Inserted into leadoff spot, Rizzo goes deep

October 6th, 2021

BOSTON -- did not blink once informed that he would occupy the leadoff spot in Tuesday’s American League Wild Card Game -- sure, it was a slightly different assignment, but it was one that the Yankees' first baseman had performed well in the past.

It wasn’t until Rizzo realized that Kyle Schwarber was also hitting leadoff, occupying the top spot in the Red Sox’s lineup, that it became a "wow" moment for the former Cubs stars. And the wows didn't end pregame, as both unexpected leadoff hitters homered in big spots. Rizzo tucked his sixth-inning solo blast just inside the Pesky Pole, three innings after Schwarber's blast had helped knock starter Gerrit Cole out of the Yankees' eventual 6-2 loss. Rizzo's homer was the first damage done against Nathan Eovaldi, who had cruised up to that point.

Rizzo and Schwarber discussed the happenstance in a brief chat before the game, one neither could have predicted a year ago.

“It’s pretty cool, coming full circle and playing against a really good friend, leading off as well,” Rizzo said. “Not your prototypical leadoff hitters, but he’s excited about it, too.”

Rizzo has started 65 career games in the leadoff spot, but none since joining the Yankees ahead of this year’s July 30 Trade Deadline. He has compiled a .321/.407/.554 slash line (77-for-240) across those games, all taking place with the Cubs from 2017-21.

With DJ LeMahieu on the injured list, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that he considered using again in the leadoff spot, but he preferred Torres in the middle of the batting order.

“It’s really just valuing Gleyber in the middle of the order with our guys, wanting Rizzo and [Aaron] Judge and [Giancarlo] Stanton up there as much as possible,” Boone said. “Having Gleyber in the middle, I feel like those are the guys that get on base. Hopefully, there's opportunities for him, and he's a guy I definitely want up with some runners on base.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time in postseason history that the starting leadoff hitters in a game were teammates in the previous season on another club. Schwarber was non-tendered by the Cubs after the 2020 campaign.

Rizzo said that there is something special about knowing that he will have the first at-bat of the 2021 postseason.

“My goal is not to let [Nathan] Eovaldi settle in whatsoever,” Rizzo said. “He's an aggressive pitcher in the strike zone. I'm sure he's going to come out firing today with the adrenaline and everything. But it will be exciting. … I'm hitting in front of Judge still, so that comfort level is still there. I've been doing that pretty much since I've been here. It's just one slot higher.”

Gio is A-OK
Two days after he took a nasty tumble down the steps of the visiting dugout at Yankee Stadium, went through a pregame routine on Tuesday, performing agility exercises and taking ground balls.

That process told the Yankees that, as promised, Urshela was good enough to play. Some lingering soreness and mobility issues prompted Boone to slot Urshela in at third base in the Wild Card Game, rather than at shortstop. Andrew Velazquez made the start at short instead.

“Gio is doing pretty well actually, all things considered,” Boone said. “Especially with third [base] being his natural position, because he's not quite 100 percent, I just felt more comfortable having him at least start the game at third and go with the defense with ‘Squid’ at shortstop.”

Roster decisions
The Yankees had a couple of surprise additions to their roster for the Wild Card Game, electing to carry outfielder and catcher . Boone said that the club wanted to take advantage of extra roster spots created by not carrying starting pitchers Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery and Jameson Taillon.

“Having that third catcher gives you a little bit of flexibility late in the game if you did get in a situation or you want to be aggressive running for a catcher at some point in the game,” Boone said. “With Greg Allen, he did such a good job for us when he was up with us earlier this year. He's had a really good year between the big leagues and Triple-A. He’s another guy that we can shoot in a late-inning situation or a big at-bat at some point.”

He said it
“I think we have a group of guys that loves playing when the stakes are high. And I feel like the last couple of months have prepared us pretty well for this. Whatever happens tonight, I feel like we're going to walk out there and play our game and play with confidence. And that's because I think these guys do relish playing in this rivalry, playing with everything on the line against a really good team.” -- Boone

This date in Yankees history
Oct. 5, 1953: Billy Martin connected for a World Series-winning hit, singling home Hank Bauer in Game 6 of the Fall Classic to lift the Yankees to a 4-3 victory over the Dodgers.