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Bad Bats, Boone’s Blunders, and Boston’s Bullpen Combined to Kill the Yankees

Despite a tense ninth inning, the Yankees couldn’t overcome the Red Sox, who are headed to the ALCS

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

It took an extremely sweaty closer, a tying run reaching scoring position, and a replay review, but the Red Sox outlasted the Yankees on Tuesday night in New York, surviving a ninth-inning close call to top their rivals by one run and end the ALDS in four games. Although the 4-3 final score seemed to reflect a far different game than the 16-1 Boston blowout on Monday, the Yankees’ side of the story was almost the same: The Bombers’ bats went quiet, and Aaron Boone blew a chance to keep things close.

Let’s begin with Boone, the Yankees’ rookie skipper, who made myriad mistakes in the fourth inning of Game 3. Already down 3-0, Boone allowed a clearly laboring Luis Severino to start the fourth inning, and then, even more perplexingly, left the scuffling ace in as he loaded the bases. When Boone finally made a move, it wasn’t the one that made the most sense: He summoned repurposed starter and potential long man Lance Lynn instead of regular reliever Chad Green, who ended up coming in anyway after Lynn let four runs score. Not only was Boone’s hook extremely slow with Severino, but the pitcher he picked to get out of the jam was inexperienced entering games with runners on base, somewhat ill-suited to string together strikeouts, and the team’s best option to eat innings, an outcome that went by the wayside when he exited after one out. Boone didn’t throw the pitches that led to Red Sox runs, but he helped enable a Boston rally, exacerbated the situation instead of squelching it, and put the team in a poor position to piece together the game’s final five innings, a task that eventually led to backup catcher Austin Romine making the second-ever postseason appearance by a position-player pitcher.

The lopsided loss had one silver lining: Boone did, at least, preserve the Yankees’ quartet of best bullpen arms for Game 4. Given how spectacularly his Monday decisions backfired (and weathered justified criticism in the hours after the game), it seemed inconceivable that Boone would repeat the mistake of sticking with his starter too long. Prior to Game 4, Boone sounded like a man in an appropriately aggressive mind-set, saying of starter CC Sabathia, “He could pitch well for a couple two or three innings, and because of the way we’re lined up and rested in our bullpen, especially with our high-leverage guys, we feel like we have a lot of length out of them tonight, as much as we would almost ever have.” He added that the aforementioned high-leverage guys—Zach Britton, David Robertson, Dellin Betances, and Aroldis Chapman—would be available for two innings apiece, meaning that even one inning from Sabathia would give the Yankees a plausible path through the ninth.

Yet for the second straight night, Boone sat on his hands as a starter struggled. Sabathia got through two scoreless, and Boone should have quit while he was tied, pulling him either before the third or after leadoff lefty Andrew Benintendi. Instead, he stuck with Sabathia through five right-handed hitters, even after he hit Benintendi to give Boston a baserunner. Steve Pearce singled, J.D. Martinez scored the first run with a sacrifice fly, Xander Bogaerts grounded out, and Ian Kinsler doubled in Pearce. Eduardo Núñez singled to put the Sox up 3-0 before Sabathia finally reached a safe left-handed harbor in Jackie Bradley Jr., who grounded out to end the inning.

Allowing Sabathia to face five right-handed hitters for the second time in an elimination game, with the right-handed Robertson ready to take the baton, is the type of passive approach that has no place in the postseason, particularly for a team on the brink. The Yankees traded for Robertson and Britton, signed Chapman, and developed Betances for just this sort of situation, but when it arose, Boone stayed with a past-his-prime 38-year-old who—despite his standing in the clubhouse, Cooperstown-caliber résumé, and inspiring second act as a soft-tosser—hasn’t deserved that long a leash for several seasons. Nor does it sound as if he has regrets. “I was fine with the way CC was throwing the ball,” Boone said after the game, adding, “I think it was a sound decision to allow him to go through Bradley.” You can hand a manager the keys to a super-pen, but you can’t make him turn them before it’s too late.

For the next six innings, it didn’t look like Boone’s inaction would matter any more than it had on Monday, when the Yankees couldn’t muster more than one run. Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez hit a solo shot to the first row in right field in the fourth to make it 4-0, and after a fifth-inning sac fly by Brett Gardner gave the Yankees one run, the score stayed frozen until the bottom of the ninth. Facing a shook Craig Kimbrel, who couldn’t command his breaking ball, the Yankees came to life in the way that they often did in the dynasty years, working two walks and a hit by pitch and scoring two runs with only one hit to their credit, a Didi Gregorius single. But with two outs and men on first and second, Gleyber Torres topped a slow roller to third that he couldn’t quite beat out. Off the bat, it looked like a rally-preserving infield hit, especially with the shaky Núñez stationed at third, but despite his youth and experience at shortstop, Torres isn’t especially fast, ranking in the 45th percentile among qualifying players in sprint speed. As the replays in Chelsea confirmed, he was half a step too slow to extend the Yankees’ season.

A scoreless ninth or a three- or four-run ninth might have taken the blame off Boone, but with a one-run margin, it’s easy to imagine how a more proactive approach to the third inning might have helped the Yankees survive to fight again in Game 5. Ultimately, though, Boone was only a contributing cause of the Yankees’ early exit. Facing the AL’s best offense—and MLB’s best offense, by far, at home—the Red Sox allowed only four runs over two games, and Boston’s bats are too good not to make that sort of support from their pitchers stand up. The Red Sox’s run prevention in this series is a testament to the strong work of starters Nathan Eovaldi and Rick Porcello in Games 3 and 4, respectively, as well as the unanticipated dependability of Boston’s much-maligned setup corps, which posted a 2.45 ERA in 14 2/3 innings in the series—helped, in part, by Sox skipper Alex Cora’s un–Boone-like willingness to go for the kill by bringing Porcello out of the pen in Game 1 and repeating the trick with Chris Sale in the eighth inning of Game 4.

The Yankees led the league in walk rate during the regular season, but they drew only one free pass in Game 3 and didn’t draw any before the fateful ninth on Tuesday. They had no trouble making contact, striking out only 11 times in the two games put together, but they couldn’t make that contact count, batting .154 with runners in scoring position in the series. Giancarlo Stanton, the most obvious offensive scapegoat, swung at 19 of 32 pitches he saw outside the strike zone—a 59.4 percent chase rate that more than doubled his 28.6 percent regular-season rate—and he helped Kimbrel out by whiffing wildly at a pitch in the ninth that he couldn’t have reached even with Judge’s giant arms grafted onto the end of his own.

Most notably, the Yankees went without a homer in Games 3 and 4, an out-of-character power drought for a team that set a new all-time high for homers. Prior to the division series, the Yankees had homered in 71 of their 82 home games this season, and only once before had they gone back-to-back games without a big fly in the Bronx. We could chalk up their fatal failure to launch to quality pitching, playoff pressure, or some combination of both, but it’s worth noting that the only previous instance wasn’t attributable to either of those things: The Yankees were held homerless at home on April 7-8 by the Baltimore Orioles, of all possible opponents—who allowed the highest home-run rate in the majors—and the starter tandem of Chris Tillman and Mike Wright Jr., who combined to allow 1.5 homers per nine innings in their own abbreviated big-league time. If it happens in April, no one notices or cares. If it happens in October—in a game where, even more improbably, the worst hitter in the majors in 2018 (except for the other Red Sox catcher) does go deep to provide the winning run—it’s the final twist of the knife.

Few fans feel like looking at the bright side in the hours after their team strands the tying run on second in a do-or-die playoff game, and even fewer neutral observers feel like comforting anyone who’s made the unsympathetic decision to support the Yankees. But the bitter end doesn’t erase all the positives of a season that saw a squad with only the seventh-largest Opening Day payroll win 100 games, break in two early-20s infielders who’ll finish close to the top of the AL Rookie of the Year ballot, launch a whole hell of a lot of homers, find free talent in Luke Voit, and largely stave off regression from 2017’s surprise Aarons, Judge and Hicks, among other accomplishments. They’ll be back next year and every year for the foreseeable future, bolstered by prospects and high-salary signings, and maybe Boone, who’s signed through 2020 with a club option for 2021, will combine better tactical skills with his talent for communication in his sophomore season. And if the homers keep flying next fall, Boone’s moves might not matter as much as they seemed to this week.