TORONTO — David Robertson hardly turned around to watch the ball, instead crouching in frustration and staring at home plate.
A pitch he had delivered a half-second earlier — a full-count fastball that Justin Smoak crushed to centerfield for a grand slam with two outs in the eighth inning — sank the Yankees in a 7-4 loss to the Blue Jays in front of 29,091 at Rogers Centre.
“I threw everything I had at him,” Robertson said. “He just won today.”
Though the Yankees return to the Bronx for Monday’s home opener a respectable 2-2, there was no question that their second straight loss was disheartening.
And at the center of it all was the first major decision by rookie manager Aaron Boone, one that backfired and lit up social media with angry Yankees fans.
In a game in which the Yankees already had seen a 4-1 lead cut to 4-3, Robertson allowed a leadoff single to Russell Martin in the eighth. Aledmys Diaz’s one-out double put the tying run at third, but Robertson got Devon Travis to hit a comebacker on his first pitch for the second out.
Boone now had to decide whether to pitch to Josh Donaldson, 3-for-8 with two homers in his career against Robertson, or Smoak, who had been 0-for-5 with four strikeouts against Robertson.
On the other hand, Smoak had been hot through the four-game series — he hit a two-run homer off Tommy Kahnle in the seventh to bring the Blue Jays within 4-3 — and Donaldson had gone 2-for-13.
Boone elected to have the righthanded Robertson intentionally walk the righthanded-hitting Donaldson and pitch to the switch-hitting Smoak. “His breaking ball we feel like is a good matchup for Smoak there,” Boone said. “And to Smoak’s credit, he spoiled some tough ones.”
Do the respective players’ performances in a series or that particular game impact the decision?
“It can, but less than some may think,” Boone said. “I don’t get caught up too much in last at-bat, two at-bats ago or even recent small history. That’s part of it . . . but you’re trying to match up skill set with skill set more so.”
Robertson fell behind 2-and-0, battled back to 2-and-2 with a curveball and a fastball and then threw four straight curveballs, with Smoak fouling off three of them. With the count full, Smoak launched a 93-mph fastball to centerfield, completing a 3-for-4, six-RBI day and a 7-for-15, eight-RBI series.
“I just felt like I had shown him the best ones I had at that time,” Robertson said of his decision not to throw another curveball. “I’d thrown three or four curveballs in that at-bat and all of them were as good as I could throw them. He seemed to catch a piece of [them], I didn’t want him to catch all of it, so I tried to throw a fastball there and it was the wrong pitch. I got beat with it.”
There is always more to a loss than one sequence, and Sunday was no different.
After scoring four runs in the third inning against former Patchogue-Medford star Marcus Stroman on Didi Gregorius’ RBI double, Neil Walker’s RBI single and Brandon Drury’s two-run homer on a hanging 0-and-2 slider, the Yankees had two hits the rest of the way.
Sonny Gray struck out eight and pitched out of several jams but went only four innings-plus, pulled after allowing Smoak’s leadoff single in the fifth.
Thanks to Chad Green, who struck out four in two scoreless innings, the Yankees still entered the seventh with a 4-1 lead before a bullpen that most consider to be among the best in baseball, if not the best, gave it up. Kahnle walked Donaldson and Smoak’s two-run homer to centerfield made it 4-3.
With Dellin Betances having melted down in the eighth inning the previous day and Aroldis Chapman having struggled a bit, the bullpen hasn’t yet been a strength (aside from Green, who has seven strikeouts in 3 1⁄3 innings).
“It’s going to be a strength, I’m confident of that,” Boone said. “Everything’s a little bit magnified obviously in the early days, good and bad. I’m really comfortable over time that those guys will continue to do their thing and it will continue to be not just a strength but I think an overwhelming strength of this club.”
David Robertson’s history against Justin Smoak and Josh Donaldson played into Aaron Boone’s strategy in the eighth inning. Their numbers leading up to their ABs:
Smoak: 0-for-5, 4 K’s
Donaldson: 3-for-8, 2 HRs, 5 RBIs