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Will pitching haunt Yankees come October?

@MikeLupica
August 16, 2019

This was going to be about the Yankees and their starting pitching, and whether they could get their starters through the other team’s batting order at least twice in the postseason before turning the game over to their bullpen. Then the Yankees went with one of those relievers, Chad Green,

This was going to be about the Yankees and their starting pitching, and whether they could get their starters through the other team’s batting order at least twice in the postseason before turning the game over to their bullpen. Then the Yankees went with one of those relievers, Chad Green, as an opener in Thursday night’s game against the Indians. Green didn’t make it through the Indians’ order once before giving up a grand slam to Jose Ramirez. The game ended up a 19-5 win for the Indians.

If the Yankees face the Indians in October, whether the Indians are the American League Central champs or an AL Wild Card, they won’t be throwing Green at them in Game 1. Now, no one is still quite sure who the Game 1 starter for the Yankees, whether it will be Domingo Germán, this year’s young ace, or the rehabbing Luis Severino, last year’s young ace. Or Masahiro Tanaka. Or James Paxton.

But what we do know is that starting pitching is going to be an issue for the Yankees come October, even though they are likely going to be coming off a regular season in which they win even more than the 100 games they won last year, and still might end up with the best record in their league, maybe even in the whole sport.

The Yankees didn’t make a deal for a starter at the July 31 Trade Deadline. Rather than make what he considered a bad deal, general manager Brian Cashman made no deal at all. Here is something Cashman said after the Trade Deadline:

“This is a damn good roster and it can compete, we feel, with anybody in the game.’’

He’s right. Even after all the injuries this season -- even without Severino and Dellin Betances, and with Giancarlo Stanton having played just nine games and Aaron Judge going through a stretch that looks softer than soft ice cream for a guy who hit 52 home runs two years ago -- the Yankees came out of Thursday night two games better in the loss column than the Astros, and tied with the Dodgers for the best record in baseball. In so many ways, what the Yankees have done so far, and with whom they’ve done it, is the single best story in the big leagues into the middle of August.

But what happens in October?

We know the Yankees can hit, even with their best hitter -- Judge -- not having done much of anything since he came back from an oblique injury. Maybe there are still lingering effects from that injury. Whatever the reason, Judge does look completely lost. He struck out four times against the Indians Thursday night. At the end of that game his batting average was .257. He has 12 homers and 32 RBIs in 245 at-bats. And even though his manager, Aaron Boone, suggested that Judge is just going through “a tough couple of weeks,” it seems to be a bit more than that. Judge has hit .212 over his last 30 games. And, guess what? Nine of those games have been against the Orioles (the Yankees were 17-2 against them this season) and Blue Jays.

The questions about the Yankees’ starting pitching -- especially if they end up against the Astros in the AL Championship Series the way they did two years ago -- will stick to them like a tick until one of their starters throws a gem in October.

You know what a dream game would be for the Yankees this October, whomever they play in the first round? Game 2 of last year’s series against the Red Sox, at Fenway Park. Tanaka pitched five innings that night, gave up three hits, one run. Betances pitched the sixth and seventh. Zack Britton pitched the eighth. Aroldis Chapman closed in the ninth. The Yankees won 6-2. The series was even. The Yankees were going home. Then it was the old line, as old as box scores, about momentum being the next night’s starting pitcher. The roof caved in on Severino the next night. The Red Sox won, 16-1. The Yankees ended up losing to the Red Sox in four games.

Two years ago, the Astros beat the Yankees in seven games in the ALCS. The Astros didn’t have Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke in their rotation then. But they still had Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton. The Astros ended up winning all their games at Minute Maid Park. Justin Verlander started two, Keuchel started one, Morton started Game 7. The Yankees scored a grand total of three runs in those four games. The shortest outing for any of the Houston starters came from Morton. All he did was pitch five shutout innings in Game 7 before turning the game over to the Houston bullpen, which turned out to be a one-man bullpen that night because of the way Lance McCullers shut out the Yankees after Morton was gone.

I asked A.J. Hinch on Friday about what kind of expectations managers have for their starters once their team does get to the playoffs. This is what he said:

“I think expectations have changed over the years, given the emergence of bullpens and the urgency of the playoffs. Elite starters still pitch deeper into games, but that is more rare these days. Part of it is by design with the way teams are built, but most of it is driven by the intense urgency.”

The Yankees will find out what they’ve got when the games are intense and urgent in October. So will Hinch, even though he’s loaded with starters. So will everybody. But for now the conversation about the October prospects for the Yankees always starts in the same place: With their starters.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com.