Aaron Boone was true to his word.
Resolute the last several days in his defense of Gary Sanchez, Boone had said he was not considering benching the slumping catcher in favor of backup Austin Romine.
And, as promised, Sanchez was in the lineup Thursday night for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Astros, batting seventh.
He batted against Zack Greinke in the first inning with the Yankees leading 1-0 and the bases loaded and struck out on three pitches, with the final one a pitch in the dirt.
Sanchez hit a two-run homer off Josh James in the sixth to bring the Yankees within 6-3 after three-run homers by George Springer off Masahiro Tanaka in the third and Carlos Correa off Chad Green in the sixth.
Sanchez’s October start entering Game 4 was miserable: 2-for-21 with 10 strikeouts, including 1-for-13 with six strikeouts in the first three games of the ALCS.
“I'm seeing Gary miss some pitches,” Boone said after Sanchez went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the Yankees' 4-1 loss in Game 3 that put them in a two-games-to-one hole in the series. “I felt like he got another good one to hit today and put it on the net again. He's got to take advantage of … especially when you're facing a team like this with pitching like they have, when you do get a ball that you can handle, you've got to make sure it gets in play with authority and not on the net.”
But Sanchez, Boone said Thursday, has not gotten enough credit for what he’s done well in this series and in the season’s second half – play his position.
“Let's start with the other side of the ball, which completely gets lost in this,” Boone said. “And without sugarcoating at all, he's been excellent behind the plate from a game-calling standpoint, from a game-plan target, receiving.”
Almost anticipating the follow-up, Boone referenced the seventh inning of Game 3. With the bases loaded, Zack Britton threw two consecutive fastballs that got past Sanchez. The first one hit plate umpire Kerwin Danley and Sanchez quickly retrieved it, with no advance by the runners. The second went to the backstop for a run-scoring wild pitch.
“A lot of people are making a lot of the block,” Boone said of the criticism. “There's a lot of 94-mile-an-hour fastballs that guys don't block. Guys aren't always set up to block a fastball. That's kind of a 50-50 play. The bottom line is his body of work in this postseason, and frankly down the stretch in the second half of the season defensively, has been excellent. So that part has me feeling really good about him. And just knowing how talented of an offensive player he is, I always feel like he's a pitch away or an at-bat away from really getting locked in and changing the course of a game. So, clearly, he hasn't been at his best offensively, but with a guy as talented as he is, I think that's right around the corner always.”
A straw poll of a handful of opposing team talent evaluators agreed with Boone’s decision to stick with Sanchez.
“If he was really hurting them defensively, that [coupled] with the bat might have you considering a change,” one said. “But he’s not. And I don’t think you can take that bat away.”
Sanchez had his way with Astros pitching during the regular season – going 8-for-22 with two homers and 16 total bases, helping him to a 1.091 OPS in six games against them – and Houston manager AJ Hinch wasn’t much interested in delving into how his team shut him down in the first three games.
“I don't want to give my opinion on anything we're doing until we see what's next,” he said. “Obviously, we're trying to attack guys where we think we can get them out. We're trying to avoid the big swing and big moments, with Sanchez in particular. We've done a pretty good job of making pitches, but from a strategic standpoint, we've got too much baseball left to play for me to evaluate his performance.”
Boone said he addressed the topic of dealing with setbacks in the postseason not only with Sanchez but with the team overall before this run began.
“The next play is just too damn important,” Boone said before Game 4. “So you’ve got to keep that mindset of understanding that there's going to be ups and downs over the course of the playoffs. There's going to be hard times, there’s going to be high moments, and you've got to be able to deal with it all and continue to play because the next thing is the most important.”