The Yankees tried to beat the Tampa Bay Rays at their own game in their American League division series on Tuesday. But they failed to grasp how that game is played.
The Rays — who won by 7-5 to even the best-of-five series at one game apiece — pioneered the opener strategy in 2018. The idea was to use a reliever in the first inning to limit their opponents’ run expectancy, then replace him with a young starter who would begin against a weaker part of the order. It made sense for the Rays, whose low payroll keeps them from signing many veteran starters.
The Yankees attempted this on Tuesday as a surprise to counter a lineup the Rays constructed to face right-handed Deivi Garcia. After one inning, Yankees Manager Aaron Boone switched to a lefty, J.A. Happ, who worked two and two-thirds innings, gave up four runs and lost.
The problem was choosing Happ, a 14-year veteran, for a role that did not suit him. Happ, 37, broke into the majors with a Philadelphia team that cultivated veterans like Jamie Moyer, Cliff Lee, Pedro Martinez and Roy Halladay, mentors with hundreds of wins and thousands of innings who likely would have sneered at the concept of an opener.
When the Rays came up with the concept, they understood that not all pitchers would like it. In explaining it at the time, Chaim Bloom — then a top baseball officer for the Rays and now Boston’s president of baseball operations — emphasized the importance of buy-in.
“You can think that you’re putting your players in a good spot to succeed all you want,” Bloom said in May 2018, “but if they don’t think that, then it’s got to mitigate some of that effect.”
Happ did not seem to agree with his bosses on Tuesday. He measured his words carefully after the game — “If I’ve made an excuse for my performance in the last two years, anybody can speak up; that hasn’t happened,” he said — but left no doubt about his feelings. He deferred all strategic questions to Boone, and said Boone and the coaches knew he preferred to start.
“They know how I felt about it, but ultimately when I pitch, you’ve got me — there was no hesitation and no dwelling on what was going on,” Happ said. “I was focused on trying to perform. I wish I would have done a better job.”
Then Happ was asked, simply, if he had been put in a position to succeed. He did not say yes.
“That’s not a question for me to answer,” Happ said. “Again, when I’m out there, I’m trying to do the best I can, and that’s what I tried to do tonight.”
Happ did pitch two scoreless relief innings in the Yankees’ final playoff game last year in Houston. But that was his fourth relief appearance in a row, including one to end the regular season. This year, Happ worked only as a starter — which has been his role for more than 300 career games, including the postseason — and finished strong, with 24⅓ innings and a 2.22 earned run average in his last four starts.
Yet instead of just letting him start Game 2, the Yankees effectively insulted Happ by trying to trick the Rays into using a suboptimal lineup. As it turned out, two right-handed hitters in the starting lineup — Mike Zunino and Manuel Margot — homered off Happ, anyway.
“You’re playing a unique team that does a real good job of building their roster to create platoon advantages,” Boone said. “Just trying to counter that a little bit and force their hand a little bit early in the game. Unfortunately, it didn’t work tonight.”
Boone added that he wanted to separate the starters likely to pitch the most innings — the Game 1 starter, Gerrit Cole, and the Game 3 starter, Masahiro Tanaka — so he could use more relievers in the other games. Unlike in normal postseasons, there are no days off in this round or the next because of the expanded playoff format.
Yet Boone rarely lets Tanaka pitch very long in the playoffs. In four of his five playoff starts under Boone, Tanaka has lasted no more than five innings. If something in the data suggests a better matchup, expect the Yankees to follow the data.
That is how baseball is run these days — especially in October — but sometimes the unconventional just feels disruptive. Every pitcher will say that if he does not truly believe in the pitch he is throwing, it will not be a good pitch. Likewise, if a pitcher disagrees with the team’s strategy, he will seem less likely to execute it well.
The Yankees’ ruse has been tried in past Octobers, most recently by the 2018 Milwaukee Brewers, who lost, as well as the 1924 Washington Senators, who won.
The Senators’ player-manager, Bucky Harris, started a righty named Curly Ogden against the New York Giants in Game 7 of the World Series, but pulled him for a lefty in the first inning. Harris wanted to induce the Giants’ manager, John McGraw, to start left-handed Bill Terry at first base but remove him later in the game. McGraw fell for it, and the Senators won.
Of course, there is no way of knowing how that game, or Tuesday’s, would have unfolded without the switcheroo. Maybe Garcia, having thrown only 27 pitches, will stay fresh enough to make an impact later in the series.
But it sure seems as if the Yankees tried to outsmart the Rays, which is kind of like the Rays trying to outspend the Yankees. The Rays do unusual things better than anyone, because that is their only lifeline. The Yankees can be smart and edgy, too, but they separate themselves with $300 million players like Cole and Giancarlo Stanton.
The Yankees can — and probably should — win this series. But they need to do it their way. Let the Rays be the Rays.