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The Ahead-of-Schedule Yankees Just Proved That They’re Built for October

In a polarizing AL wild-card game that baseball believers likely loved and critics will use as a reason to stay away, a bullpen-and-homers approach made easy work of the Twins

Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks, and Brett Gardner celebrate on the field Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The AL wild-card game, which the Yankees took 8-4 from the Twins as Tuesday turned to Wednesday, was a sometimes-wonderful and at other times terrible mess of a contest in which little went according to plan but everything turned out as expected. It gave us a glimpse of where baseball is headed and a lingering look at the good and bad of where it is today. It was also a warning to anyone who’d missed what makes this year’s Yankees such a scary October team.

“Crapshoot” reenters every baseball writer’s vocabulary as October begins, but a matchup like this one isn’t what most of them mean when they use the term. Depending on the projection system or oddsmaker, the Yankees—playing in their largely soulless stadium with sponsored strikeout sounds—ranged from 60-70 percent favorites over the traveling Twins. Minnesota, which beat out a motley lot of contenders for the second AL wild card and finished with the worst record and run differential of any playoff club this season, consistently lost to good teams all season, going 12-26 against the AL playoff field. The Yankees were one such good team, boasting the best run differential of any club but the Indians. They had the superior pitcher slated to start on Tuesday, too, giving the assignment to Luis Severino, who was coming off the best season of any AL pitcher not named Corey Kluber or Chris Sale.

Throw in the absence of injured Twins slugger Miguel Sanó and the history between the two teams—which was likely irrelevant to the Twins but not to Twins fans, who’d seen their team go 33–89 against the Yankees since 2002 (a span during which Minnesota was over .500 against all other opponents combined)—and this was as lopsided as matchups between playoff teams with the luxury of lining up starters get.

The outcome went the way the world expected: The Yankees eliminated the Twins, saving the sport from the criticism that would have come its way had the far better team over the previous six months been knocked out of October in six hours. (OK, not quite; it took 3:51 and only felt longer.) But not much else played out in predictable fashion.

For first-guessers, this was a game to gloat. On the Minnesota side, some questioned manager Paul Molitor’s decision to start the experienced Ervin Santana and his deceptively low ERA over 23-year-old José Berrios, pointing to the younger pitcher’s superior stuff and peripherals. Other analysts argued that the Yankees should leverage the second half’s MLB-best bullpen for all it was worth, starting reliever Chad Green and going with one dominant arm after another until Minnesota submitted. Given most managers’ preference for a veteran presence and not rocking the boat at moments that might get them fired, neither of those strategies came close to being employed when the game began; so averse was Yankees manager Joe Girardi to disrupting his team’s routine that he wouldn’t even give his players a pep talk before the game, delivering a short speech on Sunday instead so that he could “treat [Tuesday] like any other game.”

Despite those status-quo strategies, both managers were forced into taking the backseat skippers’ advice. Severino, who the stats said was coming in on a hot streak, nearly touched triple digits on his first pitch of the game but still allowed a long ball to the Twins’ leadoff hitter, Brian Dozier. The second baseman, who’s recently learned to hit baseballs toward right field, instead reverted to old habits and pulled a 99 mile per hour pitch into the first row by the bullpen in left, becoming the first player ever to lead off the playoffs with a home run. Any home run first is hardly surprising in the year of record round-trippers, and balls landing in the stands soon became one of the themes of the night.

Severino retired the second hitter he faced then went walk-homer-single-double, bringing Girardi out and Green in with one out recorded and 26 to go. The “bullpen game” crowd got what it wanted, and Severino became the first starter to be pulled from a postseason game after one-third of an inning (for non-injury-related reasons) since A’s starter Gil Heredia in the 2000 ALDS. He was also the second ever to be pulled so soon for poor performance from a postseason elimination game that his team ended up winning, in keeping with the pattern of an unpredictable path to a predictable score.

Although Severino laid claim to the title of worst wild-card start, Santana managed to make it close. A Brett Gardner walk, an Aaron Judge single, and a Didi Gregorius homer tied it up in the first, and a Gardner solo shot gave the Yankees the lead in the second, which would be Santana’s last inning. After the Twins plated one run in the top of the third on a potential double-play ball beaten out by Byron Buxton—MLB’s fastest runner and the toughest to double up—the game was tied and back to the way that many had hoped it would start: with Berrios vs. the bullpen.

The Twins fought the bullpen, but the bullpen won. Yankees relievers Green, David Robertson (who went 3 1/3 innings, his longest outing ever), Tommy Kahnle, and Aroldis Chapman combined for 8 2/3 innings, one run, and 13 strikeouts. Berrios lasted three innings but allowed as many runs, with Greg Bird—anonymously maligned in July by a Yankees insider source who questioned his desire to play—singling home the winning run in the third and Judge adding insurance (and “M-V-P” chants) with a two-run shot in the fourth that flew faster than every writer in the press box tabbing over to Twitter after Gary Sánchez took a foul tip to the balls.

The Yankees tacked on an eighth run in the seventh inning on a bases-loaded walk by Alan Busenitz, yet another playoff reliever with a sub-2 ERA and sub-1 WHIP who nonetheless was a stranger to otherwise well-informed writers who were watching the game. That’s less a knock against the writers than a commentary on today’s game, in which bullpens are big and relievers with stats that once would have been eye-popping pass unnoticed among the many strikeout monsters surrounding them.

Even aside from Busenitz, this was a quintessentially 2017 game, complete with nine pitching changes; 14 2/3 combined innings thrown by pitchers other than the starters; five homers, accounting for all but three of the 12 runs; and, naturally, a last pitch delivered after midnight Eastern time. The playoffs always amplify the best and worst aspects of baseball, and if you don’t like the trend toward shorter outings, longer games, and truer outcomes, there was plenty here to hate.

There was also a lot to like, at least until the late innings: lead changes, high stakes, and some of the best players in baseball doing some of the best baseball things, including the laser by Judge and a beautiful, typical catch by Buxton, who plastered himself against the center-field wall to deprive Todd Frazier of extra bases and later left the game as his back began to feel the aftereffects.

There was also the requisite weirdness of Sánchez’s ball-busting, Robertson’s sympathetic-testicled anguish, and Buxton replacement Zack Granite literally missing first base. It was the type of polarizing game that a true baseball believer loves and a baseball critic uses as another reason not to tune in.

In time, we might look back at this game as another nail in the coffin of the classic starting pitcher. For the first time ever in a non-strike year, no starter threw even 215 innings this season, and while Severino’s and Santana’s performances here were hardly representative of their usual work, we got a good look at how effective the alternative can be. Resistance to the “bullpen game” in must-win moments will be worn down bit by bit, and the dominance inadvertently demonstrated by the Yankees’ never-ending onslaught of setup men will be trotted out by every writer who tries to make a case for the bullpen approach in the future.

Tombstone for starting pitchers, 1871-2017, AL wild-card game

Of course, the Yankees’ bullpen Plan B worked so well because Brian Cashman has spent months assembling the perfect playoff pen, signing Chapman last winter, converting Green to full-time relief in May, and trading for Robertson and Kahnle in July. That quartet, along with Dellin Betances, Adam Warren and Chasen Shreve, gives Girardi elite options from the middle innings on in any game, not just the ones where the starter struggles and he has to audible even earlier. That unit won’t be as fresh on Thursday, when the ALDS starts in Cleveland—that’s the cost of Severino’s early exit and the team winning a wild card instead of a division crown, although the upside is that Severino will soon be ready to go again—but as forceful statements go, this game was Tarkin blowing up Alderaan. Other teams now know that the Yankees’ postseason superweapon works.

That doesn’t mean that the Yankees can’t be beaten, but to the extent that it’s possible for a baseball team to be built for the playoffs, the Yankees are so constructed. It’s not just their array of relievers, who can be brought back again and again in October without worrying as much about rest. It’s also the Yankees’ ability to bypass the flabby back of their rotation, and the fact that their lineup is the most home-run oriented of any playoff team’s, which should serve them well in October’s extra-all-or-nothing environment.

Even though their underlying regular-season stats suggest that they were among the best teams to begin with, the Yankees project to benefit almost the most from the fat-trimming that accompanies the transition to playoff rosters—and that’s without accounting for the uptick in the percentage of innings pitched by a team’s best relievers once the postseason starts. That Girardi hooked his ace so quickly on Tuesday suggests that he’s capable of toggling between his regular-season settings and a more aggressive playoff mode, which bodes well for the team’s prospects of not being burned by starters who are left in too long. “We have a wonderful mix down there with guys that we can do it with,” Girardi said postgame when asked about stretching his pen. “I pushed some guys a little bit further than I would like tonight, but it’s win or go home, and that’s why I did it.”

Nothing about the Twins’ recent history with the Yankees, or the two teams’ respective spending, is fair to Twins fans, but in this single game, statistical justice was done. The win that propelled the Yankees into the playoffs proper was a showdown between two ascendant teams built around riveting youngsters (Judge, Sánchez, Bird; Buxton, Eddie Rosario) who had big games and could continue to beat up on each other for a decade to come. Neither of those clubs was expected to be back in the playoffs so soon, but the Yankees were better prepared for their closeup.