When the new postseason format was announced, Zack Britton remembers some teammates voicing excitement about the possibility of five games in five days, believing it would benefit the deepest rosters. The Yankees will have an opportunity to prove that they belong in that group.
The American League Division Series begins on Monday evening at Petco Park in San Diego, featuring the Yankees and Rays in a showdown between AL East rivals. Unlike the previous round, in which five Bombers relievers touched the mound during a two-game sweep of the Indians, Britton expects that each member of the bullpen will be called upon for crucial outs.
“We knew that this year was going to be different with the expanded playoffs, so guys were willing to embrace it,” Britton said. “You’ll see how balanced teams really are in the postseason, rather than running out just your best few pitchers. It’s going to test the depth of your pitching staff, and I'm looking forward to it.”
Yankees manager Aaron Boone agrees that the back ends of the bullpens will be a difference maker in the series. New York will play as the road team in Games 1 and 2 of the best-of-five series, then would be the home team in Game 3 and a potential Game 4. Tampa Bay would bat last if the ALDS proceeds to a Game 5.
“One of my first thoughts was that the depth of the rosters is going to play a factor,” Boone said. “In this series, and if we’re able to get on to the next series where it’s seven games in a row, you’re going to have to lean on your 12th, 13th and 14th pitchers for big outs. We’ll try to strike that balance as best we can.”
Boone said that the Yankees are debating how many pitchers they plan to carry, having rostered 13 against Cleveland. Should they jettison a position player in favor of a hurler, Michael King, Clarke Schmidt and Miguel Yajure are among the candidates. King started against the Rays on Aug. 8, taking a loss, while Yajure pitched three scoreless innings against them on Aug. 31. The Rays have never seen Schmidt, and a fresh look could be valuable.
“Relievers get exposed. There's a reason why guys are relievers,” Britton said. “Navigating the lineup multiple times is a challenge for anybody that got moved to the bullpen. I’ve faced the Rays so many times throughout my career that at this stage, you're not tricking anybody. It's just about executing your pitches. In the postseason, mistakes are magnified.”
The easiest decision, from Boone’s perspective, was to name right-hander Gerrit Cole as the Game 1 starter. Everything else remains up for discussion, as the Yanks decide the optimal sequence in which to deploy starters Masahiro Tanaka, J.A. Happ, Deivi García and Jordan Montgomery. Boone said that the Yankees would not use an opener in this round.
Should the series reach a winner-take-all fifth game, it would be tempting to give the ball to Cole on short rest, something that the right-hander has never done as a big leaguer.
“Let's not get ahead of ourselves,” Boone said. “First things first; I can't wait for Gerrit to get the ball in Game 1 and hopefully set the tone for the series. We’ll see where we're at as the days unfold with him. The great thing about Gerrit is, he communicates really well about how he's doing and what he's doing.”
Like Joe Girardi before him, Boone has been steadfast about not calling upon a reliever on three consecutive days, believing that the added injury risk is not worth the potential benefit. Most of those shackles are removed for the postseason; Aroldis Chapman recorded six outs in Game 2 at Cleveland, something he had not been asked to do since 2017.
“Guys are plenty capable going three, four days in a row. Five, it's not unheard of,” Britton said. “It's just about us being efficient with our pitches, getting early contact or not nibbling and falling into deep counts.”
Boone said that those will be “tough decisions,” considering that a pitcher who has thrown in multiple consecutive games may see a decrease in effectiveness.
“It’s not the same for every game,” Boone said. “If a guy comes in and gets two outs on seven pitches, maybe that’s different than where he comes in, gets an out and pitches another inning. All of those things will be baked in. I know our guys will do everything they can to be ready and prepare themselves. I know our guys will want the ball.”