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The Yankees Are Simply a Step Behind

Doomed Tuesday night by a series of poor performances and curious coaching decisions, New York seems to be a long way from its next World Series.

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The Yankees had no answers Tuesday night. Not for the Red Sox, to whom they lost 6–2 in the wild-card game to end their season, nor for the fans, who would like to know what is wrong with this team and whether it can be fixed.

Manager Aaron Boone said the rest of the league “has closed the gap” on the Yankees. Maybe the problem is that the organization believes it is leading the pack. New York has not won the World Series—or even the American League pennant—since 2009. That’s two or three eras ago. Back then you had to transmit stolen signs by dial-up!

GM Brian Cashman built a club that relies on patience and slugging at the plate, and one ace and a dominant relief corps on the mound. That team did not make the trip to Boston.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) walks to the dugout after being pulled against the Boston Red Sox during the third inning of the American League Wildcard game at Fenway Park.

Gerrit Cole walks to the dugout after being pulled during the third inning.

Start with Gerrit Cole, to whom the Yankees gave $324 million two years ago and who gave the Yankees two innings Tuesday. He never found his fastball command, and the Red Sox feasted on the off-speed pitches he mixed in. He faced three batters in the third, at which point he'd already given up three runs, before Boone finally came and got him. He got as many taunting “Gerr-it” chants from the 38,324 at Fenway Park (three) as he did strikeouts.

“This is the worst feeling in the world,” Cole said.

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He left his Sept. 7 start against the Blue Jays after 3 2/3 innings with what the Yankees called left hamstring tightness. His next start was pushed back a day, but the team has otherwise not made concessions to the injury, and all along Cole has insisted that his hamstring is fine. “It’s good,” he said Monday. But before he left that start against Toronto, he had a 2.78 ERA in 158 2/3 innings, with an opponents’ OPS of .596. Since then he had a 6.93 ERA in 24 2/3 innings. Hitters slugged .608 against him. He essentially turned his opponents into Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Boone said “it’s certainly possible” that the hamstring affected his ace. Cole disagreed.

“No,” he said. He added that he felt “sick to his stomach” about his outing.

Whatever the reason, Cole had help turning off the lights on the Yankees’ season. It was the most embarrassing performance by a group of New Yorkers since Andrew Cuomo and his staff wrote a book about leadership.

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A Yankees offense that led the sport in walks this year did not work a single one. In the regular season, New York hitters also paced baseball by seeing an average of 4.1 pitches per plate appearance; on Tuesday, they averaged 3.5. Other than Giancarlo Stanton, who clobbered a few baseballs roughly 1,100 feet, the offense seemed to be trying to make sure fans caught the last T out of Kenmore Square.

“I’m not sure why we didn’t realize our potential there,” Boone said.

Perhaps in part because they did not have their strongest offense on the field. Boone started light-hitting Kyle Higashioka at catcher because Cole prefers throwing to him, and the Yankees carried three backstops on the roster to give themselves options. With Cole out of the game, Higashioka’s fifth-inning at bat seemed the obvious moment to pinch-hit the slugger Gary Sánchez. Instead, Boone let Higashioka flail weakly at a slider for strike three to end the frame.

Boone said he was waiting for a bigger spot. When that spot arrived, to lead off the eighth, Sánchez swung at the first pitch he saw and lined to center.

In the sixth, with one run in, one out and Aaron Judge on first, Giancarlo Stanton clanged his second 400-foot single of the game off the Green Monster. Judge was decelerating into third base, but third base coach Phil Nevin sent him home, anyway. Instead of runners on first and third with one out, the Yankees ended up with a man on second with two outs. The next batter, Joey Gallo, popped out.

At second, Stanton screamed, “F---!” Because these teams tied at 91–71, their head-to-head record (Red Sox 10, Yankees 9) meant that Boston hosted the wild-card game. That ball would have been out anywhere else, Stanton thought. “Every game counts,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s frickin’ March, April. We only needed one more.”

New York Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner (11) throws after playing for the single hit by Boston Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe (10) during the fourth inning of AL wild-card game.

Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner throws after fielding a single hit by Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe during the fourth inning.

That lack of urgency might be the story of the Yankees’ year. In the bottom of the sixth, with a fully rested bullpen and the highest possible stakes, Boone let Luis Severino—two weeks back from an elbow injury that kept him out of the majors for 706 days—walk Xander Bogaerts on four pitches and stay in the game. The next batter, Alex Verdugo, lined a double into the right-field corner and Bogaerts scored from first. Only then did Boone motion to the bullpen.

Boone is by all accounts well-liked and a capable manager in the regular season, but once the calendar flips to October, he always seems to be a batter or two behind the action. The last time these teams faced each other in the postseason, in the 2018 ALDS, Boone seemed occasionally surprised to learn a playoff game was taking place. In Game 3, he identified in the first inning that Severino lacked command but did not get anyone up in the bullpen until the first two men reached in the fourth inning, with the Yankees already down 3–0. They lost that series. They lost this one, too. He is not sure he will get a chance to manage another.

“We’ll see,” he said. “I love being here. I love going to work with this group of players, but we’ll see.”

When it was all over and the Red Sox poured onto the field and flung themselves at one another, most of the Yankees lingered in the dugout for a few minutes and watched. They will have to wait a year for a chance to feel that joy. They may need longer than that to close the gap. 

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