NEW YORK -- The 60-game sprint of the 2020 season produced one of the streakiest Yankees teams in recent memory, and perhaps that is appropriate for a year that has been nothing if not turbulent. Depending on the week, this squad could slug like a World Series favorite or prompt concern about missing the playoffs altogether.
A 10-game September winning streak erased any talk of an empty October, and though the Bombers dropped six of their final eight games prior to the postseason, the Majors’ leading hitter believes that he still plays on the most talented team in the dance.
“I have a lot of confidence in us,” said infielder DJ LeMahieu. “If we're playing the way we should be, it doesn't really matter who we're playing. I know they're going to be ready too, and it's going to be a fun month.”
The frenetic Bombers opened the season on a 16-6 tear, touched .500 after falling into a slide, then seemed to put it all together -- a surge sparked by their starting pitching. Gerrit Cole and Masahiro Tanaka provide a formidable one-two punch, and the Yanks believe they have the depth to fuel a deep October run.
“There were a lot of ups and downs for us, some peaks and valleys that we're going to have to avoid moving forward,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “But we look forward to the challenge of going in and competing for a championship.”
How do they advance out of the Wild Card Series?
Surely you remember Boone's interaction with home plate umpire Brennan Miller last season, crowing that his hitters were “savages” in the batter’s box. The phrase created dozens of amusing T-shirt designs, but it was rooted in truth, lauding the Yanks’ excellent plate discipline.
That’s something they’ll need to showcase beginning tonight, when they will stare down Shane Bieber, who won the pitching Triple Crown and will almost certainly take home the AL’s Cy Young Award. It’s easier said than done, as any number of AL Central opponents would attest, but the Yanks need to run up Bieber’s pitch count and deliver a well-timed hit or two in Game 1.
“We can't just rely on the home run,” Luke Voit said. “We need to get the guy over, a sac fly, whatever. We just need to play the game. It's easy to get away from it sometimes because you try to hit a three-run homer or grand slam. You need to trust it and make sure you're ready and know how the guy is going to attack you.”
If they can score three to four runs per game, that might be enough -- Cleveland’s offense is no juggernaut, having been held to three or fewer runs 25 times this year.
What does the blueprint for a championship run look like?
We’re talking about the Yankees, so slugging is always going to be part of the equation -- as general manager Brian Cashman likes to say, homers are in the team’s DNA. Yet pitching is what prevails in October, which is why the Yankees wrote a check to the tune of $324 million to land Cole in free agency this past winter.
Cole gives the Yanks a formidable ace, and Masahiro Tanaka has been an excellent postseason performer, but they can’t bring championship No. 28 to The Bronx without help -- especially this year, when the lack of off-days threatens to ravage staffs in longer series. Deivi García and J.A. Happ provide rotation depth, while Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman can shorten games at the back end.
The Yankees believed their bullpen would again be one of the Majors’ best, but that wasn’t the case during the regular season -- with a 4.54 ERA, they were right around the middle of the pack (9th out of 15 AL teams). Strong performances from Chad Green and Adam Ottavino could get that back on track.
“Hopefully we go out, get strong pitching performances and get clicking offensively,” Boone said. “We know if we're playing our best baseball, we can beat anyone.”
What is one reason for concern?
Each team will have to win in unfamiliar surroundings to triumph this October, but the Yankees have been a drastically different club away from Yankee Stadium.
New York was 22-9 at home this season, averaging 6.37 runs per game with an MLB-best .906 OPS and a 3.57 ERA. On the road, they finished 11-18, averaging 4.13 runs per game with a .677 OPS (24th in the Majors) and a 5.27 ERA.
“We always like playing at Yankee Stadium, but that's in the past now and not part of our reality,” Boone said. “Anyone in that room expects to go out and be highly successful, whoever we play and wherever we play.”