This was the risk the Yankees ran when they fooled around with their pitching staff: In Thursday’s Game 4 of the American League Division Series, they will hand the ball to Jordan Montgomery, making his postseason debut, and ask him to keep their season alive.
New York attempted a bait-and-switch in Game 2, starting righty Deivi García and inducing the Rays to use the lefty-heavy version of their lineup, then replacing him after an inning with lefty J.A. Happ. The idea was to give Happ the platoon advantage and save the more reliable Masahiro Tanaka for Game 3.
Well, the Yankees lost Game 2, and then they lost Game 3, 8–4. The Yankees did not play a terrible game. But the Rays played a better one. These teams are so good and so evenly matched that every mistake matters. For New York to play past Thursday, it will need to start making fewer of them.
“That’s been the big difference the past two games,” said Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge.
In Game 1, it was New York that capitalized on Tampa Bay’s mistakes. Manager Kevin Cash, concerned about the strain five games in five days would put on his pitching staff, let struggling starter Blake Snell begin the fifth inning at 67 pitches. He served up a home run to tie the game at 3. Then he served up another. Still Cash stayed in the dugout. Snell eventually escaped the inning, but the Rays never retook the lead. They remained in the game until the ninth inning, when again Cash stuck with a pitcher for too long: Reliever John Curtiss allowed a single and a walk. He got an out, then allowed another single and another walk. Then he left a slider at the belt of DH Giancarlo Stanton, who launched it 411 feet for a grand slam. The Yankees won, 9–3.
A night later, the New York front office and coaching staff implemented their little trick. They apparently failed to secure buy-in beforehand from Happ, who said he told his bosses he would prefer to act as a traditional starter. No matter; the team went ahead with it. García allowed one run in his inning; Happ allowed four in his 2 2/3. And now they are both unavailable to start Game 4.
The inflection points on Wednesday came on the field rather than in the dugout. Tanaka left a few offspeed pitches over the plate. The Rays lined most of them into the outfield. Left fielder Randy Arozarena in particular feasted, going 3-for-3 against Tanaka to bring his ALDS OPS to 2.109.
“I don't think I've ever seen it before where a guy punishes every single mistake,” said Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka. “We can't get away with anything against him right now.”
They also did not get away with their game plan against center fielder Kevin Kiermaier: first-pitch breaking ball. Kiermaier took a curveball for strike one his first time up. He spent the rest of the at bat livid at himself. When he strode to the plate in the fourth with two on and no out, he was ready. “I wanted to swing the bat right there because I knew what I was getting,” he said. He deposited it past the right field wall.
The Yankees had a chance to take advantage of some mistakes. In the third, they loaded the bases with one out and scored only one run, on a Judge sacrifice fly. In the fifth, with two out, center fielder Aaron Hicks doubled home second baseman DJ LeMahieu. First baseman Luke Voit, who is 1–for-11 in the series, got a curveball down the middle, but he swung just under it and lofted it to center for the final out. By the time Stanton drilled a two-run homer in the eighth—his fifth straight playoff game with a dinger, six in all, to tie the MLB record—the game was all but decided.
“You can't give them any extra outs, any extra mistakes,” said Judge. “A team like that, when they get mistakes, they've been doing damage on them. We had a couple situations—we had bases loaded and were only able to scrap out one run. It's just, when we get a mistake, which is very few with the pitching staff that they got, we got to capitalize.”
Now the fate of this Yankees roster, which would have cost $250 million if not for the pandemic, rests in the left hand of Montgomery. He doesn’t have to be perfect. But he has to be close.