If everything is magnified in the playoffs, it counts doubly so during an elimination game. The crowds are louder and more mercurial, the players are on edge, and the manager – in the case of the Yankees, Aaron Boone, who’s been an ant under a magnifying glass for two days now – is second guessed at every turn.
So, it was with no shortage of forethought that Boone compiled his lineup for Game 4 of the ALDS on Wednesday, the final of the Yankees’ season after a 4-3 loss – a lineup that he said he’s jotted out in his mind days before. And, naturally, that lineup came with no shortage of second guessing by the Yankees’ faithful. Neil Walker was in, and their most consistent hitter this season, Miguel Andujar was out. Gone was Andrew McCutchen, who led off on Tuesday, and in his stead was Brett Gardner, who at times during a dreadful September looked in danger of being left off the playoff roster completely.
For a first-year manager who admitted he made a bullpen blunder on Monday – one that helped lead to the most lopsided Yankees’ loss in franchise history, against their hated rival – it was an all-in sort of gamble, and though it didn’t seem to substantially lead to the Yankees elimination and the Red Sox ascension to the ALCS in Houston, there’s no shortage of what ifs in the long, long offseason.
Walker went 1-for-3, with a single, while Gardner was 0-for-1 with an RBI among, granted, a Yankees offense that did a whole bunch of nothing regardless. McCutchen pinch hit for him against lefty Chris Sale in the eighth.
“This was probably something I’ve kind of been thinking about – we’ve been thinking about for the past couple of days,” Boone said. “Just wanted to get more lefty balance in the lineup against (righthanded starter Rick) Porcello. I feel like it makes sense to have that. Walk’s played a number of games over at third, with CC (Sabathia) on the mound, too. i just feel like it gives us a little more balance in a matchup that makes some sense.”
“This is probably how I would have gone even a few days ago.”
That last part was pivotal. With a pitcher like Sabathia, who likes to pound cutters inside to righthanded hitters - leading to rockets to third - Walker’s glove is a definite upgrade over Andujar, who can at times be a liability at the position. But sitting Andujar also means sitting 92 RBIs and 27 home runs on the bench, along with the fact that Andujar had an .896 OPS against righties this season, compared to Walker’s .713.
The reason for Gardner’s addition was similar, though the decision to sit McCutchen is a little less surprising than sitting Andujar: He’s a reliably tough at bat, and strong defensively. That, though, didn’t quite show in the third, where he misplayed an admittedly tough liner in left off the bat of Ian Kinsler. It went over Gardner’s head for a double and scored a run. Kinsler also eventually came around to score. To make matter worse, Red Sox leftfielder, Andrew Benintendi, made an almost identical play in the bottom of the inning - snagging Gleyber Torres' scorching liner on the run.
With one out and two on in the fifth, Gardner did hit a sacrifice fly to center to score the Yankees' first run, but they’d get no more against Porcello that inning.
That’s just how the dice roll in the playoffs, though in an elimination game, they clank around a little louder.
“You know what you signed up there,” Boone said before the game, before he knew how his decisions would play out. “And it’s very easy, we can all sit and first-guess and second-guess that I would do this."
"And that’s one of the great things about our game, frankly. Especially when you’re passionate about the game and passionate about your team, there’s always other ways to do things that potentially are equally or even more effective. That’s one of the reasons in think this game has survived and thrived for hundreds of years now. Because it is gray and there’s always strategies and things to talk about. That’s part of it.”
with Erik Boland