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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees keeping people guessing on wild-card starter, but it's a two-horse race

Aaron Boone is still mulling his options.

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ delivers against the Orioles

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ delivers against the Orioles during the third inning of a game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Yankees’ starting rotation, in its current composition, is earning a total of more than $57 million this season.

The entire Rays’ roster costs $68 million, and that includes Cy Young favorite Blake Snell, who fortunately for the visitors won’t take the mound in this four-game series.

And yet for all those expensive arms, the Yankees took a page from Tampa Bay’s playbook in using reliever Jonathan Holder as the “opener” Monday night, in what Aaron Boone described as a strategy to give his front-line starters an extra breather during the season’s final week.

Not only that, we’re now 10 days from the wild-card playoff game, with the location still to be decided, and Boone keeps insisting that he’s “not close” to a decision on who should start that game for the Yankees. Maybe Boone wants to convey the sense of a wide-open field, but the simple math is beginning to betray him after the Yankees finally released the rest of their rotation for the Rays.

There aren’t many variables left. The A’s Magic Number was down to one before Monday’s game, so the opponent is a virtual lock. The big question is the ballpark, but even then, you wouldn’t expect the Yankees to overthink it to this degree.

Just last week, Masahiro Tanaka appeared to be the front-runner, with J.A. Happ and Luis Severino then potentially lined up for Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series at Fenway Park. Then Tanaka stumbled in his next start, giving up five runs in four innings against the Red Sox, and suddenly the narrative became about him failing his audition.

Clearly, Happ has looked like the Yankees’ most reliable pitcher since being imported from Toronto, and there’s a strong wild-card argument for him as well. Also, the way Boone lined up his rotation for this week, Happ is the one whose fifth-day turn falls perfectly on the Oct. 3 date, so at least he’d stay on his regular preparation for the assignment.

To deflect that discussion, however, Boone told us not to read into the new alignment for this week, which seems to eliminate Luis Severino from the wild-card derby by virtue of him starting Tuesday against the Rays, followed by Tanaka and CC Sabathia. For the Yankees, a team with a legit shot at 100 wins, this feels like a ton of uncertainty at this stage, without an obvious North Star in the rotation for guidance.

“I feel like we’re choosing from some really good options,” is how Boone painted the scenario.

It’s been the Yankees’ company line for a while now, but this has developed into a two-horse race between Tanaka and Happ, as much as Boone tries to keep Severino alive in the conversation. A year ago, Severino single-handedly turned the wild-card game into a bullpen exercise when he recorded only one out against the Twins — the shortest postseason start in Yankees’ history.

That actually turned out pretty well. The Yankees used four relievers to usher them to the eventual 8-4 victory, and still had enough in the tank to push the Astros to seven games in the ALCS. With that in mind, going to the bullpen again this time and playing matchup with the A’s, doesn’t seem like the worst idea for that one night.

Of all the potential choices, however, the bullpen option is the only one Boone is ruling out at the moment. He wants to manage that game straight-up apparently. Or at least until the starter Boone ultimately selects pulls a Severino and leaves him scrambling anyway. When there’s nine innings left to your season, it’s no time to be patient.

The other complication in mapping things out is the Yankees’ urgency to hold off the A’s this week in the hope of nailing down home-field advantage. These aren’t modified tune-ups for October, so they don’t have the luxury of shuffling arms for that purpose. Stealing a day with the bullpen game was the most Boone could do to save them a few bullets for the road ahead.

“First things first is us really focusing on winning games right now,” Boone said.

It’s not do-or-die yet. That comes on Oct. 3. In the meantime, the Yankees are content to keep everyone in suspense, guessing at their intentions. For a group that carries a $57-million price tag, you’d think that kind of money might provide a bit more security.

New York Sports