Less than 24 hours after Opener-Gate, manager Aaron Boone had no problem saying that Deivi Garcia and J.A. Happ could very well return, later this month, in more traditional starting roles.
Was that a promise? Or a threat?
Rarely does a plan backfire so completely as the Yankees’ Game 2 decision to deploy Garcia as an opener Tuesday for just one inning against the Rays, followed by Happ in an unfamiliar relief role. After taking four days to come up with that strategy, a bait-and-switch designed to lure the the platoon-oriented Rays into a heavy lefty lineup, it all unraveled over the span of four innings, leading to the Yankees’ 7-5 loss at Petco Park.
On Wednesday, Boone still was sticking to the hard-to-believe premise that Garcia could have stayed longer than the first inning, despite the fact that Happ was seen warming in the bullpen only a few pitches into the game. What did it matter? The Yankees’ greater concern had turned to surviving the Rays in this Division Series, and piecing together enough pitching for two more wins.
Tuesday’s events certainly didn’t help in that regard. The Yankees’ genius plan not only burned Garcia after a mere one inning, but took him out of the mix until at least Thursday, too. Not a smart way to use one of your best pitching resources, especially if this series goes sideways in a hurry.
As for Happ, we’re not sure where his head is at after being manipulated by the Yankees into a less-than-optimal role. At 37, Happ isn’t a kid like Garcia. He’s a 14-year vet that’s been a starter in 92 percent of his appearances, but maybe the Yankees assumed too much in asking him to follow Garcia.
For one, Happ clearly wasn’t thrilled with the assignment. That was painfully evident by his postgame comments, half of which he tersely deferred to Boone. It was bad enough to be relegated behind the 21-year-old rookie, as part of a trick play. But against the backdrop of his season-long simmering feud over next year’s $17-million vesting option, even a pro like Happ has his boiling point.
"They know how I felt about it," Happ said after Game 2. "But ultimately I pitched, and when I pitch, you got me. There was no hesitation and no dwelling on what was going on."
Happ allowed four runs over his 2 2/3 innings, and surrendered a pair of two-run homers, one each to light-hitting catcher Mike Zunino and Manuel Margot, during the 69-pitch outing. At the time he was lifted, the Yankees trailed, 5-4. It’s possible that Happ wasn’t sharp due to the fact he hadn’t pitched in a game since Sept. 25, even though he refused to use that as an excuse.
Then again, based on his comments, Happ was upfront with the Yankees about not being comfortable with their plans, and they did it anyway. Whether or not that left Happ fully invested when he got the ball, who knows. But the results suggest Happ wasn’t right, for whatever reason, after averaging six innings over his final four starts with a 2.22 ERA while holding opponents to a .184 batting average and .562 OPS.
"It's definitely something that I got ahead of with him," Boone said before Wednesday’s Game 3. " Look, any time we, we make a decision, especially this time of the year, around a roster decision, a lineup change, a unique pitching situation that we're going to go with, it's done with a lot of thought and discussion. And with the idea that we're trying to win games, win series.
"You also understand that doesn't mean it's always going to work out. But this is something that in the couple of days leading up to that I did have conversations with Jay to get him on board exactly with the plan because it was a little outside his normal routine."
It doesn’t sound like those chats went all that great, but the Yankees are going to need Happ again if they advance past this round. For now, their pitching situation in the wake of Tuesday’s debacle has Jordan Montgomery scheduled to start Game 4 with Cole pencilled in for a potential Game 5 on short rest -- something that he’s never done before.
Boone wouldn’t commit to Cole just yet. Not with at least two more games to play before then, and the potential for some desperation moves if elimination is at stake. As for Montgomery, the expectation is that he’ll get to stick around longer than Garcia did.
"I have no idea," Montgomery said Wednesday. "I’m going to treat it like it’s my game."
Maybe he should double-check with Boone. Just to be sure.