Aaron Boone got his wish.
For the most part.
The Yankees’ manager — like his players — expressed no preference for their Division Series opponent as the Rays faced the Guardians in a best-of-three AL Wild Card Series in Cleveland.
“Hopefully it goes three games and they beat each other up a little bit,” he said last week as his team wrapped up a 99-63 regular season in Arlington against the Rangers.
The series didn’t go the full three games, but the Guardians used eight pitchers in a 15-inning marathon Saturday afternoon. They finally broke a scoreless tie on a solo homer by Oscar Gonzalez that sent Cleveland to New York for Game 1 of the Division Series on Tuesday night.
It was punch/counterpunch of pitching, pitching and more pitching as the clubs struck out a combined 39 times.
Meanwhile, the well-rested Yankees will have had a full five days off before starting the best-of-five ALDS.
“Obviously, Tampa we know really well and they know us well,” Boone had said when asked about the Wild Card Series. “Cleveland has been one of the really good stories this year as far as to see their young roster come of age and really just dominate the Central down the stretch. They always pitch well. They’ve got an elite closer at the back end [Emmanuel Clase]. Good starting pitching. It’s a team that’s really adept at putting the ball in play. They’re athletic. They do a lot of different things.”
The Yankees went 5-1 against the Guardians, who won the weak AL Central with a 92-70 record. But the Cleveland team the Yankees faced earlier in the season hardly resembles the current Guardians.
Cleveland won 24 of its final 30 games to take the division title by 11 games over the White Sox.
The Guardians don’t hit much — evidenced by the three combined runs they scored in the two-game sweep of the Rays in the Wild Card Series — but they do pitch.
And they’re led by Terry Francona, a two-time World Series-winning manager with the Red Sox (2004 and 2007) who is considered among the top managers in the sport.
His work with the Guardians this season might be his best yet. Cleveland had 17 players make their big-league debuts this season — including Gonzalez, the hero of Saturday’s game — a record for any division winner in Major League Baseball history.
“I think there's a quiet confidence in our group of guys that we have here,” Cleveland lefthander Sam Hentges told reporters after Saturday’s victory. “We come to the ballpark every day and we don't really back down from challenges. That's preached from Tito [Francona], and I think it's kind of instilled in us, and that's how we attack each day.”
The Yankees, of course, are brimming with confidence after turning things around from an 18-31 stretch that put their hold on the division in jeopardy. With some of their injured players returning to the lineup, they rebounded to win 20 of 27 games and finished seven games ahead of the second-place Blue Jays — who blew an 8-1 lead at home Saturday and were swept in the other Wild Card Series when Seattle came back for a 10-9 victory.
“We're proud to win the American League East,” Boone said. “This is a bear of a division every year, as much as any year this year, because every team is now competitive or better. So to survive that, to go through the highs of the first half where we raced out, nothing really went wrong the first few months, to really hitting a roadblock in about a six-week stretch there where we really struggled and were beat up and were injured [in the second half]. We've persevered through that and finished the season like we needed to to win the East, and now give ourselves a shot to go chase our dream of winning a championship.”