The most historic rivalry in sports resumes tonight in the American League Wild Card game. With the New York Yankees visiting Fenway Park to play the Boston Red Sox, this is a matchup between two titans of the sport. New York went 9-10 against Boston this year, losing their first seven meetings before winning 9 out of their last 12. The Yankees have confidence and momentum on their side in this matchup. Not to mention, they swept a three-game series at Fenway from September 24-26. In previewing this game from the New York side, it is important to keep in mind how they are playing coming into this game.
The Pitching Matchup
For the Red Sox, they have Nathan Eovaldi taking the mound. The Red Sox would not be here without Eovaldi as he has been the rock of their rotation. Eovaldi made 32 starts this year, posting an 11-9 record with a 3.75 ERA. He struck out 195 batters in 182 1/3 innings while leading the AL in FIP (2.75) and the majors in BB/9 (1.7). Opposite him is Yankees ace, Gerrit Cole. Cole posted a 16-8 record and threw 181 1/3 innings, despite missing nearly three weeks due to time spent on the COVID-IL. He put up a 3.23 ERA, struck out 243 batters, a 2.92 FIP, and led the AL in K/BB (5.93)
While Cole’s numbers look great but by some measures, it was his worst season since 2017. However, that is not a truly accurate way to portray his season. The ban on sticky substances impacted Cole as the spin rate on all his pitches drastically decreased. This led to a change in the way Cole attacks hitters because he was not getting as many swings and misses.
Cole had a fantastic two months to start the year, putting up a 1.78 ERA through May. Since the start of June, he has had some brilliant starts mixed with subpar starts. This culminated in September in which Cole battled through a hamstring injury and put up some of his worst starts of the year. In his last five starts, he posted a 6.15 ERA over 26 1/3 innings. One of those starts was against Boston on September 24. He allowed three runs, three walks, and six strikeouts in six innings. Between the sticky substance issue, contracting COVID-19, and the hamstring injury, Cole has battled all year. The Yankees need him to battle one more time.
The Yankees bullpen went through some rough patches this year. At the same time, they went through dominant patches this year. What they finished with is a bullpen that finished with a 3.56 ERA and 7.5 fWAR that ranks fourth and third, respectively, in the sport. Behind Jonathan Loaisiga, Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman, and Luis Severino, this Yankees bullpen is as formidable as they come. It is clear how dominant these guys can be at their best. However, since the start of play on September 20th, this bullpen has been by far the best in baseball. They have pitched 53 2/3 innings to the tune of a 1.84 ERA, 11.24 K/9, and 87.5% LOB rate. What this reflects is that the bullpen is coming into this wild card game looking better than they have all season.
The bullpen is especially important in this game because the Red Sox lack the depth and impact arms in their ‘pen that the Yankees possess. Through all the ups and downs this season has brought, the Yankees have several key arms that they know they can rely on in high-leverage situations. Clay Holmes has walked only four batters in 28 innings since joining the Yankees. Wandy Peralta has pitched to a second-half ERA of 1.42 while holding lefties to a .681 OPS on the season. Lucas Luetge has held lefties to a .196 average with a .520 OPS in 2021.
New York’s offense has been the primary culprit for one of the most disappointing seasons in recent memory. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge are the only two hitters to finish the season with an OPS above .800. With Judge posting a 148 wRC+, Stanton with a 137 wRC+, and D.J. LeMahieu at exactly 100, those were the only three hitters with a league-average of better line. For an offense that was touted as one the deepest and most talented in the league, their subpar performance was shocking. They led the league with 55 wins by 1 or 2 runs, mostly a product of not scoring many runs combined with the pitching holding down the fort. While the offense did get better once the Yankees traded for Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo, it was still very inconsistent. Gallo posted a .707 OPS since joining the Yankees, while Rizzo posted a .768 OPS.
The greater offensive performance after the all-star break was mostly a byproduct of Rizzo and Gallo diversifying the lineup. Having two impact lefties to slot into the middle of the order made a big difference in how teams pitched to the Yankees lineup. It also opened greater opportunities for their two best hitters, Judge and Stanton, to drive in runs and perform at their typically high levels. An example of this came on September 25th, in which Stanton hit the game-winning grand slam. The Red Sox brought in a lefty to face Rizzo with two outs. The pitcher hit Rizzo, loading the bases for Stanton, who attacked a leadoff fastball and sent it over the green monster. All this goes to show that despite the inconsistency, this offense is more than capable of putting up crooked numbers at any point in this game.
Having a script for a baseball game is crazy to think about. Especially in a game that can be as unpredictable as a do-or-die playoff game, such as this one. However, there is a clear “script” by which Aaron Boone wants to manage this game. It involves the offense taking an early lead, Gerrit Cole pitching well enough for 5 or 6 innings, and the team’s three best relievers combining to close out the game. However, the Yankees wild card hopes rest in Gerrit Cole’s hands.
Cole must pitch well in this start. Not only has he struggled against Boston this year, but he is also fighting an injury and struggling to put hitters away. As the Yankees did in Cole’s last start against Boston, the offense needs to put up some early runs. Doing so would enable Cole to pitch some stress-free innings and give it all he’s got while on the mound. While the Yankees have the bullpen arms needed to protect themselves in case of a short outing from Cole, they would rather not have to go to Wandy Peralta to get out Rafael Devers in a 2-outs, RISP type of situation in the fourth inning. Early runs, a strong start by Cole, followed by Green, Loaisiga, and Chapman to close out the game is the “script” that both the Yankees and its fans would like to see.
Tonight’s Wild Card game between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees should be great. It is a game between two evenly matched teams that should provide for plenty of drama, intensity, and great moments. This is the third time in the last four years the Yankees are playing in the Wild Card game. It is a situation in which they are familiar and should have the upper hand. This Wild Card game is one the Yankees look to win by way of their best starting pitcher, early offense, and bullpen dominance.
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