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With Gerrit Cole on mound, Kyle Higashioka starts over Gary Sanchez behind plate for Yankees' wild card opener

Gerrit Cole and Kyle Higashioka of the Yankees

Gerrit Cole and Kyle Higashioka of the Yankees celebrate after defeating the Orioles in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 11. Credit: Jim McIsaac

CLEVELAND – Gary Sanchez is one of Kyle Higashioka’s best friends on the Yankees and vice versa.

And as such, Higashioka, while thrilled to be behind the plate catching Gerrit Cole Tuesday night in Game 1 of the best-of-three wild-card series against Cleveland, didn’t exactly perform a touchdown dance in celebration of the assignment.

An assignment that Aaron Boone has said is likely to continue for any ensuing Cole postseason starts. And, perhaps, for games started by someone other than Cole, too.

"I know Gary and I know he's extremely mentally tough so if anything, it's going to just spur him on to performing even better, get back to his normal self," Higashioka said here late Monday afternoon.

Sanchez, the lightning rod of lightning rods among Yankees fans, never got much of anything going in the just-completed 60-game regular season, slashing 147/.253/.365 with 10 homers and 24 RBIs in 49 games. There was some good and some not so good with Sanchez’s defense, always a topic of conversation, but his status going into the postseason was a result of his yearlong offensive struggles and, at the same time, the clear rhythm established over the season’s last month between Cole and the 30-year-old Higashioka, a third-round pick of the Yankees in 2008.

"He was fine," Boone of Sanchez’s reaction Monday when he officially notified the 27-year-old of the decision that had all but been made over a week ago. "He knows to be ready at any point early in the game [to pinch hit], and knows that if we're going to win a championship, he's going to be a big part of it."

The decision was an easy one for Boone. Higashioka and Cole, two natives of Southern California who have known each other since playing youth league baseball together in their teens, went 3-1 together, including 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA the last three games.

"Probably because we're both from Southern California," Cole said Monday with a grin of their success together. "I mean, we have a lot of the same interests. And Kyle's ability to communicate, be a really creative thinker, good pitch framer, good pitch caller. So we’ve worked out well together."

Boone, like many managers, at the start of his career said he, in general, was against the concept of personal catchers.

"Bottom line is we’ve got an elite-level catcher [who] we’re not going to sit down and get into the personal [catcher] stuff," Boone said in March 2018, his first spring training after taking over for Joe Girardi. "Gary’s going to do the bulk of the catching [and] I’d prefer to stay away from matching guys up."

Girardi said similar things early in his tenure but, like Boone when it came to Cole and Higashioka, changed course when reality intervened. In Girardi’s case – to use the most prominent example of his 10 years in the Yankees’ dugout from 2008-2017 – it was pairing Jose Molina with A.J. Burnett down the stretch in 2009 and then in all five postseason starts the righthander made en route to the Yankees winning the most recent of their 27 championships.

"Pitching is what wins ballgames for you," Girardi said during the 2009 ALCS against the Angels. "Obviously, you need a little bit of offense, but the A.J.-and-Molina matchup has been very good for us."

Talking about the Cole-Higashioka battery last week, Boone indicated his slight change of heart when it comes to personal catchers.

"If you have a guy that is the clear backup that's only playing once every four days or once every five days and they get in a good rhythm with a pitcher…I mean, obviously, I've been doing it here with Higgy and Cole. I think over the long haul, maybe you try to avoid it a little bit, but if it's a natural matchup and things are rolling, obviously I'm not against it."

And, based on Boone’s comments last week, not necessarily against giving Higashioka a postseason start with someone other than Cole.

"It’s hard to predict," Boone said of the starting catcher decision. "There’s nothing committed to right now, but I expect both guys to play a role and an important part of us being a champion."

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