Jaime Garcia delivered his best performance in pinstripes, Aaron Judge homered and Joe Girardi happily button-pushed his way to coaxing 3 1⁄3 scoreless innings from the bullpen.
Easy win, right? Swap out Garcia for any other starter, and it’s the same reliable Yankees formula we’ve already seen numerous times this season, one that has them within striking distance of the AL East title.
Despite all that, in what everyone figured to be a wild-card preview, it was barely enough last night for a 2-1 squeaker over the Twins.
If this is what we’re in for two weeks from now, then have a few of your favorite nerve-calming beverages handy, because these Twins, the team from Flyover Territory, USA, are not going to be the walk-over we previously pegged them to be in this wild-card matchup.
“It was a good atmosphere,” said David Robertson, who played the Chad Green role by replacing Garcia with two outs in the sixth. “Even better that we won.”
On Sept. 18, this wasn’t a do-or-die scenario for either team, not like it will be Oct. 3. But there was a prevailing sense of urgency that couldn’t be ignored, and Girardi — just as he did with his quick hooks Wednesday at Citi Field — had to pull Dellin Betances again before he set the Yankees’ lead ablaze in the eighth inning.
Garcia’s nine-strikeout effort was great, and provided the closure he probably craved after the hullaballoo sparked by being pulled one out from a win last week. But in the big picture, other than win No. 83 for the Yankees, it really doesn’t factor into the team’s postseason fortune. Garcia isn’t expected to be on the playoff roster.
Betances, however, is a serious concern. And if he can’t be trusted in the late innings, the Yankees’ invincible relief corps has one fewer superhero sitting by the phone. After all those weeks the Yankees patiently waited for Chapman to fix himself — which he clearly has done — now they have a Betances problem, without the time to repair him.
Everything lined up perfectly last night for Betances. But after Robertson handed off a 2-1 lead to start the eighth, it was all downhill from there, as the only hitter Betances retired was on a sacrifice bunt. Otherwise, he drilled Robbie Grossman leading off, and walked two more Twins to load the bases, the first on four pitches.
“I felt like my timing was off,” Betances said. “I can’t keep doing that. I’ve got to be better.”
Girardi won’t let him continue to do it. There’s only a dozen games left, and he has other options. On Wednesday, it was a four-out save for Chapman, and Girardi used him for five last night, a practice that he shouldn’t deploy too often if he plans on having Chapman’s arm still attached for the playoffs.
Remember, a month ago, Girardi was using Chapman to pitch in the sixth inning. His faith had been torched, his trust obliterated. But now that Chapman is back to throwing 104 mph, again with a wicked slider, he’s been the safety net for Betances. The problem is, if Betances can’t do the setup job, he can’t stay there on a trial basis. Not in late September, with too much at stake.
“We’ve got to get him straightened out,” Girardi said afterward. “He’s really important to us moving forward.”
Since we’re looking ahead, the prospect of facing Ervin Santana could be a big challenge in two weeks. As great as Luis Severino has been, Garcia was fantastic last night — and the Yankees’ offense simply couldn’t break Santana, scratching him for only a pair of runs on Judge’s homer and Todd Frazier’s sacrifice fly. While we fully expect Severino to be his dominant self in the wild-card game, the Yankees could end up sweating out a rematch with Santana, who kept slipping free of serious trouble into the sixth.
Obviously, the Yankees still have the edge in a bullpen battle. But last night’s white-knuckle win left us wondering if Betances would be in the same spot for the rematch.