Maybe the American League wild-card game didn't exactly follow Joe Girardi's preferred script -- you don't usually expect to win when your starter gets knocked out in the first inning. But the offense came to the rescue with home runs, from Didi Gregorius, Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge, and the New York Yankees beat the Minnesota Twins 8-4 on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium.
With the Twins out of the way, the Yankees face the real test: the Cleveland Indians.
The Indians are the consensus World Series favorites after winning 102 games and going 42-8 in their final 50 games, including that AL-record 22-game win streak. By one measure, they had the best pitching staff in major league history, and they gave up 96 fewer runs than the second-best run prevention team in the AL, which happened to be the Yankees.
That's what gives the Yankees a chance in the series. They're unlikely to pile up the runs against Corey Kluber & Co. the way they did against Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios, so they're going to have to outpitch the Indians. The way to do that is bullpen, bullpen and more bullpen.
Here's what kind of depth the Yankees have: Among relievers with at least 50 innings pitched, Yankees relievers rank third, sixth, eighth, ninth and 16th in strikeout rate. The fifth guy on that list? That’s Aroldis Chapman. Chad Green, Dellin Betances, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson all had higher strikeout rates, and Chapman struck out nearly a third of the batters he faced (32.9 percent). That list of five doesn't include Adam Warren, who had the sixth-lowest wOBA allowed among relievers.
As such, Girardi should have the quickest of quick hooks with his starters. He managed the wild-card game with the right urgency, pulling Luis Severino as quickly as is reasonably possible (you could argue he waited one batter too long, as Green had to escape a one-out jam with runners on second and third). After Green loaded the bases in the third, Girardi went to Robertson and let him throw a career-high 52 pitches. Girardi should manage each game against the Indians with the same urgency, even Game 1.
With two days off in seven days, worrying about pitch counts becomes less important than it was in the regular season. Nobody will pitch three days in a row in this series. Heck, Chapman should be able to throw five innings over seven days if needed.
Green is the secret weapon in the pen, a guy Girardi regularly used for multi-inning stints in the regular season. Green posted a 1.83 ERA with 103 strikeouts in 69 innings. He pitched at least two innings in 17 of his 40 appearances. As the veteran Robertson showed Tuesday, he can be extended for multi-inning stints as well.
In a short series, there's no reason to give away a game. The Yankees carried 10 pitchers for the wild-card game but probably will carry 12 for the division series. Lefty Chasen Shreve is more of a matchup guy (he was on the roster against the Twins), and the Yankees probably will add starters Masahiro Tanaka and Jordan Montgomery (or Jaime Garcia), with Montgomery or Garcia working as a third lefty out of the pen.
That will create some matchup scenarios for Girardi if he so desires. Jay Bruce, for example, hit .268/.341/.542 against righties but just .222/.285/.433 against lefties. Lonnie Chisenhall doesn't usually start against lefties, but injuries in the Indians' outfield limit Terry Francona's platoon options (the right-handed platoon for Chisenhall would be rookie Greg Allen, who has 39 major league plate appearances). In general, however, the Indians are tough to get the platoon edge against, with switch-hitters Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez and Carlos Santana not showing any significant platoon splits. Girardi should focus simply on using his best relievers.
The key is having a plan ahead of time. Too many managers react in the postseason, and sometimes that means leaving a pitcher in a couple batters too long. Just because a starter has thrown five good innings doesn't mean he's going to pitch well in the sixth. Go to the pen before the starter gets into trouble in the middle innings. Even if we dismiss Severino's poor performance Tuesday as a young kid's playoff jitters, remember that he threw 193 innings in his first full season as a starter. He finished strong, but you have to be careful about his level of fatigue. Sonny Gray isn't close to an ace. Although he had a decent 3.72 ERA with the Yankees, he gave up 11 home runs and issued 27 walks in 65.1 innings. His FIP was 4.87. Don't let him lose a game in the middle innings.
Here's another reason to bet on the Yankees: As good as the Indians were, 100-win teams are just 12-11 in the division series in the wild-card era (since 1995). The Indians won 11 more games than the Yankees, but think back to 2003, when the 88-win Chicago Cubs beat the 101-win Atlanta Braves and the 91-win Miami Marlins beat the 100-win San Francisco Giants. In 2011, the 90-win St. Louis Cardinals beat the 102-win Philadelphia Phillies.
The Yankees might have even been handed a bit of a gift in Game 1, with the Indians electing to start Trevor Bauer instead of Kluber. The Cleveland ace could still start Game 5 if the series goes that far, but the Yankees' bullpen is a little thinner for the opener. Girardi almost certainly will avoid using Robertson, and Green, after throwing 41 pitches, probably is available for only a shorter stint. Betances and Warren didn't pitch Tuesday, however, and even Severino could be available after he threw only 29 pitches, depending on Girardi's rotation plan for the series.
So bullpen, bullpen and more bullpen, and anything can happen.
Or just hope Judge hits a lot of home runs.