Behind Aaron Judge, Luis Severino and a stellar bullpen, the Yankees dropped the A’s, 7–2, in the AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium. New York advances to face the Red Sox in the next round, while Oakland’s magical underdog season comes to an early end. Here are three thoughts on a busy night in the Bronx.
The formula for the Yankees to win this game was simple, and one that has become commonplace in 2018: get at least four solid innings from the starter; turn it over to a bullpen loaded with premium octane arms; and let the never-ending power up and down the lineup do its thing.
On all counts, New York got what it needed. Luis Severino held the A’s hitless through his first four innings of work. The bullpen—Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Zach Britton, and Aroldis Chapman—kept Oakland in check from there. Aaron Judge's early homer gave the Yankees all the runs they needed in the first before the middle of the order struck again to put it out of reach in the sixth. It was a textbook and terrifying display of how unbeatable New York is when all the pieces fit together.
Like last year’s wild-card showdown, the bullpen proved to be a difference maker. New York’s relief corps entered the night having finished No. 1 in the majors in strikeout-per-nine rate (11.4), strikeout rate (30.2%), average fastball velocity (95 mph) and FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (9.7). You quickly saw that those numbers were no fluke, as Betances, Robertson, Britton and Chapman burned through Oakland’s lineup like a fever: Five innings, two runs, one walk, six strikeouts, with both runs coming off Britton on a Khris Davis homer. Baffled A’s hitters waved through dozens of dipping sliders and high-90s fastballs; by pure stuff, it’s amazing that anyone can do damage against this Yankees bullpen.
Going into the night, the expectation was that Oakland’s bullpen, itself full of closers both past and present and with Blake Treinen as its anchor, would extinguish traditional relief pitcher usage through the introduction of the opener into the playoffs. But even if bullpen orthodoxy didn’t draw its last shuddering breath in the Bronx, the game we got was a 2018 microcosm: big-time power, high velocity, and relievers galore.
Redemption For Severino, Betances
The last time Severino took the mound for a wild-card game in Yankee Stadium, his night barely lasted long enough to register in the box score. Against one out, he gave up four hits and three runs versus the Twins, sulking off the mound in the first inning and leaving his bullpen to pick up 26 outs. Not included in the parade of relievers who followed him: Betances, who had fallen apart down the stretch (a 5.59 ERA and seven walks in 9 2/3 September innings) and into Joe Girardi’s doghouse, where he remained for the whole postseason.
Both Severino and Betances are blessed with a ludicrous arsenal, each pumping 99-mph heat and savage sliders that cut like scythes. But Severino, after starting the season looking like a Cy Young contender, collapsed in the summer, with a 6.58 ERA in July and a 4.86 mark in August. That he was picked for this game ahead of reliable lefty J.A. Happ was a mild surprise. Betances, meanwhile, was untouchable all year, but his command is as spotty as cell phone reception in an elevator, making him a shaky bet to handle the blood pressure-spiking situations that October frequently presents.
But on Wednesday night, each shone under a giant spotlight. Working with that hard, darting fastball and a slider he buried down and away, Severino kept the A’s off balance, though he had to navigate a bases-loaded jam in the fourth. Boone, perhaps mindful of that no-hitter in progress, let his young ace start the fifth, and Severino almost burned him, allowing the first two batters to reach. But that’s where Betances came in and showed what a difference he can make this month, getting the next three outs with ease to end the threat, then tacking on a drama-free sixth.
Last postseason, Severino was uneven, and Betances was a non-factor. If both can build off their wild-card performances, they’ll prove to be big weapons for Boone in the Division Series and beyond.
Grand Opening, Grand Closing
Australian righty Liam Hendriks was as unlikely a choice as imaginable to start a win-or-go-home game. At 29, Oakland is already his third team. Back in June, he was designated for assignment and shipped to Triple-A Nashville, where he toiled for two months before rejoining the team as a September callup. To help Oakland’s beleaguered rotation, he functioned as an opener, and with the A’s lacking anything approaching a true ace after losing Sean Manaea to a shoulder injury, Hendriks became the unexpected choice to face the beast that is the Yankees lineup.
It’s unorthodox, but so is the opener, and with mediocre veterans Mike Fiers and Edwin Jackson as manager Bob Melvin’s starter options, it’s a choice you could understand. The Athletics’ bullpen is stellar; why not let them handle every out instead of grimacing through whatever Fiers or Jackson would give you?
Melvin and the A’s tried to build the whole plane out of the black box, and it briefly worked. Though Hendriks gave up two runs in the first, Lou Trivino and Shawn Kelley shut down New York over the next four, establishing the bridge to the shutdown closers—Blake Treinen and Jeurys Familia. But in the sixth, Melvin gambled with the erratic Fernando Rodney, who surrendered back-to-back doubles and a wild pitch before exiting. Desperate to keep the margin manageable, Melvin had to go to Treinen early, disrupting his carefully laid plans.
Kudos to Melvin for recognizing that that crucial moment—down three with a runner on and Giancarlo Stanton at the plate—was when he needed his best pitcher. But Treinen didn’t have it: Whether he wasn’t ready due to a rushed warmup or simply off, he walked Stanton, then gave up a two-run triple to Luke Voit that banged off the rightfield wall just past Stephen Piscotty’s glove. A Didi Gregorius sacrifice fly made it 6–0; two innings later, Stanton finished Treinen’s night and Oakland’s hopes with a monster solo shot to left.
Ultimately, it wouldn’t have mattered who the A’s put on the mound, as the fourth-highest scoring lineup in the regular season managed just two runs on the night. The end of their season can’t be laid entirely on the decision to use the opener, though the results were mixed. Maybe the Brewers, who plan on emptying the bullpen in Game 1 of their Division Series against the Rockies, will have better success. But regardless of how this ended for the A’s, expect to see more teams explore this option when presented with a similar scenario. It can work, even if it didn’t for Oakland.