Yanks ready to go: 'We'll expect to play well'

Here are the keys to New York advancing, making deep postseason run

October 5th, 2021

BOSTON -- No member of the current Yankees roster was on the planet in the decade when Bucky Dent’s home run sailed toward the Citgo sign over Fenway Park’s Green Monster, landing in the netting that once covered what has now become the home of some of baseball’s most coveted tickets.

These children of the 1980s and '90s will soon experience what Dent and his teammates did during that Boston trip in October 1978, putting their season on the line for a one-game playoff. The circumstances are slightly different, and even Fenway has changed quite a bit. But the stakes are the same: win or go home.

“Bucky Dent, right?” Yankees right-hander Gerrit Cole asked rhetorically on Monday, the eve of his American League Wild Card Game starting assignment. “As a kid growing up watching Pedro [Martinez] and Roger [Clemens] duke it out, or [Andy] Pettitte against Pedro … what a fantastic game to watch. You’re dreaming about putting yourself in that position, coming through for your team, and here we are.”

It has been a turbulent season, charitably described by outfielder Aaron Judge and others as a “roller coaster,” for these Yankees. Manager Aaron Boone kept a steady hand at the wheel, despite seeing his team begin the year with 11 losses in 17 games (April 1-21), then 22 wins in 30 games (April 22-May 23), then 22 losses in 35 games (May 25-July 4).

Just when the Yankees’ season appeared to be cooked -- dealt what Boone described as a “gut punch” in the first game of an Independence Day doubleheader against the Mets -- they rose from the ashes. New York peeled off 35 wins in 46 games (July 4-Aug. 27), making believers of the fan base, then hit the skids again with 15 losses in 22 games (Aug. 28-Sept. 19).

Roller coaster, indeed, with the accompanying queasiness. But the ride finished on a positive note, with the Yanks running off a seven-game winning streak that coincided with the arrival of Bronxie the Turtle, punching their postseason ticket in walk-off fashion on Judge’s single to end Game 162 against the Rays.

“As a competitor, that’s what you sign up for,” Boone said. “You hope to be in these scenarios where you’re playing a meaningful game to move onto something more special. We’ll embrace that, look forward to [Tuesday] and I know we’ll walk out there with a lot of confidence. We’ll expect to play well and give it our best shot.”

How do they advance past the Wild Card Game?
The ball is in Cole’s hand on Tuesday, and this is the type of game that the Yankees invested $324 million in the ace right-hander to pitch. On the day that Cole hoisted his "YANKEE FAN TODAY TOMORROW FOREVER" placard at Yankee Stadium back in January 2020, managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner lauded Cole’s demeanor and presence, before adding that his expectations were for Cole to lead the Yanks to “world championships -- plural.”

So far, Cole is 0-for-1, having pitched to a no-decision in the AL Division Series Game 5 that ended the Yanks’ postseason hopes last October against the Rays in San Diego. Unlike that outing, Cole will be on regular rest for Tuesday’s start, so there is an expectation of a deep performance. Cole said that his left hamstring is good to go, though his September stat line suggests otherwise -- in six starts, Cole went 3-2 with a 5.13 ERA.

One of the better efforts of Cole’s September came two turns ago, when he held the Red Sox to three runs and five hits over six innings in an 8-3 Yankees victory at Fenway Park. All three runs scored on a Rafael Devers homer, so Cole said he’ll need to be more careful making pitches in similar situations this time out. Cole pitched to a 4.91 ERA against Boston this year.

What does the blueprint for a championship run look like?
Home runs are deeply embedded in the Yankees’ DNA, and this is as much of a boom-or-bust lineup as any. When Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are raking -- as they both were during the Yanks’ September sweep at Fenway -- the team appears to be an unstoppable juggernaut. There were “M-V-P!” chants heard for Judge in the Bronx, and while he won’t win the award, he deserves to appear on the ballot.

When pitchers hold the hulking duo in check, runs can be in short supply -- as they were throughout prolonged droughts this season. Even with their imposing lineup, the Yanks finished 19th in the Majors with 711 runs scored, and it took a second-half surge to escape the bottom third. Credit a midseason makeover that imported Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo, adding thump and left-handed balance.

Gleyber Torres must assume leadoff duties with DJ LeMahieu on the injured list, while Rougned Odor will need to play capable defense at third base. The Yankees will lean heavily upon a bullpen bolstered by the pickups of Clay Holmes, Wandy Peralta and Joely Rodríguez. Jonathan Loáisiga’s return is huge, too.

What is one reason for concern?
Beyond the previously mentioned offensive brownouts, the Yankees’ rotation doesn’t exactly have the depth that it did in, say, 2009, when CC Sabathia, Pettitte and A.J. Burnett shouldered the load in pitching the team to its 27th World Series championship.

Cole is elite, and the Yanks will try to get him on the mound as frequently as possible, but Boone will need to keep his bullpen card handy each time Corey Kluber, Jameson Taillon, Jordan Montgomery or Nestor Cortes takes the ball. Kluber tossed a no-hitter in May, but he missed most of the year with a right shoulder injury, going 1-0 with a 5.40 ERA in six starts after returning in late August.

Taillon is pitching through a partially torn tendon in his right ankle, and Montgomery allowed a career-high seven runs in his regular-season finale on Oct. 2, an unsightly blemish on an otherwise strong season. Cortes’ versatility could help, as he has been one of the year’s unexpected success stories, using a variety of arm angles to mystify opponents to a 2.90 ERA.