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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees can point to 2017 ALDS for inspiration

Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner replaces Aaron Hicks

Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner replaces Aaron Hicks at first base in the fourth inning at the ALDS Game 1 against the Red Sox on Friday, Oct. 5, 2018, at Fenway Park. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Only because of another of the Yankees’ various misfortunes Friday night in ALDS Game 1 did Brett Gardner wind up playing centerfield and batting third, a replacement for the injured Aaron Hicks.

Gardner, whose 11 years in the Bronx make him the longest- tenured Yankee, drew a walk and also scored a run in the failed comeback as the Red Sox held on for a 5-4 victory at Fenway Park.  

Perhaps the most important thing Gardner contributed, however, came afterward when he stood in the middle of the deflated visitors' clubhouse and offered some perspective.

Sure, there was plenty to be disappointed about -- most prominently J.A. Happ’s brief, crushing cameo and Giancarlo Stanton’s vanishing act during the game’s most pivotal moments. Losing to the Red Sox under any circumstances is extra painful as well.

But it’s not as if the Yankees hadn’t been there before. In fact, they found themselves in the same situation just a year ago, in the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field, after a 4-0 loss to the Indians in the Division Series opener.

Looking back, that mistake by the lake was even more demoralizing. The Yankees didn’t get a hit through the first 5 1/3 innings against Trevor Bauer, then were shut down  by the suffocating bullpen combo of Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.

Sonny Gray lasted only 3 1/3 innings -- imagine that -- and the Yankees relied on Adam Warren, Jaime Garcia and Dellin Betances to keep it close. Afterward, there was reason for concern, especially with Corey Kluber on tap for Game 2.

We all know what happened next, with the Yankees rallying from an 0-2 deficit to win the five-game series. That’s what Gardner was thinking about late Friday night, still smarting from the sting of all those missed opportunities against Boston’s bullpen. So it was logical that he would conjure up a few fond memories to draw on for inspiration.

“As we saw last year against the Indians in the ALDS, you just never know what’s going to happen,” said Gardner, who replaced the recovering Hicks in the  Game 2 lineup Saturday night. “But coming on the road and playing the first two at [Fenway], it’s a tough task.”

Actually, the Yankees have advanced in six of their last seven Division Series after losing the opener. But climbing out of a 2-0 hole is not something a team wants to try with any regularity.

So what does last October have to do with this one? For starters, the Yankees could be in much better shape because these 108-win Red Sox, as currently composed, may be scrambling from a bullpen standpoint for the remainder of this series.

 It’s what followed Chris Sale’s domination that provides the biggest reason for optimism. Hint: it wasn’t Miller and Allen.

Last year, the Indians had the top-rated bullpen in the sport, with a 2.89 ERA -- a daunting task for the Yankees. This October, they’re facing a Red Sox bullpen that had a 4.32 ERA during the season’s second half, dropping them all the way to No. 19 overall.

That’s the glaring vulnerability of the AL East champs, and the bullpen came within a pitch or two of blowing up that Game 1 win. The Sox used five relievers to record the final 11 outs -- including Rick Porcello, their scheduled Game 3 starter -- and that motley crew gave up five hits, three walks and two runs, along with allowing two of Sale's inherited runners to score.

Does Boston’s bullpen deserve credit for escaping a pair of bases-loaded jams in back-to-back innings? Or was it the Yankees’ failure in those huge spots, namely Stanton, who whiffed on a curveball from Matt Barnes to end the seventh? Even Craig Kimbrel, the only arm out there we’d characterize as reliable, surrendered a leadoff homer by Aaron Judge in the ninth that set up a potential game-tying duel with Stanton, who never took the bat off his shoulder in watching three straight strikes.

“I thought we did a really good job of pecking away,” Aaron Boone said. “A good job of giving ourselves opportunities, and just ran out of time there.”

The news only got better from the Yankees’ perspective before Saturday night’s game. The Red Sox were forced to remove knuckleballer Steven Wright from the playoff roster because of his recurring knee problems. Wright figured to be a legit bullpen weapon for the Sox -- he fired three scoreless innings against the Yankees in the AL East clincher Sept. 20 in the Bronx -- and now his vacancy will be filled by Heath Hembree, who was left off in the first place because of his penchant for serving up the long ball.

Hembree’s 1.5 HR/9 ratio was among the top 20 most prolific for relievers, more frequent than the Mets’ skyward finger-pointer, Hansel Robles (1.45). That was another encouraging development for the Yankees, and could be helpful in adding to their Division Series comeback history.  

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