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Yankees' 'opener' plan in Game 2 could haunt Aaron Boone and analytics department

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ throws against the Rays

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ throws against the Rays during the fourth inning in Game 2 of the American League Division Series on Tuesday in San Diego. Credit: AP/Jae C. Hong

SAN DIEGO – The Yankees’ choice to use Deivi Garcia in an opener role – followed by J.A. Happ – that badly backfired in a Game 2 loss to the Rays in the Division Series Tuesday night remained Topic A in the sport a day later.

How much of a topic it is for the Yankees going forward very much depended on the results of Wednesday night’s critical Game 3 and, ultimately, depends on how the series turns out.

Should the Yankees prevail, the Game 2 call, which contributed to a 7-5 loss that evened the series at 1-1, will be looked as a mere speedbump.

A series loss?

The choice of Garcia, who allowed a solo homer in his one inning, to be piggybacked by Happ, who gave up two two-run homers in 2 2/3 innings that put the Yankees in a 5-1 hole after three innings, will likely haunt Aaron Boone and the club’s analytics department all winter.

Adding to the drama of the night, Happ afterward didn’t hide his irritation with the decision, saying "all things being equal," he would have preferred a traditional start and offering nothing more than "I’ll let Aaron talk about that" several times in evaluating the strategy behind the move.

"They know how I felt about it," Happ said. "But ultimately, I pitch when I pitch. There was no hesitation and no dwelling on what was going on. I was focused and trying to perform. I wish I would have done a better job."

The odd pitching call, made to counter the Rays’ typically lefty-heavy lineup, mostly dominated Boone’s pregame media availability before Game 3 (as well as the Yankees’ choice to bench Gary Sanchez and make the starting catcher job a day-to-day decision).

"It’s definitely something that I got ahead of with him," Boone said of Happ. "Any time we make a decision, especially this time of the year, around a roster move, a lineup change [we talk with the player]. Obviously, a unique pitching situation we’re going with [like Tuesday], it’s done with a lot of thought and discussion. [It’s done] with the idea that we’re trying to win games, win series, [but] you also understand that it’s not always going to work out. But it’s something that for a couple of days leading up, I did have conversations with J.A. to get him on board with the plan. Because it was a little outside his normal routine, that’s something with the player we want to have them very much involved with and in the loop."

But, as Boone said, the move did not work out.

Happ, who had not pitched since Sept. 25, was not sharp. He did not come close to resembling the pitcher who, despite his standing as a non-fan-favorite, actually was very good in 2020, going 2-2 with a 3.47 ERA in nine starts, including 1-1 with a 2.22 ERA over his final four outings of the regular season.

Did Happ, 37, feel he was put in a position to succeed Tuesday?

"That's not a question for me to answer," Happ said, though again reiterating he wasn’t offering excuses. "I didn't perform. I'm frustrated that I didn't. I don't have an answer for it. And I'm not going to make an excuse now for why that happened."

Brett Gardner, the longest tenured Yankee, having been drafted into the organization in 2005, said the controversy surrounding Tuesday night’s decision barely registered in the clubhouse.

"I don’t know if that has any effect," Gardner said. "For one, obviously, a loss is a loss. Doesn’t matter if you lose by one or lose by 10, a loss is a loss this time of year. It’s important to try and learn from it but just as quickly as possible flush it down the drain and focus on [the next one]. With the pitching decision, any time things don’t go according to plan they get questioned more. But it’s up to us to go out and play and not worry about decisions that are made. We’re all professionals, not making excuses whenever our name’s called and go out and do the job to the best of our ability. This time of year, it’s all hands on deck."

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