October 8, 2020 | 11:45pm
SAN DIEGO — It gets progressively cooler in this American League Division Series, each game starting at a lower temperature than its predecessor.
Conversely, can Aaron Boone find a hot streak with his in-game tactics? One could argue he had nowhere to go but up with the Yankees’ season on the line Thursday. Up he and his team went, living to fight another day with the resurgent Astros awaiting them or the Rays in the next round.
In the wake of two disastrous losses sparked by one horrendous pitching decision, Boone pushed the right buttons and his players executed to lift the Yankees over the Rays, 5-1, in Game 4, setting up a loser-goes-home finale Friday with ace Gerrit Cole set to start Game 5 on three days’ rest for the first time in his career.
“That worked out pretty ideally,” Boone said of the team’s Jordan Montgomery-Chad Green-Zack Britton-Aroldis Chapman relay.
Had Montgomery fizzled in his postseason debut, ending the Yankees’ 2020, their winter would have been thoroughly dominated by the club’s confounding decision to deploy Deivi Garcia as a Game 2 opener and follow him with J.A. Happ, a maneuver that the veteran Happ clearly didn’t embrace and that backfired rather spectacularly with a 7-5 loss after the Yankees had looked dominant in a Game 1 victory. Wednesday’s 8-4 stinker followed and put the Yankees up against the proverbial wall.
The Garcia/Happ head-scratcher compromised the availability (and arguably rhythm) of both pitchers moving forward and put the Yankees in the uncomfortable position of betting their life on the left arm of Montgomery, who had veered this way and that in his first full (albeit COVID-reduced) season back from his 2018 Tommy John surgery, mixing good starts with bad — none worse than his one outing against the Rays, when he picked up just two outs while surrendering four runs in a 5-2 loss Sept. 2 in The Bronx.
“I was hopeful he could get two times through the lineup but anything he could give us early, we were going to take,” Boone said.
Montgomery, making his first appearance since Sept. 24 on the road against the Blue Jays, impressively grinded his way through four innings, walking three and allowing three hits and departing with a 2-1 advantage.
Though you could make a case that he should’ve left after the trying third inning, Boone said he wanted Montgomery to go after former Yankee Ji-Man Choi, a lefty swinger, to at least start the fourth. Even after Choi singled, though, the manager hung with his southpaw through four more batters, two of them lefty, the last one Kevin Kiermaier grounding out to Luke Voit to strand two more runners and leave Montgomery one man short of two full turns through the Tampa Bay lineup.
From there, the manager turned to the hard-throwing Green, who endured rough outings in both Wednesday’s Game 3 and last week’s crazy wild-card series Game 2 at Cleveland. This time, Green delivered with a pair of perfect innings, throwing just 24 pitches and shaving down the workload for back-end studs Britton and Chapman to share the final nine outs. Before Britton even took the mound for the top of the seventh, moreover, Gleyber Torres smoked a two-run homer to provide some more breathing room for his teammates.
Britton picked up five outs then Chapman four — the game-ending strikeout of Mike Brosseau (whose head Chapman nearly drilled in their last encounter) prompting the playing of “New York, New York” in this Yankees “home game” — and both should be in play for Friday’s rubber game, as should possibly Green for a little action.
“I would expect that,” Boone said. “Obviously we’ll see how they are when they come in.”
The Garcia/Happ blunder was so egregious, so astoundingly bad — and to be clear, Boone made that call in collaboration with the front office — that only a title will fully exonerate the Yankees from this decision. Anything short of that, we’ll be looking for ways to connect the dots.
So Boone and his bosses must stay hot to keep the heat off them. Thursday at least propelled them back in the right direction.