The Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak had a feeling, a sense of the pitch that might be coming next, just before he smashed a grand slam that beat the Yankees, 7-4, at Rogers Centre on Sunday.
Regardless of what Aaron Boone’s binder told him — yes, the new manager has one, too — and the statistical advantage David Robertson had in his previous history with Smoak, the eighth-inning showdown between the two ultimately boiled down to those precious few minutes.
Boone, as basically every manager does, went with the matchup numbers when Robertson ran into trouble in the eighth with the Yankees clinging to a 4-3 lead. With a base open, Boone could have let Robertson face former MVP Josh Donaldson (3-for-8, two home runs against him) or Smoak, who was 0-for-5 with four strikeouts.
The answer was obvious, right? By the book, sure. And that’s how Boone predictably chose to play it in his fourth game as Yankees manager. The strategy almost worked, too, if not for a matter of a few inches.
After a no-pitch intentional walk to Donaldson — who seems to be nursing a sore right shoulder — loaded the bases, Robertson, true to his Houdini nickname, fell behind Smoak 2-and-0. He climbed back with two strikes, the first on a swing at a curve and the next when Smoak took a fastball. That’s when the drama kicked in.
Robertson followed with four straight curveballs and Smoak fouled off three, barely getting his bat on them. On the first bender with two strikes, Smoak just nicked it. Judging by Robertson’s reaction to the pitch, he thought he had him.
“I threw the best ones I had,” Robertson said. “I threw him everything.”
But eight pitches into that showdown, after those four curves, Smoak was sitting on a fastball. The count was full and Robertson needed to be in the strike zone.
“He snuck a heater past me earlier in the count,” Smoak said. “I thought he might try to do it again.”
Smoak guessed correctly. Robertson threw a 93-mph fastball and Smoak sent it over the centerfield wall for a grand slam, the first one the Yankees reliever has surrendered since 2010.
“It’s frustrating,” Robertson said. “I tried really hard and didn’t get it done.”
So was there another option here? A more successful path that Boone failed to choose?
That depends on the school of thought to which you subscribe. Smoak already was having a great series against the Yankees. A day earlier, he was 3-for-4 with a double and two RBIs in the Blue Jays’ 5-3 victory. On Sunday, before facing Robertson, Smoak was 2-for-3 with a two-run homer in the seventh off Tommy Kahnle, a shot that trimmed the Yankees’ lead to 4-3.
As for Donaldson, he was 1-for-10 coming into the game and 1-for-3 with a walk before the intentional pass. He had been bumped to designated hitter after Opening Day because of obvious throwing issues related to what Jays manager John Gibbons called a “dead arm.”
Has the shoulder affected Donaldson’s hitting ability? No one will say. But Boone was more interested in Robertson’s longer-term history with Smoak than what Toronto’s slugging first baseman has done recently.
“It’s not just going on a whim,” Boone said. “It’s the matchup we wanted. I don’t get caught up in the last at-bat or two at-bats ago. That’s part of it, but you match up skill set with skill set.”
More specifically, Boone said he preferred Robertson’s breaking ball against Smoak, and his data definitely seemed to be on the money there. Smoak acknowledged that he was hanging on for dear life in flicking away those curves before getting the pitch he was hoping for.
“Once I got to two strikes, I was just battling,” Smoak said. “I was trying to put it in play and got a fastball middle to middle-in.”
Eventually, something had to give, and in this case it was Robertson. Maybe the situation would have turned out differently if Boone had chosen to pitch to Donaldson, but Smoak was the hitter everyone was more comfortable with. Sometimes, however, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
“You’ve got to tip your cap to Smoak,” Boone said.
That’s all that was left to do before the stunned Yankees boarded their flight home to New York.