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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees' decision to pitch rookie Deivi Garcia ahead of veteran Masahiro Tanaka for Game 2 is shocking

Yankees' manager Aaron Boone during a press conference

Yankees' manager Aaron Boone during a press conference in the Pavilion during spring training in Tampa, FL, Feb. 11, 2020 Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

How’s this for an October surprise?

Deivi Garcia, at age 21, five weeks removed from his MLB debut, will start Game 2 of the Division Series.

No wonder the Yankees waited until 5:45 p.m. Monday, more than two hours before the series opener against the Rays, to announce Garcia’s stunning assignment. Up to that point, on MLB’s official media schedule, he was known only as "Game 2 starter." The Rays revealed their first three starters Saturday.

Why the cloak-and-dagger routine by the Yankees? Why not, I guess.

Welcome to today’s MLB, where proprietary analytical models are treated like highly classified CIA dossiers. Information is king, and the longer that it can be withheld from opponents, perhaps there is some competitive advantage to be gained. We’ll find out soon enough with Garcia.

So it was hardly a shock when manager Aaron Boone was intentionally vague about the reasoning behind giving the ball to Garcia for Game 2. The manager talked in circles about the different ways they could go after Gerrit Cole, saying they had a number of good options, yada, yada, yada.

But to bump to Game 3 Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ most dependable pitcher over the last seven years, in the final days of his $155 million contract, was not something done lightly. Tanaka has 173 major-league starts on his resume, plus another nine in the playoffs.

Garcia has a total of six.

When pressed a little further toward the end of his 13-minute interview, Boone admitted that he didn’t want to get too "specific" about the benefits of going with Garcia. But the manager acknowledged a pair of motivating factors. This gives him the ability to have two additional lefthanders, J.A. Happ and Jordan Montgomery, ready in the bullpen for early in the series. It also suggests the possibility of lifting Garcia after once through the lineup, with a mostly rested relief corps behind him, as long as Cole pitches deep into Game 1. The Yankees also could save the experienced Tanaka for a pivotal Game 3 rather than the youngster Garcia.

Garcia, who got word from the manager early Monday, was as surprised as the rest of us. How could he not be? He spent the first month of this 60-game season hanging with the Scranton crew at the alternate site before going 3-2 with a 4.98 ERA. Garcia figured to be used in this series — with five games in five days — just not quite this soon.

"It’s not something that I dreamed of," Garcia said through an interpreter. "But being around the guys here, learning every day, taking in all the experience, you start to understand there’s a chance you might have to assume the responsibility of taking the ball."

This is not to say Garcia isn’t qualified. It’s just very early on the learning curve. He’s already proven himself to be a pretty cool operator at such a young age and helped deliver one of the Yankees’ biggest wins during the regular season. Back on Sept. 9, with the Yankees in a 5-15 tailspin, Garcia held the bruising Blue jays to two runs over seven innings, with six strikeouts and zero walks at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field.

The stakes felt huge then. They will be considerably bigger Tuesday night at Petco Park, but Boone feels like Garcia has passed a few important tests to get there. Despite being the youngest pitcher to make a postseason start for the Yankees, Boone is convinced that age is nothing but a number. And why is that?

"Everything I've seen from him," Boone said. "When he came up and got his opportunity, he was by and large terrific. He just has that way about him, that demeanor about him, that you know he's not real affected by a successful outing or an outing where he struggles. So mentally and emotionally, I feel really good that he'll be able to handle whatever the results are. I feel like he’ll be fine."

The Rays are plenty familiar with the Yankees, going 8-2 against them during the regular season, but they have yet to face Garcia. That’s got to be at least a slight edge, even if the Tampa Bay hitters can devour video of his every pitch before stepping in the box Tuesday.

And for two bitter AL East rivals constantly jockeying for the tiniest advantage, maybe springing Garcia on the Rays in this format, sooner than expected, can work for the Yankees. When asked to provide some insight into delaying Garcia’s announcement, Boone said they simply took the extra hours to discuss their options, even though the Yankees had four whole days of nothing but meetings and workouts after closing out Cleveland.

But the secret’s out now. And whether or not the gambit pays off will be up to Garcia come Tuesday night.

New York Sports