On Wednesday night—or early Thursday morning, in the Eastern time zone—the Yankees topped Cleveland 10-9 in the longest nine-inning game in MLB history, a back-and-forth, four-hour-and-50-minute epic whose ending was further deferred by multiple rain delays. New York’s victory, which followed the team’s Tuesday trouncing of Cy Young favorite Shane Bieber, knocked Cleveland out of the postseason and set up the Yankees for an ALDS matchup with the division-rival Rays. The best-of-three series was a battle between stylistic opposites, pitting a Cleveland club that allowed the fewest runs in the majors against a Yankees squad that scored the most runs in the American League. In this case, offensive firepower won, contradicting the dubious saying about the fate of good hitting against good pitching.
The decisive game featured four erased deficits and at least as many divisive managerial moves, a few of which caused rage-tweeting fans to demand the dismissals of skippers Aaron Boone and Sandy Alomar Jr. (who’s acting in place of the sidelined Terry Francona). Some of the duo’s most-maligned decisions were defensible; at certain times, tactical miscues worked out well, while in other situations seemingly smart moves backfired. In the final accounting, the outcome came down not to the former playoff heroes at the helms of the two teams, but to the actions of active athletes: the unsurprising stars (DJ LeMahieu, José Ramírez, Gio Urshela), unexpected standouts (Jordan Luplow, Gary Sánchez), and unlikely goats (James Karinchak, Brad Hand) who drove in or gave up the runs. Although the playoffs place managers under the microscope, the Yankees’ hard-earned win was a reminder that middle-aged men in the dugout usually don’t deserve the bulk of the blame or the credit for which way a game goes. Consider this a postseason PSA: Players matter much more than managers.
The New York–Cleveland test of endurance was the seventh of the eight games scheduled for an unprecedented day that MLB promoted as a “Fall Frenzy.” The elimination matchup took longer than the 13-inning contest between the Braves and Reds that kicked off the festivities, and it almost outlasted the late-night series starter between the Brewers and Dodgers. Neither starting pitcher was sharp in the tilt between fourth- and fifth-seeded teams, perhaps partly because of the strange circumstances surrounding the beginning of the game. First pitch was delayed by roughly 45 minutes due to expected precipitation that hadn’t yet appeared when the game got going at 7:51 p.m. ET—right around the time a local meteorologist had independently predicted the rain would begin.
Sure enough, the skies opened up in the top of the first, and the tarp came back out, leading to an additional delay. Although both Masahiro Tanaka and Carlos Carrasco stayed in the game, neither lasted long: The starters tallied 21 outs and 10 earned runs between them. Those early exits set the stage for a lot of mixing and matching, as Alomar and Boone combined for eight position player substitutions and 10 pitching changes.
Alomar’s two most momentous moves illustrate the perils of judging managers based on players’ performance. In the top of the fourth, with Carrasco staked to a 4-1 lead, the Yankees loaded the bases with no outs. Although Carrasco had thrown only 73 pitches, he’d walked back-to-back batters, and Alomar correctly recognized that this was a pivotal point in the game. Instead of sticking with Carrasco or summoning a middle-inning arm, he called on Karinchak, who had never entered a game earlier than the sixth inning.
Save for Bieber, Karinchak was Cleveland’s most effective pitcher on a batter-by-batter basis this season, according to deserved run average. Cleveland needed strikeouts, and the rookie Karinchak was the guy to get them: Among all major leaguers with at least 10 innings pitched during the regular season, he trailed only Devin Williams and Aroldis Chapman in strikeout rate. Had the righty wriggled out of the jam, Alomar would have been lauded for making the kind of ultra-aggressive, fireman move that earned Francona acclaim during Cleveland’s drive to the pennant in 2016. But Urshela—the Cleveland cast-off who would go on to start a game-saving double play in the eighth and single and score the winning run in the ninth—took Karinchak deep on a full-count fastball for the biggest blow of the game. For Alomar, the devastating grand slam was the wrong result of the right process.
Alomar’s second-most-salient string-pull was arguably the right result of the wrong process. In the seventh, with Cleveland behind by two runs, two-out walks to Carlos Santana and Franmil Reyes brought left-handed hitter Josh Naylor to the plate against southpaw Zack Britton. Naylor, who went 4-for-4 with a prodigious dinger in Game 1, was 1-for-3 with a two-run double in Game 2. After ESPN commentators Alex Rodriguez and Matt Vasgersian recounted Naylor’s offensive feats, Alomar shocked them into silence by pinch hitting with righty Jordan Luplow.
Pulling a hot hitter in Naylor was unorthodox, but not necessarily a big blunder in isolation: Naylor is a career .249/.309/.383 hitter who struggled down the stretch, and a couple of good games didn’t turn him into Jim Thome crossed with Brian Giles. But Boone countered by bringing in right-hander Jonathan Loaisiga, which robbed the platoon advantage from Luplow, a career .194/.276/.318 hitter against righties who was also subject to the pinch hit penalty. Britton was out of the game after 24 pitches, but the odds were tilted heavily in Loaisiga’s favor. Naturally, Luplow doubled over center fielder Aaron Hicks’s head to tie the game. Luplow’s clutch hit made Alomar look brilliant, and ESPN’s doubting broadcasters about-faced from questioning the manager to deferring to his special insight.
Every Yankees manager encounters a crucible in Cleveland in a Game 2: Joe Torre surrendered to a swarm of midges in 2007, and Joe Girardi famously failed to challenge a hit by pitch call in 2017. Boone’s biggest sins, according to his detractors, were pinch running Tyler Wade for Luke Voit after Voit walked to start the seventh and leaving Loaisiga in to start the eighth. Although Voit’s spot in the order was due to come up again, Boone elected to pull the AL home run leader and prioritize speed and defense with an 8-6 lead and the groundballing Britton in the game. This came back to bite Boone in the eighth when Clint Frazier—a pretty good hitter himself—pinch hit for Wade with two on and two out in a tie game and struck out on three pitches. In Boone’s defense, Voit has been dealing with what Boone has characterized as “foot stuff” since August, and he hobbled and limped through September. The foot appeared to be bothering him again after he got caught in a rundown in the bottom of the fifth, and it’s possible that Boone heard or saw something that suggested it was prudent to pull the slugger for health-related reasons.
As for Loaisiga—who entered games this season at higher-leverage moments, on average, than any Yankees reliever not named Britton and Chapman—Boone had some incentive to try extending him in order to lighten the load on his closer. Chapman hasn’t earned more than three outs in a game since last year’s ALDS, or six outs in a game since the 2017 ALDS. With a righty (Delino DeShields) and a switch-hitter who’s historically been better against lefties (Francisco Lindor) due up in the eighth, it wasn’t unreasonable to hold off on Chapman for a batter or two, and Tommy Kahnle’s injury and Adam Ottavino’s up-and-down year left Boone without a reliable bridge. My colleagues and I have criticized Boone’s bullpen management before, and he seemed to learn last year from his rookie mistakes in October 2018. Maybe he trusted too long in Tanaka or Loaisiga, who walked the two hitters he faced in the eighth, but there was only so much he could do on a day when most of his pitchers lacked command. On the positive side of his Game 2 ledger, Boone went to Britton to get a ground-ball double play that ended a Cleveland rally in the sixth, and he showed faith in Sánchez, who hit a crucial, wind-aided wall scraper.
Boone wasn’t perfect on Wednesday, but compared to his players’ triumphs and failures, his were small beans. Most managerial moves are: As the sabermetrician Mitchel Lichtman, coauthor of The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, wrote in 2013, “We all criticize managers for ‘costing’ their team the game when we think they made a mistake and their team loses. … The fact of the matter is that there is almost nothing a manager can do, short of losing his mind and pinch hitting the bat boy in a high leverage situation, that is worth more than 1 or 2% in win expectancy.” Managers may be responsible for putting players in more or less advantageous positions, but it’s up to the players to make those moves pay off.
Aaron Boone: "That game was a lot of fun to be a part of. I’m 47 years old. I’ve watched a lot of baseball and watched a lot of my dad’s playoff games, been in some really big games and I don’t know how you top that one.”— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) October 1, 2020
At various stages of Game 2’s almost five-hour odyssey, fans had reason to rue Carrasco’s grooved fastball to Giancarlo Stanton in the second; DeShields’s misplay on a routine fly that turned into a triple to lead off the fourth; LeMahieu’s high relay throw to home on Ramírez’s fifth-inning double, which allowed César Hernández to slide in safely; and Austin Hedges’s inability to hold up on high heat out of the strike zone on the last pitch of the game. Carrasco didn’t choose to miss his spot; DeShields didn’t break the wrong way and stumble on purpose; LeMahieu didn’t decide to throw high; and Hedges didn’t chase intentionally. Those things happened because baseball is hard and players aren’t perfect. They weren’t mental mistakes, but errors in execution.
The game moves faster on the field than it does in the dugout, so we forgive those physical foibles long before we forget the relatively unforced errors that managers make. But as I laid out two Octobers ago, second-guessing managerial moves is often an exercise in futility, for a few reasons. For one thing, most moves don’t matter that much in terms of win expectancy: Given a two-run lead in the late innings, how often would the drop-off from Voit to an inferior hitter in one at bat, minus the benefit from switching to a speedier runner and superior fielder, turn a win into a loss? Given how much managers contribute over a several-month season, via player development and clubhouse harmony and as public faces for the team, very few tactical flubs rise to the level of a fireable offense.
For another, managers know more than we do about their players’ current conditions; it wouldn’t be surprising to learn later that Voit’s foot was more troublesome than the first baseman or Boone let on. Third, modern managers are cogs in a front-office-fueled decision-making machine, and while fans and media members tend to judge pinch-hit appearances and calls to the bullpen based on publicly available, surface-level stats such as recent track records, head-to-head history, and platoon splits, teams can draw on more predictive data specific to the swing planes and arsenals of each player and opponent.
Ultimately, Cleveland lost the small-sample series (and a record 10th consecutive postseason elimination game) because Bieber had his worst start of 2020, Brad Hand blew his first save of the season, and Karinchak coughed up his second career home run. The Yankees won because Gerrit Cole dominated, the lineup slugged seven homers, and Urshela had the game of his life. The team that was expected to pitch well didn’t deliver, and the team that was expected to hit well lived up to its Bronx Bomber billing. The managers were mostly along for the ride.