You could have been forgiven if you had taken a look at the Yankees' lineup on Friday night and concluded that it was them, not the Red Sox, who clinched a division title in the Bronx the night before.
No Giancarlo Stanton. No Gary Sanchez. No Miguel Andujar. Sure, Aaron Judge was in there, but after coming back from a fractured wrist, he’s probably had his fill of sitting on the bench.
The truth is, though, that the Yankees haven’t even clinched home-field advantage in the wild-card game. If we’re getting picky, there’s still the slightest mathematical chance that they won't earn a wild card at all. But Friday night’s lineup was less about the Yankees sitting on their unearned laurels and far more about getting the lineup into some semblance of freshness to face the Athletics on Oct. 3 and beyond.
Which leaves something of a precarious balance to strike if you’re Aaron Boone: give your players the rest they need while also working to stave off the red-hot A’s, who went into Friday night's game against the Twins wanting nothing more than to take the wild-card game to Oakland.
When Boone made his lineup, the Yankees had a 1½-game lead over Oakland.
“We want to play here,” Boone said definitively. “We feel like we have a home-field advantage, but I also don't want to get caught up in driving that home so much. We feel like we can beat anybody anyplace … If we go out and handle our business, if we take care of business, we'll play that game at home, and that's a priority of ours. We want to get that done because again, this is a special place for us, but we also want to be mindful that wherever that game [is], we will be ready for it.”
If a manager is going to rest players against anyone, the Orioles – who entered Friday at 44-108, the worst record in the majors – are the guys to do it against. But the difficulty level gets bounced up to “hard” during the next series, four games against the surprising Rays, and “expert” in their final three games of the season, against the Red Sox, although there's no telling what Boston's motivation level will be at that point.
And it’s likely that this is all part of the strategy. Boone said he sat down with the front office and his coaches a few days ago – a situation room-type scenario that had them spitballing ideas on how to approach this stretch run. They discussed starting pitching – by the way, Boone said J.A. Happ’s domination of the Red Sox won't necessarily preclude him from pitching the wild-card game – and they talked about who to rest and how.
Boone consistently checks in with Stanton, who has nursed a sore hamstring for weeks. Judge was on the disabled list for just under eight weeks, and though he seems to be getting into the groove well enough, he hasn’t gotten hot in the way he’s capable of yet. The Yankees want to get him there, but without overtaxing him.
All that is being considered in the context of the Red Sox, whom the Yankees will face if they make it to the ALDS. By the time their Game 1 comes, the Sox will have had a chance to rest their players for two weeks if they wish.
“That'll be an ongoing conversation into the final days of the season as we get closer to that,” Boone said. "We'll hopefully, through that dialogue and conversations, we'll come up with the best plan possible to win that game.”