The Yankees didn’t have much else on their minds besides champagne, beer and spraying both on each other’s heads after Monday night’s Game 3 clincher at Target Field. But a few feet away from the bubbly celebration, shielded by a clubhouse partition, Brian Cashman pondered what was next.
The pitching strategy devised by Cashman’s collaboration with Aaron Boone worked to near-perfection in stifling the Twins. The AL Central champs hit a record 307 homers and ranked second in runs with 939 during the regular season, yet went deep only four times in the ALDS and were outscored by the Yankees, 23-7.
All this without a Madison Bumgarner or Trevor Bauer or Zack Wheeler or Marcus Stroman -- the names Cashman passed on in July when the rotation was identified as the Yankees’ greatest need. Some suggested the GM may have cost his team a title shot by not securing another ace-caliber pitcher by the deadline, but Cashman didn’t see it that way.
If the Astros had the elite No. 1s such as Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, then the Yankees would devise a path through them -- or the familiar AL East rival Rays -- with a more balanced staff that contained reliable front-line arms backed by a deep, versatile bullpen. The Yankees had plenty to dispose of the Twins, who batted .218 during the ALDS -- the lowest of any non-wild card playoff team to that point along with a .697 OPS that was second from the bottom.
But now Cashman’s staff either will go head-to-head with the likes of a Verlander and Cole -- the expected 1-2 finishers for this year’s Cy Young -- or contend with the talented, flexible staff of the resilient Rays, who forced a Game 5 by using the opener Diego Castillo in Tuesday’s 4-1 victory. Overall, Tampa Bay has a playoff-best 2.09 ERA and will use the former Astro Charlie Morton to start Thursday’s do-or-die game at Minute Maid Park.
As well as the Yankees pitched in the Division Series, and as much as Cashman was encouraged by his rotation’s performance -- 2.63 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 4.75 K/BB rate -- he still wondered, with the champagne still flying, if that impressive adequacy could continue as the stakes get higher.
“Well, I’m thankful,” Cashman said. “We always felt we had good enough. But will it be good enough against anybody else? It’s good enough, no doubt about that. But we’re going to find out obviously if it’s good enough to be the best.”
Lucky helps, too. The Yankees will benefit from the Astros and Rays going to a Game 5, as Houston now won’t have Verlander or Thursday’s starter Cole as ready-and-rested options when the ALCS opens Saturday. Same goes for the Rays’ Charlie Morton, and whomever else -- Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow -- they have to push into duty for Game 5.
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ staff gets better just by having four days off to relax, a nice bonus in early October. Heading into these playoffs, the closest the Yankees had to a sure thing was Masahiro Tanaka, whose 1.50 ERA in five October starts meant he could excel on the big stage. The Yankees got what they needed from Tanaka in Game 2, and didn’t ask for any more by pulling him after five innings, despite an 8-1 lead.
James Paxton finished the regular season on a 10-0 roll with a 2.51 ERA -- enough to earn him the prestigious Game 1 nod for his first career playoff start. But he only made it 4 2/3 innings (8 Ks, 2 HRs) in what eventually a 10-4 was blowout in the Bronx.
As for Game 3 hero Luis Severino, he went into Monday night with a total of 12 innings (three starts) under his belt after missing nearly all of the regular season with shoulder and lat-muscle injuries. His best weapon? The hunger for playoff vindication after last October’s six-run debacle against the Red Sox in the ALDS loss.
Firing a 98-mph fastball and wicked slider, it was Severino’s iron will that got him through four scoreless innings Monday. Severino squashed a bases-loaded, none-out rally in the second with a pair of strikeouts, then stranded two more Twins in the third by whiffing Mitch Garver. Each time, Severino roared coming off the mound, pumping his arms. And what did Cashman take from that?
“Guts, the competitive nature, he would bend but not break,” Cashman said. “Just shows what we already know about him. But there’s no guarantee, despite having all of that, that you’ll get through an opponent on any given day.”
It’s Cashman’s job to be anxious about such things, to not take solace in sweeps, to disregard the small sample sizes. The GM always has to be looking ahead, to troubleshoot issues before they even surface. Dumping the Twins quickly gives the Yankees some critical rest while the Astros and Rays will be taxed. These edges can help.
“Everything’s not over,” Severino said. “We’re on the right step, but we have to continue doing the same thing.”
Now it’s just a matter of Severino and the rest of the Yankees’ pitching staff providing the “good enough” that Cashman is hoping for.