You know that baseball is the greatest sport in the world when the consolation for not getting Game-163 four-way chaos is a loser-go-home showdown between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
With first pitch at around 1:00 am Wednesday morning (late Tuesday night), we are in store for another epic game between the two most prominent names in the sport.
Firstly, I owe the Yankees and their supporters an apology. Preseason, I disparaged the organisation for lacking talent and lack of depth, but they exceeded my expectations and are favourites going into this Wild Card game. I will be honest; I don’t know how they have done it with seven of the nine players to play 100 games failing to register an above-average wRC+.
They never led the AL East outright, yet here they are playing October baseball. I think it was tennis coach Brad Gilbert who coined the phrase “Winning Ugly”. That seems appropriate for the 2021 Yankees.
Yankees rotation, led by tonight’s starter Gerrit Cole, has been tremendous, with Jameson Taillon, Nestor Cortes Jr., and Jordan Montgomery looking like reliable arms to take the ball if New York progresses.
Cole has gone 2-2 against the Red Sox this season, with 6.19 ERA in three games at Fenway Park, and is mired in a slump which has seen him give up 15 runs in his last 17⅔ innings. But he is a big-game pitcher.
Ranked as the third most effective bullpen in MLB behind the Rays and White Sox, the Yankees are set up for postseason success by relying on a deep well of relief arms.
With 2.17 ERA (2.58 FIP) over the season, Jonathan Loáisiga is one of the best relievers in the game. Yet, despite the 99 percentile fastball velocity, he doesn’t offer the blow-away strikeout ability of his fellow relievers Clay Holmes (10.9 strikeouts per nine), Chad Green (10.6), Lucas Luetge (10.4). Add to this the option of bringing in Domingo Germán or Luis Severino for an inning, and you can see the Yankees have the potential to go deep into October.
Aroldis Chapman’s 2021 ERA of 3.36 is a full run above his career average. Although his fastball doesn’t produce the triple-digit heat of previous years, it averages over 98 mph, which is the perfect foil for his 88 mph wipeout slider. The Cuban is currently the most hittable of any time in his career, but the Yankees will feel secure giving him a lead in the ninth inning.
One to watch
I saw a tweet the other day by some controversy-yearning clickbait provider that Aaron Judge is not a clutch hitter. Regardless of your opinions about whether such a thing as clutch exists, Judge is a franchise-defining hitter who has shrugged off his injury-susceptible label to produce .916 OPS in a career-high 550 at-bats this season. I accept that he doesn’t have the swag of Tatís Jr., Acuña Jr., or Soto, but seeing Judge enter the batter’s box against your team protecting a slim lead is one of the scariest sights in sport.
Tyler Wade is speed on legs. If the scores are tight, watch for Wade to be introduced as a game-changing defensive switch. He doesn’t need an invitation to steal a base, and with the pitcher slightly distracted, Aaron Boone’s move could be the difference.
I must also apologise to the Red Sox and their fans. Last season, I was pissed to see one of the biggest teams in the game give away one of the greatest talents in the game. Obviously, if this Red Sox lineup featured Mookie Betts it would look far more exciting, but that ship has sailed, and Betts will be lining up for the Dodgers for the next 12 years. My frustration with the Red Sox was compounded by their cynical race against the Baltimore Orioles for last place in the AL East. Anyway, I misjudged them in 2021.
Although, after the Red Sox suffered a 3-0 opening series sweep at the hands of the mighty Orioles, it seemed like my negativity was justified.
However, Boston dusted themselves off and started playing great baseball, which saw them with a 4.5 game division lead as late as 5 July. They ended eight games behind the Rays, partly due to 16 defeats out of 28 games in August.
Entering the final game of the regular season, progression to the postseason looked assured when their opponents, the Washington Nationals, gave a debut start to Joan Adon, a player who had not pitched above Low-A before this season. However, the Red Sox teased the Blue Jays with thoughts of a Game 163 until Rafael Devers connected with his second home run of the game to give Boston the lead in the ninth inning.
Their narrow 10-9 winning record over the Yankees determined that tonight’s game will be played in front of the Massachusetts faithful in Fenway Park.
Nate Eovaldi’s contract has turned into a disaster yelled the headline of a Red Sox fanzine blog. It argued that the signing was “the most irresponsible thing that Dave Dombrowski did during his tenure in Boston.”
Fast-forward to October 2021, and Eovaldi has given the Red Sox 32 starts at a league-leading 2.79 FIP. It is surprising there is not more chatter in the Cy Young conversation. He doesn’t even feature in the Top-10 on the ESPN Cy Young predictor.
In six games against the Yankees this season, the 31-year-old is 2-2 with a 3.71 ERA.
The relief corps has struggled of late, leaving Boston outside the Top-20 bullpens in September with 3.92 ERA (4.33 FIP).
The veteran quartet of Ryan Brasier (1.80 ERA*), Matt Barnes (3.60 ERA), Garrett Richards (5.06 ERA), and Adam Ottavino (8.10 ERA) has struggled over the last month. Sensational rookie, Garrett Whitlock, might also be running out of steam in what has been a brilliant first season in the majors.
* Brasier has not pitched as well as his 1.80 ERA in September suggests.
Look for the Red Sox to utilise a starting pitcher to help bridge the gap between Eovaldi and closer, Hansel Robles.
Since moving from the Minnesota Twins at the trade deadline, Hansel Robles has fallen into the role of closer thanks to the capitulation of Barnes and Ottavino. The 31-year-old did not allow a run in September and secured three out of three in save opportunities. He is secure at the right time.
One to watch
Rafael Devers is going into the game as the Red Sox hottest player, having hit .303 in September with .867 OPS. The Yankees will be concerned about Devers’ 38-homer, 113-RBI season, but they will be even more anxious that he has already taken Gerrit Cole deep three times this season.
Kyle Schwarber has become an on-base machine since moving to Boston. His .435 OBP is part of the reason he leads the team with runs scored in September. However, it is in the playoffs where the 28-year-old has written his own headlines. The 2016 World Series winner has .981 OPS in 24 postseason games, and he will be determined not to fall at the Wild Card stage as he did in 2018 and 2020.
For me, this is where the baseball season comes alive. Games which matter. Any player can be the hero. Enjoy the postseason.
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Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
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