The Yankees have been in the playoff business for a long time. Three games into the 2020 postseason, they’ve never destroyed pitchers quite like this.
Pick whatever statistic you like. You know all those home runs that were supposed to have dried up by now? Just the opposite has happened. The Yankees smacked four more Monday night, including a grand slam by Giancarlo Stanton, to obliterate the Rays, 9-3, at Petco Park and take a 1-0 lead in their Division Series.
It was impressive to watch. Clint Frazier teeing off on Blake Snell’s 96-mph fastball a few inches above the top of the strike zone. Two innings later, Kyle Higashioka — specifically in the lineup as Gerrit Cole’s personal catcher — smashing the same pitch, but lower on the inside half of the plate.
Based on what we know about both, it’s not that unusual to see them go deep. But from a historical perspective, never before in the playoffs had the Yankees’ No. 8 and No. 9 hitters drilled home runs in the same game.
While that’s more of a novelty stat, a better illustration of the Yankees’ raw power is provided by their record 11 homers through their first three postseason games and their total of 31 runs, one more than the previous mark set by the 1960 Yankees against the Pirates in the World Series.
And here in October, this is not like abusing the lowly staffs of the Red Sox and Blue Jays for batting practice, as the Yankees did during stretches of the regular season. Cleveland entered these playoffs with the best ERA in the American League and the Rays were second. Against the Yankees, both were virtually helpless, including shoo-in Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber and Snell, who took the trophy in 2018.
How are they dismantling the league’s elite staffs? It’s really not any different from the previous two months. Command the strike zone, as manager Aaron Boone likes to say, and hit your pitch extremely hard.
On Monday night, Snell tried to slip a looping first-pitch curveball past Aaron Judge and he blistered a line drive that would have bored a hole through the leftfield wall if the missile hadn’t cleared it by a few feet.
There is an extra purpose to these at-bats, a laser-focus that translates into serious trouble for opposing pitchers.
"You know what’s at stake," said Stanton, who has homered in each of these three games. "Everyone in there knows we’ve got a job to do, and what’s going to make us successful and what’s not. And I think if you see the guy ahead of you get it done, then that’s another extra boost when you step in there, and that’s what we’re doing."
This has been especially sweet for the much-maligned Stanton, who not only has missed long periods of time because of injuries but also had a previous reputation for shrinking during the Yankees’ playoff runs.
He’s quickly swatted away the haters, however, and Monday’s ninth-inning grand slam turned a tight 5-3 game into a comfortable blowout that allowed Aroldis Chapman to sit back down, preserving the closer for later in the series.
Incredibly, Stanton is the first Yankees DH to hit a grand slam in the postseason, and combined with Gio Urshela’s slam in the wild-card clincher, the Yankees became the first AL club to do it in back-to-back postseason games (third team overall). They also joined the ’08 Rays as the only two teams with at least three homers in three straight playoff games, a streak the Yankees seem poised to extend for however long their postseason run lasts.
"I just think they’re really focused," Boone said. "I think they have a lot of faith and a lot of trust in each other and know that they’re up there to make it difficult on the pitcher. If you can make it heavy for the opponent, you know that eventually one of our guys — more often than not — will get you."
Frazier didn’t start in the wild-card series, but with the lefty Snell starting Monday, Boone gave him a shot over Brett Gardner, and the impact was immediate. His 418-foot blast to open the third inning snapped a 1-1 tie and left a dent in Snell that Higashioka and Judge made wider with their solo shots in the fifth.
Frazier later said he thought Snell might pitch him high up in the zone but that he sort of surprised himself by hammering that fastball.
"It’s not often you hit that pitch because it’s a tough one to hit," Frazier said. "It’s probably the first one of my career I’ve ever done like that."
Based on the uncanny damage the Yankees are doing right now, you get the sense it won’t be Frazier’s last.