Aaron Boone wasn’t so much managing Friday night as he seemed to be flat-out trolling everyone for Game 1 of this Division Series at Yankee Stadium.
It started early that afternoon, with Boone unveiling a lineup that had Brett Gardner hitting in the No. 3 spot. This was the first time all year, after 140 different lineups through 162 games, the Yankees had these particular nine players together, as close to full strength (minus Aaron Hicks) as possible.
And there was the diminutive Gardner, wedged between giants Aaron Judge and Edwin Encarnacion.
“It’s clear, in my mind, to have him there,” Boone said.
We understood the strategy, having to split up the lefties with Didi Gregorius batting eighth, and Gardner’s career-high 28 homers during the regular season made him plenty dangerous. So we waited for the patented 8-iron shot from Gardner, the rainbow he usually drops somewhere in the rightfield seats, and sure enough, he delivered in the sixth inning.
Gardner’s blast — this was no short-porch cheapie — put the Yankees up, 7-4, and just about squeezed any remaining hope from the Twins. Before too long, any lingering suspense would vanish as well, once DJ LeMahieu’s bases-clearing double in the seventh iced the 10-4 victory.
Boone was fine with that. But the rest of us? We were dying to know how the Yankees’ manager planned to navigate the late innings of this ALDS opener if the game actually stayed close. He may have described his bullpen plan as “aggressive” coming into these playoffs, but that didn’t seem to sufficiently capture the strategy he deployed Friday night.
We anticipated the short leash with James Paxton, making his first career playoff start, and Boone probably stayed with him even a bit too long in the fifth inning. With Adam Ottavino already warming, and the tying run on second base, Boone let Paxton face Jorge Polanco, who homered off him in the first inning. Polanco won a nine-pitch battle, ripping a run-scoring single, and that finished Paxton.
That felt like a major misstep in the moment, a throwback to Boone’s bullpen stumbles during last October’s four-game loss to the Red Sox in the Division Series. Boone chose to ride Luis Severino and CC Sabathia in those instances and got burned for his faith.
The saving grace here? There was a long way to go, and the Yankees had a well-rested bullpen. But that didn’t stop Boone from using Ottavino for only a single batter — a walk to Nelson Cruz — and then hurrying to Tommy Kahnle. As everyone knows by now, the Yankees defer to a well-researched blueprint for these occasions, but that still seemed hasty with 13 outs left to get. Ottavino felt like a big arm to discard so quickly.
Things would get more curious. Kahnle needed just one pitch to retire Eddie Rosario on a fly ball to center — stranding two — but was greeted in the sixth inning with Miguel Sano’s 340-foot Bronx special into the rightfield porch. A walk and a strikeout later, in came Chad Green, who has become the troubleshooter of the Yankees’ relief corps.
Green did what he does, getting the last two outs to strand another Twin, and we figured Boone would get at least one more inning from him before going to Zack Britton for the eighth and Aroldis Chapman in the ninth.
Turns out, that wasn’t the case, and Green was done as Boone explained afterward he wanted to keep him available for length in Saturday’s Game 2. That appeared risky at the time, but Boone felt they were covered with Britton and Chapman for the last three innings.
So after home runs by LeMahieu and Gardner gave the Yankees that 7-4 lead, Boone opted to go with Britton for the seventh, a head-scratcher considering what was left in the bullpen. Britton did his job with a scoreless inning, and then Boone had JA Happ warming with theYankees starting to rally in the bottom of the seventh.
Happ was an unconventional choice — as a recently converted reliever— but Boone was betting on more runs and the Yankees made their manager’s life a heck of a lot easier by drawing three walks to set up LeMahieu’s knockout blow. From there, Happ did enough in mop-up and Chapman didn’t mess around in nailing down the ninth.
“I just think there were some spots that I felt good about certain guys,” Boone said in summarizing his bullpen usage. “And the other good thing about tonight is I feel like all of our guys are back in play for [Saturday]. It just kind of unfolded in a pretty good way for us.”
The Yankees took Game 1 in what appeared to be unconventional fashion. But for them, it merely followed the script.