Although “anything can happen” certainly applies to a “loser go home” elimination game, it goes double for this American League Wild Card game because the A’s and Yankees are similar teams. However, there are some factors to look for that could go a long way towards deciding a winner.
The Yankees are going with Luis Severino to start the game against right hander Liam Hendriks, who is Oakland’s “opener” and will work an inning or two at the most. The A’s plan on using their bullpen to navigate their way through the game.
After pitching to a dominant level in the first half of the season, Severino regressed in the second half. Even as Severino’s numbers rose, the Yankees insisted that health was not an issue. They dismissed the notion that Severino was tipping his pitches, although if you look at the games where he was not successful, the hitters seemed to know what was coming as they were laying off some inviting sliders, while sitting on the fastball. Severino also got into a habit of trying to throw his pitches for called strikes, instead of missing outside the zone and getting batters to chase.
Some have suggested that Severino was having trouble because defensively challenged Gary Sanchez was his catcher. Things came to a head in early September when the two could not get on the same page in an ugly first inning against the A’s, so it is something to be concerned about. However, Sanchez caught Severino many times in the first half when he was pitching well and he was not there for many of the right hander’s clunkers in the second half because of his time missed due to injuries. (BTW: If the Yankees have a lead late in the game and Sanchez is on base, you can bet that a pinch runner will be used to allow Austin Romine to enter the game, without controversy, as a defensive replacement)
Last year’s Wild Card disaster aside, it will be important for Severino to get through the first inning unscathed. The first two hitters will be key because the A’s #3 hitter, Jed Lowrie, is 6 for 11 in his career vs. the Yankee hurler.
Hendriks opened one of the games in Oakland and had a 1-2-3 first inning before departing what would become a 5-1 Yankees’ win. Right hander Daniel Mengden was the second man in and pitched very well in that game but I’m guessing that the A’s will go to right hander Mike Fiers to follow Hendriks. Aaron Hicks is 4 for 6 with two home runs against Fiers and will probably bat third behind Aaron Judge so if the Oakland pitcher, who is on schedule, starts the second inning, he’ll avoid Hicks until his turn comes around again.
The risk with this strategy is taking out the “hot arm” when it’s going good and replacing it with a pitcher who comes in and doesn’t have it. There is a tendency to make an assumption that each pitcher that is brought in is going to be effective. That leads me to my next point and that is, the Yankees are going to have to make that strategy backfire.
The Yankee numbers this season vs. Oakland’s bullpen (Hendriks’ “opener” stint does not count) look like this: 27.1 IP, 21H, 9R, 17BB, 26K, 2 HRS. Five of those runs came in one game. Overall, the A’s bullpen has done a nice job this season but they still have some candidates, like Fernando Rodney, that can put “gas on the fire.” One intriguing match up that may occur is if Jeurys Familia faces Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankee DH is 2 for 14 with 9 strikeouts vs. the former Met.
The Yankees will see Blake Treinen, who has thrived in the closer’s role. In three appearances against the Yankees this season, Treinen allowed one hit (the only base runner) and no runs. Two former National Leaguers on the Yanks roster faced Treinen when he was with the Washington Nationals. Stanton (1 for 5) and Neil Walker (0 for 6) are a combined 1 for 11 vs. the A’s closer.
The Yankees bullpen is deep but it’s not “lights out” as it’s being portrayed by some media types. Their numbers vs. Oakland this season: 26 IP, 16H, 9R, 10BB, 30K’s, 4 HRS. Three of those home runs were hit in the Bronx. Suffice it to say, both team’s pitching staffs will need to keep the ball in the ballpark.
The Yankees have a lot of firepower but their offense lacks balance and efficiency. Hicks (a switch hitter) and Didi Gregorius are the only left handed hitters in the starting lineup and there are too many strikeouts. You can’t re-work your roster now but in a one game scenario, these little things seem to come to the forefront.
Situational hitting, particularly with the bases loaded, has been a major issue for the Yankees this season. It will be imperative for the Yankees to play a fundamentally sound game. Many times this season, they’ve failed to move a runner from second with no one out or they’ve made mistakes running the bases. That can’t happen in the Wild Card game.
This will be Stanton’s first ever, post season game. He won’t get any slack from the fans if he strikes out four or five times or comes up small in the clutch. Neither will Sanchez, who’s initial challenge will be to just catch the ball from Severino.
The Yankees won 100 games during the regular season. The first 50 wins came in the first 72 games (.694) but the Yankees only went 50-40 (.556) in their last 90 games. If the former shows up, the Yanks will advance. If they play like the latter, they’re going home.