazier in left for the two games of the wild-card round vs. the Indians. The various Yankees departments work up contingencies and a recommendation, present it to Boone and the necessary coaches and discussions ensue.
“Ultimately, you give all the information and talk to the manager, and he absorbs everything and makes the ultimate decision on the starting lineup or who is starting,” Cashman said by phone. “There was uniformity [among the decision-makers, including Boone, to use Deivi Garcia as an opener in Game 2 then switch quickly to J.A. Happ]. Ultimately, [Boone] slept on it and decided how he wanted to choreograph it.”
Cashman, though, added, “I was 100 percent on board with the call we made. I am not distancing myself from that in any shape or form. We vet all options and evaluate the best way to maximize what we have.”
This unified decision did not work well. Garcia gave up a run in the first. Happ gave up four in 2 ²/₃ innings. The Yankees’ pitching could never gain control of the game until it was too late — with a shutout inning from both Jonathan Holder and Nick Nelson — in what would be a 7-5 loss that enabled the Rays to tie the series at one game apiece.
Look, there is no way of knowing if the Yankees just used Garcia or Happ as traditional starters how that would have played out. Perhaps the loss had as much to do with Happ throwing away a grounder or home plate ump C.B. Bucknor calling anything that landed in California a strike as the decision to start and lift Garcia quickly.
But since the Yanks will have to decide how to orchestrate around Game 4 starter Jordan Montgomery, some thoughts on why I did not like what they did in Game 2:
1) If you want to run a double-team at LeBron James or Anthony Davis, I get it. They are two of the best players in the world. But you would never do so against, say, Alex Caruso. The Yankees went through a lot of pitching gymnastics to try to counter Alex Caruso — the Rays were 12th in the majors in runs. Yes, Tampa Bay creates all kinds of platoon advantages with a flexible lineup. But the totality of all that flip-flopping from left to right was a good but not great offense.
2) Why play the Rays’ game? Tampa Bay is the pioneer of the opener, and the Rays began routinely relying on it in 2018 to compensate for the absence of good starting-pitching options. Therefore, once Game 2 becomes a bullpen scramble, it not only plays to a strength of Tampa Bay — relief depth — but is a style with which the Rays are familiar and comfortable, especially compared to the Yankees. Plus, it is a sign that the 12th-highest scoring team is in the opponent’s head.
3) The Yanks removed the chance to see whether Garcia or Happ in a traditional start could perform well, which would have set the team up for the rest of the series. And let’s say the opposite happened, and Garcia traditionally started and did not pitch well, Boone could have had a quick hook to a reliever such as Holder to get out of an inning before turning to Happ for length. Instead, both pitchers were put into unfamiliar roles — Garcia knowingly on a short leash and Happ in relief. Happ was clearly peeved at it.
4) Part of the reasoning to use Garcia for just a few batters was to force the Rays to start their lefties then decide if they should flip to righties when the southpaw Happ entered. But Garcia actually faced more lefties this year and held them to essentially the same OPS against (.579) as Happ (.577). Were the Yankees really getting a huge advantage to put pitchers in unfamiliar roles?
5) Another reason Garcia was used briefly was to have him available for Game 4, perhaps behind Montgomery. But this is just more unfamiliarity — can Garcia, after one day’s rest, be an effective reliever? At this time of year, pitchers are particularly asked to alter roles and push for the good of the team. But why ask if there were strategies to avoid this?
6) The Blue Jays faced a similar puzzle in the wild-card series. They decided to start their ace, Hyun-jin Ryu, in Game 2 because they had a rested bullpen for Game 1 to mix and match against the Rays’ interchangeable lineup in the opener. Toronto figured Ryu would provide length (especially with extra rest) in Game 2, which would leave more bullpen available if there were a Game 3.
But Toronto let the “opener,” righty Matt Shoemaker pitch three innings while he was successful (no runs) before turning to the lefty, Rob Ray (three innings, one run). This strategy worked even as Toronto lost.
The Yanks decided to start Tanaka in Game 3 figuring that Cole would provide length in the opener, allowing bullpen depth for Game 2 before Tanaka (with extra rest) gave length in Game 3 to allow plenty of bullpen for Montgomery in Game 4. But what the Yanks did not allow — as Toronto had — was any rope to see if Garcia might pitch effectively. With no off-days in this round, trying to make sure that you don’t overuse pieces is key, but I would not get cute worrying about tomorrow when winning a playoff game still remains so precious.
Ultimately, the race to Happ did not have enough benefits to outweigh the potential downside, which might also include a clubhouse wondering why exactly the decision-making process led to a Boone decision to deploy an unfamiliar style to try to thwart the 12th-highest scoring offense in the majors.