For six months, the Yankees waged an internal battle that underscored their season — “underscored” aptly describing half of that battle.
So fittingly Game 162 provided a recap of the first 161 — would the touted Yankee offense ever do enough to capitalize on a pitching staff that had exceeded even the kindest forecast?
For 8 ¹/₂ innings, a tag-team of Yankees pitchers — none of them Gerrit Cole on short rest — held the majors’ second-highest scoring offense to no runs. Or the same total the Yankee offense had mustered to that point. Forget about scoring, the Yankees had not even moved a runner to scoring position. They had grounded into more double plays (two) than they had produced hits (one).
The scoreboard showed more than the lack of Yankee offense. The Blue Jays were going to win, the Red Sox had rallied to tie the Nationals en route to winning. The Yankees had to win to avoid a Game 163 in Toronto.
They did that via two left-on-left hits by Rougned Odor and Anthony Rizzo against Josh Fleming, terrific baserunning by Tyler Wade (who took over for Odor) and the first walk-off hit in Aaron Judge’s career, delivering a 1-0 triumph over the Rays.
There would be no Game 163. Instead, the Rivalry will have another chapter, Tuesday night, sudden death, Fenway Park. The winner will get the AL-best Rays in the Division Series, and if there are baseball gods, let’s hope Tuesday night is as dramatic and tense as Game 162 was.
“I love our group, I love our guys, I love our compete,” Aaron Boone said. “It hasn’t been perfect. We are ready to take our shot. We feel we can beat anyone when we are at our best.”
No one was more on the line in this game than Boone, whose contract expires after this season. He had decided not to pitch his ace, Cole, on short rest. He gambled that Jameson Taillon on a bad ankle and no big-game history could handle this moment. Taillon honored the trust. Perhap the Over/Under on him was two innings, six outs. He gave Boone 10 outs.
The Yankee manager then handed the ball in the middle of an inning to Wandy Peralta, Clay Holmes, Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga before Aroldis Chapman took the whole ninth. They all pitched under duress, knowing that one run could send the Yankees to another country and Game 163. But the pitching group held the Rays to one hit in 13 at-bats with runners on base, including 0-for-11 with men in scoring position.
“Every pitcher who came in made big pitches,” Taillon said.
It could have gone wrong in so many places; Taillon’s bum ankle causing him to not even get an inning or a malfunction in the relief chain. Instead, it could hardly have gone better both Sunday and for Tuesday. Cole will now be on an extra day of rest. None of the five relievers were overtaxed and Luis Severino was not even used. It means all of them will be available against Boston.
“We feel great about the stable of pitchers we have, the depth of pitchers we have,” Boone said.
At this point, there is 162 games of evidence to suggest that pitching stockpile is the key to the Yankees winning not only the AL wild-card game, but 12 postseason games to claim the organization’s first title since 2009.
For the offense just has never fired. The expected strength of the team was 19th in the majors in scoring while the Rays, Blue Jays and Red Sox finished in the top five. Four of the five highest-scoring teams in the AL made the playoffs and the fifth, Toronto, was knocked out in the burning embers of the regular season. The Yanks made it via pitching. Pretty much when Judge and Giancarlo Stanton struggled, so did the attack. The names looked far better than the results.
So the biggest save of the Yankee regular season was the pitching rescuing the hitting. Even after the veteran relief triumvirate of Zack Britton, Darren O’Day and Justin Wilson vanished, the Yankee pitching kept getting deeper and more trustworthy.
“Fortunately, we were running out a lot of people we have a lot of confidence in and are really good at what they do,” Boone said.
That was personified Sunday. It began with the potential for a four-way wild-card tie. But with all the games beginning at 3 p.m. Eastern, the Yanks saw that the Mariners fell behind big early, the Blue Jays went up big and the Red Sox rallied. There was only one way to avoid sudden death Monday to get to sudden death Tuesday. That was to throw up one zero after another and wait and hope that the offense — the touted, underperforming offense — could produce a meager run.
In Game 162 of a season in which the Yankees were supposed to reach the playoffs behind Cole and a deep lineup, there was no Cole and a lineup that was limp yet again. The only way in was zero after zero by the pitching. The Yankees got that. The Rays never crossed the plate, underscoring — as the regular season ended and the postseason began — the strength of the Yankees.