Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night seemed to have one cleat in September and another planted firmly in the playoffs. There was champagne on chill — there in case the Red Sox clinched the division, which they didn’t. Media nearly outnumbered players, which is as good an indication as any that October is coming. And the Yankees, comfortably destined for a wild-card game, grappled with a not-so-comfortable question.
In a do or die situation, who’s the pitcher that give you the best shot at surviving? The answer — and certainly an uncomfortable one for fans — is that they don’t quite know just yet, but it does seem Aaron Boone is starting to form an answer.
“I would say that these next 12 days will play a role in” deciding, Boone said before the game. “You're going to do obviously everything you can to win that one game. That said, if you're toiling with a couple of decisions than maybe the next one comes into play a little bit if, hey we think this may be good, this may be good, this may be good. What's the best for going into the next [round].”
It’s about as much of a hint as he’s given anyone, and one that paints an intriguing picture of the wild-card game and then, if they win, an ALDS against the Red Sox. Once upon a time, the no-brainer answer would be Wednesday night’s starter, Luis Severino, who pitched seven innings of one-run ball against the Red Sox. But recently, the tightest race has been between Masahiro Tanaka, who’s been every bit the ace his last three starts, and J.A. Happ, who’s been nearly untouchable since joining the Yankees (6-0, 2.39 ERA). The one thing that could possibly steer Boone toward Tanaka, though, is just how good Happ has been against the Red Sox.
Happ (16-6, 3.62 ERA) had a 0.54 ERA in three games against them this year, and is 7-4 with a 2.82 ERA in his career. By contrast, Tanaka is 8-4 with a 4.08 ERA against them.
But just a few weeks ago, with Tanaka and Severino struggling, that wouldn't have much mattered: Then, it was Happ that gave the Yankees the best chance to survive. But in his last three starts, Tanaka has done his part to prove himself capable of handling a one-game elimination, going 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA.
And reasonably, if Severino continues on this track — he said he’s rediscovered his fastball command and his changeup — there needs to be some consideration to the pitcher with the biggest potential upside of the three. Before Wednesday night, Severino had been 3-6 in the second half, with a 6.35 ERA.
“When he’s on top of his game, he’s special,” Boone said of Severino. “If we’re going to get where we need to go, all three of those guys are going to play a huge role. How do we choose for a particular start as we get to the postseason? There’s varying things that can happen in the next  days — schedule-wise, what our needs are the final few days of the season, who we’re matching up against. All those things will kind of get baked into the cake and we’ll make the best decision possible.”
Boone also said the natural turn in the rotation would factor into the decision and, if things stay as is, the wild-card game falls on Happ’s day to pitch. The Yankees, though, are not beholden to that, and certainly not if they clinch anytime soon.
"We've started to talk about it a little bit in earnest the last few days," Boone said. "The biggest thing that [you do consider]…is that one game with no tomorrow."
It's a lot to consider, but one thing is certain: The evening air is getting crisper, October is around the corner, and time is running out.