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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees get a little too cute with 'opener' ploy in ALDS Game 2

J.A. Happ of the Yankees reacts after allowing

J.A. Happ of the Yankees reacts after allowing a two run home run to Mike Zunino of the Rays during the second inning in Game 2 of the American League Division Series at PETCO Park on Tuesday in San Diego. Credit: Getty Images/Sean M. Haffey

Ultimately, in the final analysis, the only good plan, or smart strategy, is the one that works. And by that measure, the Yankees — the whole data-crunching, button-pushing, decision-making operation — blew it big-time Tuesday night in going the opener route with Deivi Garcia for Game 2 of the Division Series.

Just being the Yankees was working out pretty well for them. A two-game sweep of Cleveland, followed by a convincing smackdown of the Rays in Monday’s series opener. No complaints there. But then they had to get too cute. For whatever reason, the Yankees started thinking they had to out-Ray the Rays, and that’s when they got themselves into trouble.

The obsession with the Rays’ platoon ability made everyone from the front office down to manager Aaron Boone a little nuts. Opening with Garcia, fine. But then relying on J.A. Happ to be the bulk pitcher in this chain, sticking him in an unfamiliar role, after not pitching in a game that counted since Sept. 25? Where was the genius in that?

Maybe that blueprint would have succeeded in some alternate universe. But Tuesday night at Petco Park, it was an epic fail. Garcia teed up a solo homer in his one inning and Happ bombed, allowing four runs in 2 2/3 innings to stick the Yankees in a 5-3 hole they never dug out of in the 7-5 loss to the Rays.

Even if this plan looked good on paper, maybe Cashman or Boone should have done a more thorough analysis of Happ’s feelings on the idea, because he did not sound like he was fully on board when asked about it afterward. Not only was Happ used exclusively as a starter this season, he already was annoyed at the Yankees for his belief they were trying to game him out of a $17 million vesting option for next year.

We understand the Yankees’ ploy to trick the Rays with Garcia. But if they needed to rely on Happ anyway, letting him stick to the role he does best might have been the better option, from a performance standpoint.

When asked more detailed questions about the plan after Game 2, Happ deferred those questions to Boone, who had addressed the media earlier. All Happ would admit was that the Yankees had circled a specific hitter for him to begin with — he didn’t say who —and that he preferred to start the game.

"All things equal, yes," Happ said. "Having said that — and this is important — I want to repeat, when I’m in there, you got 100% of me, so I gave it what I had. I wasn’t worrying about when I was coming in at the time. I was trying to focus and trying to execute and trying to pitch."

Happ also said he expressed these concerns to Boone & Co. leading up to Game 2 — "They knew how I felt about it," he said — but refused to make excuses for his flat performance. As for his sporadic use during the regular season being a factor, and the recent layoff, Happ shrugged.

"It’s something that I can’t quantify, so I’m not going to try," Happ said.

Clearly, Happ was told exactly when he was supposed to come in, but Boone and Garcia were more vague on the matter. Boone said there was a possibility Garcia could have pitched beyond the first inning, but Happ began warming up after the first two batters, which was right around the time when Randy Arozarena took Garcia over the rightfield wall. Garcia then nailed Ji-Man Choi on the elbow, and evidently Boone knew by that point.

"I felt like I was going to go to J.A. pretty early and aggressively as long as they went with the heavy-lefty lineup," Boone said. "That was the reason."

Boone suggested Garcia could have swayed him with a smoother first inning, but we’ll never know for sure if that was the case. Bringing on Happ, however, turned into an obvious mistake. The Rays’ No. 9 hitter, Mike Zunino, blasted a two-run homer off Happ in the second inning and Manuel Margot followed in the third with another two-run shot. Happ faced a lefty batter eight times during his stint and five reached base.

And what of Garcia? He now gets dumped back into the bullpen pool after the wasted 27-pitch outing. The Yankees will go with Masahiro Tanaka for Game 3, presumably Jordan Montgomery in Game 4 and then Gerrit Cole on short rest, for the first time in his career, if a Game 5 is necessary.

"In the end, I believe in my manager," Garcia said through an interpreter. "I believe that he’s going to put us in the best possible position to succeed."

That faith was not rewarded Tuesday night.

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