How the incredible Yankees bullpen won the AL wild-card game

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

NEW YORK – There are two phones in the New York Yankees’ bullpen. One is affixed to a wall next to the bench in the glass-cased area under the Yankee Stadium bleachers, where their relievers spend most of the game, the other behind the mounds out in the open, where their elbows and shoulders and minds ready for the high-octane duty of relief pitching in 2017. Less than 10 minutes into the American League wild-card game Tuesday night, the phones clanged.

“It has rung before in the first inning,” Yankees reliever Dellin Betances said, “but I can’t remember the last time.”

That didn’t matter. The Yankees were already down three runs to Minnesota in a win-or-go-home game, and as the Twins deposited two more hits and bullpen coach Mike Harkey told reliever Chad Green his time was nigh – “Green,” he said, “get going” – it became apparent the Yankees’ bullpen, a vaunted collection of arms that throw exceedingly hard, would inherit a task herculean even for them: record 26 outs or spend the rest of October wondering what could have been.

To see them, then, notch each of those 26 in such tidy fashion heartened those in the Bronx and beyond who saw this team grow into the perfect proxy for modern baseball’s evolution. The Yankees are baseball’s version of a rowing team, steered from the back, guided to an 8-4 victory and an AL Division Series showdown with the 102-win Cleveland Indians.

First came Green to play trauma doctor, stabilizing an untenable situation with two strikeouts to escape the first. And then David Robertson, a relief pitcher who truly earned the win with a career-high 3 1/3 innings of shutout baseball. Followed by Tommy Kahnle, the trade-deadline acquisition, who for two-plus innings pumped fastball after fastball by the Twins. And finally Aroldis Chapman, the hardest-throwing man baseball ever has seen, ending Minnesota’s delightful run after a 103-loss 2016.

New York Yankees rookie Aaron Judge hit the first of what should be many postseason home runs on Tuesday night. (AP)

The math to 26 outs was simple: 114 pitches, 13 strikeouts, six flyouts, five outs on groundballs, a pair of pop-ups and four relievers who managed to overshadow the delight of Aaron Judge’s first postseason home run and the pain of Gary Sanchez putting the foul and ball in foul ball when he wore one off his nether regions. This night was the bullpen’s.

“As soon as the phone rings, we’re going to be ready,” Kahnle said. “And whatever they need us to do, we’re going to do it.”

Yankees manager Joe Girardi needed plenty after Minnesota lit up New York starter Luis Severino for a pair of first-inning home runs and turned the raucous crowd of 49,280 salty in the span of a quarter-hour. Severino staggered into the dugout amid a chorus of boos with a single out registered, and as Green trotted in from the bullpen, the gravity of the situation revealed itself. The Yankees would need to do what no other team in 2017 had done: Win a game in which their starter allowed at least three runs and got one or fewer out.

Of course, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman had built his team specifically for a situation like this. With a questionable rotation, the Yankees spent resources on a bullpen that carried them through the season and portends well for Octobers increasingly spent with relief pitchers on the mound. Two decades ago, even as the Yankees rode Mariano Rivera’s arm out of the bullpen to a championship, starters pitched 65.7 percent of postseason innings. It hadn’t changed much a decade later, with 65.3 percent of innings going to starters in the 2006 playoffs. Last year was a different story. Starters threw 357 2/3 innings, relievers 272 1/3. Only 56.8 percent of innings were thrown by starters.

While mitigating factors skewed the first game of the 2017 postseason – the imperative to win forced Girardi’s hand early with Severino and did the same for Twins manager Paul Molitor, who pulled starter Ervin Santana after two innings – the notion of a postseason in which relievers throw more than starters isn’t altogether farfetched. Over the last four seasons, relief-pitching usage has jumped from 33.53 percent of innings to 38.07 percent. The average major league start this year lasted 5.51 innings, the lowest number in history. Baseball in 2017 is about home runs and strikeouts. Relievers give up fewer home runs and strike out more hitters than starters, and it’s especially tempting for managers to be aggressive with the increased number of off-days in October.

“It’s hard for starters a lot of times to get through a lot of innings because there’s tough at-bats,” Girardi said. “There’s a reason there’s tough at-bats: because you face good offenses because they’re good teams, and you do have to rely on your bullpen a lot.”

A lot was an understatement for the wild-card game. Relievers recorded 47 of the game’s 54 outs, or 87 percent, and the Yankees head to Cleveland to face the Indians, a team that rode its bullpen to Game 7 of the World Series last year against the Chicago Cubs and may well do the same this season. With the right mix of pitchers, it works, and even if it can slow the game to an interminable pace, October isn’t a time to stare at the clock. Games are going to be long, and they are going to be larded with tactical maneuvering, and, if done well, they are going to be fascinating studies in managerial intelligence.

Girardi more than passed his first test Tuesday. After Green’s two strikeouts, Didi Gregorius hammered a three-run home run to tie the game in the first. Brett Gardner added one in the second inning to give the Yankees a lead. And Judge’s two-run line shot in the fourth padded a lead that neither Robertson, Kahnle nor Chapman would lose.

“The name of the game is outs,” Kahnle said, and it was particularly rich he said so following the AL wild-card game. Because in the 2016 version, the Baltimore Orioles lost with their best reliever, Zach Britton, still sitting in the bullpen in the 11th inning, when Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion hit a walk-off home run. A year later, it’s almost inconceivable, positively antediluvian, this notion of a team not emptying its bullpen to win a game that needed winning.

Girardi didn’t hesitate, not for one second. However big an ask 26 outs would be, he trusted this Yankees bullpen and trusted it with good reason. The phone rang and it answered in resounding fashion.

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