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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees' call to arms will have a new look during this playoff run

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka delivers a pitch

Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka delivers a pitch with Rangers runners on base at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 2. Credit: Daniel De Mato

Still wondering how the Yankees are going to deploy their pitching staff for these playoffs? There’s no need to keep sniffing around for hints from Brian Cashman.

Just look back at what the Red Sox did a year ago to win the World Series.

While it’s true that Cashman, as orchestrated by Aaron Boone, tipped his hand to some degree during the final days of the regular season, by using a piggy-back strategy with a few of his starters, the modern October blueprint already has been provided by Alex Cora & Co. It involves a closely-monitored reliance on the rotation concept, and a smart-bomb efficiency with the so-called bullpen, henceforth known as any pitcher that enters after the first inning.

Last year, on their path to the title, the Red Sox starters -- or the five pitchers labeled as such -- averaged 5.07 innings over the club’s 14 playoff games. They also were successful in that minimized role, with a 3.80 ERA, 67 strikeouts and 25 walks over those 71 innings.

As for the bullpen, Boston used 11 pitchers in a relief capacity, including all five of the “starters” at various times, and that group combined for a 3.00 ERA, 63  strikeouts and 32 walks over 63 innings.

The goal is to collect 11 wins over the next month, and you don’t get extra credit for sticking to a traditional script. It’s anything goes from a pitching standpoint, and Cashman has been planning for this October ever since he spent $66 million on Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino last winter.

Turning J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia into bullpen pieces was less anticipated, along with having a tighter leash on Masahiro Tanaka, whose 1.50 ERA in five postseason starts doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll be allowed anywhere near the six-inning threshold he average in those outings. James Paxton earned Cashman’s faith as the closest thing to a playoff ace by going 10-0 with a 2.25 ERA and .167 OBA down the stretch, then he was felled temporarily by an irritated nerve in his backside (the Yankees think he’ll be fine for the upcoming Division Series).

Luis Severino returned from his season-long lat muscle issue just in time to replace Domingo German, who was put on indefinite leave due to domestic abuse allegations, but he’s another presumed “starter” that likely won’t be pushed to a third-time through the order, depending on how Cashman/Boone map out the matchup scenarios. With a fully rested pen, it could make sense to go with Severino in Friday’s Game 1 against the Twins, followed in Saturday’s Game 2 by Paxson, the one starter the Yankees trust to give them any semblance of length. Then they can just push the reset button for the relief corps with Sunday's travel day. 

By carrying 12 or 13 pitchers, this mindset allows the Yankees to play a shell game with the staff, with the aim of arranging the matchups they prefer, at any point in the game -- early, middle or late. While the Astros have it easier by leaning on Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke, the Yankees seem to enjoy pitting their tactical smarts against whatever October challenges arise.

“It's all hands on deck,” Cashman said before Game No. 162. “We're still working through what that means and how we're going to deploy it and what’s our best strategy is to do so. A lot of our starters got to be ready to be used as relievers too, so they’ve got to be pliable and ready to be reliable.”

Cashman’s nod to Clyde Frazier should be put on a t-shirt for this playoff run, as far as the pitching staff is concerned. The Yankees even prepped Tanaka by piggy-backing him with the opener Chad Green on the season’s final day, and the three-inning relief appearance was his first out of the bullpen as a Yankee, after 163 big-league starts.

That felt a bit radical, with Cashman and assistant GM/chief analyst Michael Fishman watching from an exec’s box at Globe Life Park, like a pair of scheming mad scientists. But maybe Tanaka’s relief stint also was about getting something on tape, in football-speak, to give the Twins another wrinkle to worry about in their Division Series preparation.

“We're just trying to put ourselves in the position to keep our options open,” Cashman said, “and allow this roster to be as flexible and adjustable as possible.”

The Yankees figured out how to get to 103 wins during the regular season and earn their first AL East crown since 2012 despite a mind-boggling number of injuries. Collecting 11 more victories and a 28th World Series title will be an even greater test of their intellect and ingenuity. 


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