Something about Cleveland’s Progressive Field has the ability to cloud the minds of Yankees managers.
But the condition seems to clear up once Lake Erie is in the rear-view mirror. We’ll see if that’s the case this year with Aaron Boone.
The most famous brain cramp in recent memory involved Joe Girardi, who inexplicably failed to challenge a ghost hit-by-pitch (despite the pleadings of catcher Gary Sanchez) in Game 2 of the 2017 Division Series. Instead of an inning-ending strikeout off the knob of the bat, the freebie loaded the bases for Francisco Lindor, who followed with a grand slam that slashed the Yankees’ lead from five runs to one. They lost, 9-8, in 13 innings to fall behind 0-2 in the series.
Girardi’s gaffe was not fatal, however. After the next day’s mea culpa from the manager — "I screwed up," he said — the Yankees won the next three games to earn an ALCS meeting with the Astros.
Even before that, midges got the better of Joba Chamberlain in ALDS Game 2 in 2007, and it cost the Yankees in an 11-inning loss at what then was called Jacobs Field. Covered by swarming insects, Chamberlain walked two, hit a batter and threw two wild pitches as the Indians tied it in the eighth, and in hindsight, Joe Torre has said he should have pulled his team off the field.
We dredge all this up again because of what went down Wednesday night at Progressive Field, where Boone made a few questionable moves that could have resulted in a less-happy ending than the 10-9 final and a quick sweep of Cleveland.
Why Boone had to scramble so much in deploying a well-rested bullpen wasn’t fully explained in the wake of the 4-hour, 50-minute marathon, the longest nine-inning game in MLB history, postseason or otherwise.
Maybe that was a greater indictment of the Yankees’ now-wobbly relief corps, a red flag going forward.
But even Boone admitted the next day — not unlike Girardi falling on his sword in ’17 — that sticking with Masahiro Tanaka for the fifth inning was perhaps his greatest regret from Game 2. Again, it ultimately didn’t cost the Yankees the game. But Tanaka setting the table for those tying two runs evidently haunted Boone for a while.
"I really considered not sending Masa out for the fifth," Boone said. "Just as long as the night was. And obviously, the first two guys in the order got on against him. So that was the one move that I really toiled with a little bit about which way I wanted to go."
By then, Tanaka had to be nearly cooked. The game’s first pitch was delayed by 50 minutes even though not a drop of rain fell. Then Tanaka had to plow through a monsoon for three hitters before the tarp was summoned after only 11 pitches.
His first inning was chopped in two by another 33-minute stoppage, and by the end of that frame, he had surrendered three doubles and four runs.
Despite the bumpy start, Tanaka retired 10 of 11 to get the Yankees through the fourth inning, which he finished with a nifty glove scoop-and-flip to first base for the final out. He needed only 11 pitches for the fourth — Boone liked his "rhythm" — and that made the manager greedy as he thought about mapping out the rest of the night from a pitching perspective.
"I just felt like it was going to be difficult for us to kind of string that outing together from the fifth on with the guys we wanted in that game with a lead," Boone said. "So that was the one I struggled with, and in hindsight, probably second-guess a little bit."
Even then, with a 6-4 edge, Boone should have immediately lifted Tanaka once he gave up a leadoff double to Lindor. But Tanaka stayed to walk the potential tying run before Boone called on Chad Green to face the presumptive AL MVP, Jose Ramirez, who was 4-for-7 against him with a double and home run. Green flipped him two curveballs and Ramirez pulled the second one down the rightfield line to tie the score at 6.
The Yankees’ bullpen woes didn’t stop there.
In the sixth, Green was on the verge of giving back their 8-6 lead before Zack Britton entered to get a rally-killing double play. The next inning, Cleveland interim manager Sandy Alomar Jr. got Boone to pull Britton when he sent up lefty-masher Jordan Luplow to pinch hit for the scorching Josh Naylor.
But instead of Adam Ottavino jogging in, it was Jonathan Loaisiga, and Luplow smacked a 1-and-2 curveball for a tying two-out double.
Ottavino didn’t appear at all Wednesday night in a pivotal Game 2 chock full of high-leverage situations, but that speaks more to his ineffectiveness lately (.361/.410/.500 opponents' slash line in September) than any negligence by Boone, who was wary of Cleveland’s switch hitters.
"Otto is still going to be in big spots, especially when there's difficult, challenging righthanded lanes," Boone said afterward.
The only wrong decisions are the ones that don’t work. And whatever missteps Boone made Wednesday, the Yankees survived them, which gives the manager a pass into the next round.