SAN DIEGO — In the quiet of another Yankees clubhouse that had just experienced postseason failure, Brett Gardner delivered a brilliantly simple synopsis of October baseball.
"Just came up a little short," he said. "This is the time of year when good teams get sent home and great teams move on."
Gardner spoke after the Yankees’ loss to the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 2018 Division Series at the Stadium, but his line has become an epitaph of sorts for the recent versions of the Yankees. Since 2017, they have consistently knocked on the door of qualifying for the franchise’s first World Series since 2009 but, for different reasons, have yet to kick it in.
It is impossible to rank the defeats. How does one rate a loss to the Astros in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS ahead of or behind, say, the walk-off loss to Houston in ALCS Game 6 last year? But there’s no question that the pain of this year’s ALDS loss to the Rays will linger into the offseason following yet another failure to make a World Series appearance, let alone win a championship.
"I hate this feeling. It sucks. Third year going through it," said Luke Voit, a Yankee since 2018, said after Friday night’s 2-1 setback in the deciding fifth game. "It’s not what we wanted."
Just a few days earlier, the Yankees looked very much like a team that had a better-than-even chance of getting what it wanted for the first time since 2009, the year of their last championship (and World Series appearance).
After sweeping Cleveland in two games in the best-of-three wild-card round, the Yankees buried the Rays, 9-3, in Game 1 of the Division Series. At that point, they had totaled 11 homers and 31 runs in their first three postseason games.
Then came Game 2.
Rather than hand the ball to Masahiro Tanaka, who started Game 2 of the Cleveland series, or go with the experienced J.A. Happ or even rookie phenom Deivi Garcia in a traditional starting role, the Yankees went with the latter as a one-inning opener to be backed by Happ, who didn't seem too happy about the plan.
As no Yankees fan needs reminding, that strategy, which caused some head-scratching even within the organization, backfired. Garcia allowed a solo homer in his inning and Happ, terrific down the stretch but pitching for the first time since Sept. 25, allowed two two-run homers that put the Yankees in a 5-1 hole in the third inning of what became a 7-5 loss.
The Rays won two of the next three to win the series, with Game 2 a clear demarcation.
"I don’t regret Game 2," Boone said after Game 5. "I’m sure there’ll be people who [say], ‘If we just started a guy and went with him, we win the game.’ That’s kind of ridiculous . . . All over the league, things like this are done and done really effectively, and we’ve done them really effectively."
Not nearly as effectively as the Rays, who all but invented the opener concept. Boone, however, was 100% correct with his primary point: There was no guarantee with the other options.
Tanaka, mostly a postseason standout in his Yankees career, wasn’t sharp in Game 2 in Cleveland and wasn’t good in Game 3 of the ALDS. Garcia might have done well had he been turned loose, but he’s also a pitcher who allowed a combined 10 runs and 15 hits in his last two regular-season starts. And Happ, though solid to good most of the season, might not have been any better starting the first inning than he was starting the second.
Regardless, in the end, the post-series questions were similar to what they’ve been after the previous playoff disappointments. Most of them related to the opposing team coming through with a few more timely hits and timely pitches than the Yankees did.
What did Giancarlo Stanton, who hit .308 with six homers and a 1.426 OPS in the postseason, think was the biggest separator between his team and the Rays in Game 5?
"I think the biggest was they scored more runs than us," Stanton said, sounding more resigned than sarcastic. "We're going home and they are not."
Since their last World Series championship (2009 vs. Philadelphia), the Yankees have been eliminated in the postseason three times in both the ALDS and ALCS and once in a Wild Card playoff. They have missed the playoffs three times:
Season W-L AL East Playoff elimination
2020 33-27 2nd In ALDS, to Tampa Bay, 3-2
2019 103-59 1st In ALCS, to Houston, 4-2
2018 100-62 2nd In ALDS, to Boston, 3-1
2017 91-71 2nd In ALCS, to Houston, 4-3
2016 84-78 4th Missed playoffs
2015 87-75 2nd In Wild Card, to Houston
2014 84-78 2nd Missed playoffs
2013 85-77 3rd Missed playoffs
2012 95-67 1st In ALCS, to Detroit, 4-0
2011 97-65 1st In ALDS, to Detroit, 3-2
2010 95-67 2nd In ALCS, to Texas, 4-2