- The Yankees' young stars stole the show in the AL Wild Card Game against the Twins on Tuesday night. Now, the question is whether they can repeat their success against a tested Indians pitching staff.
As Twins skipper Paul Molitor readied himself to manage his first win-or-go-home game, his mind traveled back to the early 1980s as he tried to recollect what it felt like. As an outfielder for the Brewers in those days, he went to the postseason with just three years of experience under his belt.
“I think that being a younger player, whatever I was, 24, 25, you don’t really think about a lot,” Molitor said. “You just kind of went out and played even though your back was against the wall, trusting the veterans are going to kind of lead the way.”
In the AL Wild Card Game on Tuesday night, it wasn’t time for the Yankees’ young core to trust the team’s veterans. It was time for them to show out. Led by Aaron Judge’s steady production, the Baby Bombers owned a postseason game they had entered without a shred of experience. With the AL-leading Indians on the horizon in the American League Division Series, there will be even more focus on the young Yankees than before.
Chad Green got arguably the two biggest outs of the game upon relieving Severino, and settled the game into the fourth. Didi Gregorius began his first postseason with a game-tying three-run jack in the first. Gary Sanchez doubled in the third and came around to score on a then go-ahead two-out single from Greg Bird. It was the spectacular display of offense that has become normal, but it happened on an unfamiliar stage.
“It’s impressive,” says Brett Gardner. “These guys proved that the situation’s not too big for them.”
No performance was equal in importance to Judge’s, who scored three runs and became the third Yankees rookie to homer in his postseason debut. In a month where hitting becomes more difficult, Judge is off to just about the best start you can ask for. New York can win it all if they continue to get this type of performance from its 25-year-old mountainous MVP candidate, something that certainly won’t come easy.
Fans in the Bronx have seen over the past eight years just what the increase in pressure and premium pitching can do to the league’s strongest bats. Alex Rodriguez had several series where he couldn’t muster more than one or two hits. Mark Teixeira hit .196 in eight postseason rounds with the club. Yet in the words of Judge on Tuesday, “it was business as usual.”
“A lot of them showed up in a big way,” manager Joe Girardi said after the game. “I think it's really big for these guys, just to see the atmosphere, even the guys that weren't on the roster. We wanted them to stay because there was a bunch of young kids, just to get a feel of what it's like.”
After a September filled with pressure-packed games and a pair of seasons filled with record-breaking performances, a showing like this shouldn’t come as a surprise. You’re not supposed to get 50 homers from a rookie, or 200 strikeouts from a guy (Luis Severino) relegated to the bullpen the year prior. Veterans don’t normally lean on rookies in October. But these Yankees have produced this talent, and they proved on Tuesday they can lean on it when needed.
That’s not to say it’d be a wise strategy, because the Baby Bombers have a tall task in front of them. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer will pack a harder punch than Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios. Trevor Hildenberger and some guy named Alan Busenitz will not be waiting in the late innings.
The stakes will be raised, as will the competition level. Though Carrasco struggled in his lone outing against the Yankees this season, Kluber and Game 1 starter Trevor Bauer combined to allow just five runs over 30 innings against New York this season with 29 strikeouts. The Yankees’ young core may have nailed the job interview, but now it’s time to get to work.
Considering that’s what the Yankees’ postseason newcomers did with their first opportunity, their next act will be one worth watching. There have been plenty of growing pains—Sanchez’s adventures behind home plate, Judge’s dreadful second-half slump and Greg Bird’s injury-marred season—but these young players far succeeded expectations this season, and they’re capable of competing with the league’s best.