Bombers rewriting the playoff record book

October 6th, 2020

With the bases loaded in the ninth inning, took a hack at an 86.4 mph slider and watched the ball soar to center field, but he was hesitant to drop his bat. Stanton waited, wondering whether he lifted a sacrifice fly or just delivered the biggest moment of his postseason career. To his relief, the outcome was the latter.

Stanton savored his trip around the bases, knowing he gave his team some much-needed insurance runs in a tone-setting, 9-3, Game 1 victory over the Rays in the American League Division Series at Petco Park. The slam allowed the Yankees to become the first team to begin the playoffs by scoring at least nine runs in three straight games.

“I just think they're really focused,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of his hitters. “I think they have a lot of faith and a lot of trust in each other, and know that they're up there to make it difficult on the pitcher.”

But Stanton’s long ball was only one piece of New York’s highlight reel from Monday night.

After the Yankees mashed seven home runs against the Indians in the two-game sweep during the Wild Card Series, the Yanks clubbed four more against the Rays in Game 1 of the ALDS to become the first team in Major League history to hit at least three homers in each of its first three games of a postseason. Teams have gone 13-0 this postseason when out-homering their opponents.

Which bats helped the Yankees reach these milestones?

Frazier’s first postseason plate appearance ended the way every Little Leaguer would dream. The 26-year-old did not start in the Wild Card Series against the Indians, but he was penciled in the lineup Monday night against the Rays. He had gone three games without getting an at-bat after finishing the regular season 1-for-20 in his last six contests. But all of those factors made his moment in the third inning even sweeter.

With the game tied at 1, Frazier blasted a solo homer to left-center field on a 95.6 mph fastball above the strike zone. It was the second-highest pitch any Yankee has hit for a home run in 2020, behind Aaron Judge (who may have a slightly higher strike zone than the 5-foot-11 Frazier).

“I feel like I had blacked out running around the bases,” Frazier said. “It was exciting. The last few weeks had been frustrating for me at the plate, and I didn't finish the season the way I wanted to and obviously didn't play in the last couple games as much as I would have liked. But it meant a lot because tonight's all that mattered.”

“I'm just really proud of how he's handled things,” Boone said. “You know, show himself to be a real pro.”

It hasn’t been a difficult decision for Boone to put Kyle Higashioka behind the dish when Gerrit Cole is on the rubber. In Cole’s first eight starts this season, he pitched to a 3.91 ERA with Gary Sánchez as his batterymate. But in his final five regular-season starts, Cole was paired with Higashioka and posted a 1.32 ERA. Sánchez has also struggled offensively of late, while Higashioka provided more than just a defensive lift on Monday with a game-tying solo homer in the fifth.

“The power stroke is there,” Cole said of Higashioka, with a big grin.

Judge had been making softer contact toward the end of the regular season, going 7-for-36 (.194) with 13 strikeouts after returning from the injured list on Sept. 16. But since the spotlight got brighter for the postseason, Judge’s bat has heated up. He launched a two-run homer against Shane Bieber in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series last week and laced a 109.5 mph laser over the left-field wall to give the Yankees a 4-3 lead in the fifth on Monday.

Judge is one of just five players in MLB history with at least 10 homers and 20 RBIs through their first 30 postseason games, joining Lou Gehrig, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Beltrán and Duke Snider.

As he breathed a sigh of relief once the ball landed beyond the center-field wall, Stanton became the fourth Yankees player to homer in the team’s first three postseason games (tying a franchise record), joining Judge (2018), Hank Bauer (1958) and Johnny Mize (1952). He delivered the Yankees’ 14th postseason grand slam, which is more than any other two teams combined. The Braves have the second most grand slams in the playoffs with seven.

With the insurance runs came added perks for the Yankees, who had closer Aroldis Chapman warming in the bullpen. Even before the ball landed, Chapman knew he could sit back down and save his arm for another day. And in a five-game series without any off-days, being able to save Chapman could prove to be a great advantage for New York.

But what could be even better? The next four games will be played at the same ballpark. Though both teams will have to adjust to competing at a neutral site for the remainder of the postseason, Stanton certainly won’t complain to stay in Petco Park. The slugger won the 2016 Home Run Derby in San Diego and owns the best regular-season home run ratio among any player with at least 50 plate appearances at that ballpark (7.75 at-bats per homer).

“Can’t really put it past that it’s SoCal,” Stanton said when asked about the reason for his success in San Diego. “I grew up about an hour and a half, two hours away. … I mean, I’m having good at-bats. That’s what it’s about. Just wear these pitchers down and it’ll click eventually.”