Press the rewind button on Aroldis Chapman’s 100-mph fastball to the Rays’ Mike Brosseau — Friday’s ALDS Game 5 home run pitch, not the head-hunter from last month — and the forensic breakdown of the Yankees’ 2020 title pursuit crystallizes.
Chapman was called on with seven outs to go and the score tied at 1, in part because manager Aaron Boone’s short list of trusted relievers had been whittled to three by the Division Series. Boone already had burned through Zack Britton — in relief of Gerrit Cole’s 94-pitch effort on short rest — and a tired Chad Green was being held for a very limited cameo.
Having Cole on the mound for a deciding Game 5 was one of the few things that went precisely according to plan for the Yankees. They could have lined that up in December when Cole inked his nine-year, $324 million contract. On that day, I was not alone in thinking the Yankees just won the 2020 World Series.
But then Luis Severino needed Tommy John surgery, James Paxton made only five starts — sandwiched between winter back repair and a strained forearm flexor — and Tommy Kahnle (remember him?) also was lost to Tommy John surgery within the season’s first week.
These types of setbacks were not unique to them, of course. The Rays lost 10 pitchers to the injured list — including five for the season — and still had plenty left to go 11-4 against the Yankees, including the Division Series.
But the Yankees’ failed World Series bid this October was not just about one thing. Cole was supposed to be the magic bullet for the three previous exits — to the 2019 Astros, his former team, preceded by the two eventual world champions: the 2018 Red Sox and 2017 Astros.
Instead, even with Cole imported to be the No. 1, the Yankees sprung leaks elsewhere. The fallout from that was never more apparent than the infamous ALDS Game 2, when Boone (with front-office collaboration) deployed top prospect Deivi Garcia as an opener.
Had Boone played it more straight-up with Garcia for Game 2, or even used J.A. Happ as the starter rather than the designated "bulk pitcher" that night, maybe this would be a much different conversation right now.
Boone refused to buy into that theory late Friday night in the immediate wake of the Yankees’ elimination and used the word ‘’ridiculous’’ to describe any second-guessing from the chorus that expected a better outcome with the other scenarios.
"I don’t regret that," Boone said. "All over the league, things like this are done and done really effectively. We’ve done them really effectively."
The issue is that the Yankees felt compelled to go with the Garcia-Happ gambit, a strategy that could not have turned out much worse. But again, we can’t overlook the fact that Adam Ottavino disappeared from Boone’s circle of trust during the second half of September and that the Yankees’ emphasis on the quantity of pitchers (14) for the playoffs did not cover for the alarming lack of quality arms.
Boone squeezed all he could from Cole, who pitched on only three days’ rest for the first time in his career and got the Yankees to the sixth inning of Game 5 with the score tied at 1. He whiffed nine, and the only hit he allowed was Austin Meadows’ home run with two outs in the fifth.
When Cole departed in the sixth, however, Boone had to find a way to navigate through those last 11 outs with basically two back-end relievers in a game in which Aaron Judge’s homer was the only sign of life from a sputtering offense.
With the exception of Cole, no one on the staff had looked as dominant as Chapman in recent weeks, but the Yankees’ vital signs were dipping by the late innings of Game 5. It was shaping up to be a one-swing outcome, and the Rays got that swing. Was anyone who followed this rivalry all year really that surprised?
"It’s a big disappointment," Cole said. "Not the way we drew it up."
The end result wasn’t, no. But in Game 5, the Yankees had their ace on the mound backed by their "A’’ lineup, the same group that blistered the American League’s top two pitching staffs for a record 16 homers through the first six playoff games. Only four teams in history had scored more than the Yankees’ 45 runs during that same period.
In Game 5, the two teams were separated when Brosseau’s brilliant 10-pitch at-bat produced the deciding homer.
The Yankees’ 2020 season came down to one pitch Friday night. This was not a total system failure. Even the gradual erosion on the pitching front, along with the giving up on Gary Sanchez, were unsettling but not necessarily fatal symptoms toward the end of this playoff run.
The residual feeling was sickening nonetheless. When the Yankees return for spring training in February, the championship drought will be up to 11 years, an eternity for this franchise. And after four straight Octobers of excruciating exits, just getting back to a World Series has never seemed so close and yet so far away, simultaneously.
"Those are just scars," Judge said. "They’re going to continue to make this team stronger, continue to make this team better. And it’s going to make that World Series title so much sweeter in the end."
But for the Yankees, at least for now, it’s just more of the same familiar emptiness.
The Yankees are the gold standard for October baseball, but they are now in the middle of a lengthy run without a World Series title. Their longest championship droughts:
17 seasons 1979-95
14 seasons 1963-76
11 seasons 2010-20