HOUSTON — If it wasn’t abundantly clear already, Game 2 of the American League Championship Series crystallized the ethos of the New York Yankees: They are not going to sit back idly and watch the Houston Astros wrest a World Series berth from their lifeless hands. They are going to be aggressive, and that aggressiveness might at times verge on recklessness. So be it. Wallflowers cannot, and will not, beat these Astros.
The Yankees’ 3-2 loss in 11 innings Sunday night featured a rightfully assertive posture from the earliest moments of the game. They were facing Justin Verlander in the first of four games he and co-ace Gerrit Cole will start should the series extend to seven, and manager Aaron Boone knows the Yankees must pick off at least one of those to beat Houston. So with a 1-0 series lead in hand already and the opportunity to land a liver shot on the Astros, Boone lead-footed the gas pedal.
Runners on second and third, facing a one-run deficit in the second inning? Boone brought the infield in. Only seven outs from his starter, James Paxton? Boone yanked him. Reliever Chad Green cruising through two innings? Boone pulled him, too, because Adam Ottavino presented a superior matchup opportunity.
This is what constitutes managing in 2019. It’s not purely analytics, and it’s not some sort of abandonment of gut feeling, and it’s certainly not overmanaging, which is a catch-all phrase used by those who think aggressive bullpen maneuvering and seeking out marginal advantages is a bad thing. Here’s what it is: pragmatism.
Because — at least based on his decision-making in the first two games of the ALCS — Boone understands what the Yankees are and what they aren’t, where they lag behind and where they excel. New York is a team with limited starting pitching and five relief pitchers it deeply trusts. That is a flawed pitching staff, but not so flawed that it can’t beat the Astros.
To do so will simply take a deftness similar to what the Tampa Bay Rays showcased in their division-series matchup against Houston. Rays manager Kevin Cash deployed his bullpen with a brilliant touch. He understood the talent advantage the Astros possess would force his team to steal advantages wherever it could. The same goes for the Yankees, and while the overpowering and dominant version of Verlander did not pitch Sunday, the one that did show up was good enough to install a deep sense of urgency in New York.
“Certainly Verlander being on the hill, runs are going to be tough to come by,” Boone said. “More often than not I’m going to play that really aggressively.”
Play aggressively he did, much to the consternation of armchair managers and Monday morning quarterbacks who believe past success portends future success. Consider Boone’s choice in the fifth inning to remove Green for Ottavino. Green had retired all six hitters he faced. Ottavino replaced him, hung a first-pitch slider and watched George Springer punish it for a tying home run.
This is a classic case of process not equaling outcome. Ottavino threw a bad pitch. That happens, and when it happens in the postseason it is exponentially magnified. That bad pitch, though, does not take the sound process of Boone’s decision — Springer destroys Green’s bread-and-butter four-seam fastball; Ottavino is death on right-handed hitters — and invalidate it. It means the right play didn’t work. Which, in a seven-game series, admittedly can mean the difference between winning and losing.
Focusing solely on Green’s performance also puts Game 2 in a vacuum instead of as one slice of a seven-piece pie. The balance between now and whatever games remain is admittedly difficult to strike, but the Yankees, with Game 3 starter Luis Severino not stretched out enough to pitch deep into games — especially against a lineup as patient as Houston’s — and Game 4 looking like a bullpen affair, needed to weigh Green’s usage accordingly.
Boone is juggling what the front office gave him — and it’s a roster that includes five left-handed relievers, which plays awfully well into the hands of the Astros, who were the best-hitting team against lefties in baseball this season. Boone knows this, and he knows it’s the sort of thing that will haunt the Yankees at some point in the series, which only exacerbated his exigency in Game 2.
“You’re playing it to win the game,” Boone said. “You’re not playing it to — what if we go 13, you know? You’re playing it to what gives us the best chance to win here. And the bottom line is we end up giving up a third run in the 11th inning.”
So it went. The possibility of stealing both games at Minute Maid Park — one of them started by Verlander — was exciting enough that Boone emptied his handful of power relievers, going from Green to Ottavino to Tommy Kahnle to Zack Britton to Aroldis Chapman. They covered 20 outs and, Springer’s home run off Ottavino excepted, did so with aplomb.
They’ll also be ready for Game 3 on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, when Cole gets his first start of the series. Boone will be suitably pushy in that game, too, if offered the opportunity to steal a win — and even though it’s at home, beating Cole in the postseason would constitute grand larceny.
Whatever the outcome in Game 3, Boone might well pray for rain, which is expected to come down in sheets Wednesday. That would allow him to bring back Masahiro Tanaka for Game 4 on full rest, go back to Paxton on full rest in Game 5 and push back the necessary bullpen game as long as possible.
It’s not an easy road. The Yankees knew that going into the ALCS. As great a lineup as the Yankees have, as many talented arms as they can offer, the Astros are more talented and managed by AJ Hinch, one of the game’s finest tacticians. Boone showed Sunday he’s learning himself. He saw an opening. He went full bore. The offense didn’t cooperate with any support beyond Aaron Judge‘s two-run home run, and come extra innings, it left Boone exposed, with CC Sabathia and Jonathan Loaisiga and J.A. Happ in to get the most important outs.
That’s not a mistake. It’s a solid plan that didn’t work. The Yankees will take that. They’re certainly not going to beat the Astros sitting back and waiting for the series to come to them.