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The Complete Guide to the AL Wild Card Game


Photo credit: Yahoo Sports treated image


Intro


Red Sox vs Yankees at Fenway Park on ESPN? How often do we get to see this?

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All jokes aside about the monotony of this matchup, this will be a hell of a game to watch. Fenway will undoubtedly be rocking, and both of these teams can provide fireworks. Without further ado, here’s the breakdown of what to expect from the rivals on Tuesday night:


Lineups


Yankees:

1. Gleyber Torres 2B

2. Anthony Rizzo 1B

3. Aaron Judge RF

4. Giancarlo Stanton DH

5. Joey Gallo LF

6. Gio Urshela SS

7. Brett Gardner CF

8. Gary Sanchez C

9. Rougned Odor 3B


Red Sox:

1. Kike Hernandez 2B

2. Kyle Schwarber LF

3. Xander Bogaerts SS

4. Rafael Devers 3B

5. JD Martinez DH

6. Alex Verdugo CF

7. Hunter Renfroe RF

8. Christian Vasquez C

9. Bobby Dalbec 1B


Injuries have left the Yankees to replace DJ LeMahieu and Luke Voit with Rougned Odor and Brett Gardner which is… less than ideal. The blow is softened a bit by the fact that DJ has not been nearly as good as he was the past two seasons and Luke Voit was similarly underwhelming in the small number of games he didn’t miss with injuries. You have to give Brian Cashman credit though, the lineup without Gallo & Rizzo would be only be two-deep with Stanton and Judge. The problem with this lineup is well bemoaned by Yankees fans however: they are going to strike out a ton. This lineup does not manufacture runs and is not the type to string a bunch of hits together. They are going to swing-and-miss a lot, but they are also going to walk a lot and hit some baseballs to Jupiter. If the Yankees hit 2 or less home runs, there’s a strong likelihood they lose, anything over that number and you’d have to think they feel good about their chances.


Jose Iglesias started the most important games down the stretch at 2B but is ineligible for the postseason because he did not play enough games with the team, so look for Kike Hernandez to slide back over to the keystone with Bobby Dalbec coming back in to the lineup to provide some pop for the bottom of the lineup. Another big question mark is the health of JD Martinez who injured himself tripping over second base and whose status for the Wild Card game is in doubt (if he can’t go, look for Travis Shaw to take his place in the lineup). Eerily similar to the 2018 World Series team, this lineup revolves around 4-5 guys while the rest don’t provide much but can feast if you leave them mistakes. The featured guys I’m talking about of course are: Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, JD Martinez, and Kyle Schwarber. If you’re Gerrit Cole, you’ve got to make the other guys beat you. Devers has been strangely susceptible to fastballs this season, so look for Cole to challenge him with the good old-fashioned hardball at the top of the zone repeatedly and dare Devers to hit it, this will be the matchup of the night.


Advantage: Yankees


Even through all the ups-and-downs this season has caused Yankees fans, I’m still giving the advantage here to the pinstripes. I’m not a huge proponent of the stars-and-scrubs approach even though it worked for the Sox to great success in 2018, and think Cole will fare well even against the stars portion of their lineup. Judge and Stanton have been fantastic recently, and I expect that success to lead to some jaw-dropping dramatic postseason dingers for the dynamic duo.


Starting Pitching: Gerrit Cole vs Nathan Eovaldi


I know it’s the Wild Card game and that both pitchers will be on short leashes. But both of these pitchers are fantastic and placed in the top-15 in innings pitched in 2021. To be clear, I’m not predicting this to be a 7-8 inning pitcher’s duel, because that is not realistic. However, I do expect both of these pitchers to have a longer than normal leash for a postseason game solely due to the fact that they have been their respective staff’s horses for the past two seasons and have earned that leash from their managers. Look for Eovaldi to go about 5 and for Cole to go 6.


Eovaldi has been good in his six starts against New York this season, striking out 9 batters per nine innings to go along with just 1 walk per nine with a 3.61 FIP. With his command being among the best in baseball, look for Eovaldi to work ahead with his 96+ heater and try to work it inside on the Yankees righties to keep them from getting their arms extended, then finish them with his nasty curveball down and away while also mixing in his plus splitter and slider in two-strike counts. The cutter is mainly saved for lefties to produce jam-shot ground balls, but with Anthony Rizzo famously crowding the plate, look to see if Eovaldi is scared to stick with that or if he leaves one over the heart of the plate for him while trying not to run it too far inside.


Gerrit Cole is debatably the best pitcher in baseball and the AL Cy Young, so there’s not too much to say here other than he’s great, but he has been uncharacteristically streaky this season, serving up more than his fair share of dud performances. If there’s anyone in baseball that has the leash to go the distance in a Wild Card game, it’s Cole. This is exactly why the Yankees made him the richest pitcher in the history of baseball. If you couldn’t tell, I am a big numbers and Fangraphs type of guy who enjoys analytical breakdowns, but there are times where narrative stories are just too compelling to go in to that stuff. This is the Yankees best pitcher in a win-or-go-home game in the biggest rivalry in sports at Fenway Park, and there’s no secret to what the game plan for Cole is: he is going to try to execute his best stuff (a 100 MPH heater with a devastating curve) and he is saying that you can’t hit it. We’ll see if the Sox are up to the task or if Cole is in for a very long offseason.


Advantage: Gerrit Cole


While being a quarterback in the NFL comes with it’s perks, there is one downside that comes with the territory: you get blamed for losses. The upside is you get all the money and fame when you win, but that’s only for a select few. Gerrit Cole is the quarterback of this game. The Yankees will win if he is Cy Young Gerrit Cole, if he is not, they will likely lose and the New York media will have a field day about whether or not Cole was worth the money all offseason. We all know that Cole is the better pitcher in this matchup (not that Eovaldi is a scrub) and I think we get a vintage performance from him and a reminder that he is the most dominant pitcher in the game when he is on (besides DeGrom).


Bullpen


Yankees Top 5 Options:

1. Aroldis Chapman

2. Jonathan Loaisiga

3. Chad Green

4. Luis Severino

5. Clay Holmes


Red Sox Top 5 Options:

1. Hansel Robles

2. Chris Sale

3. Garrett Whitlock

4. Matt Barnes

5. Adam Ottavino/Tanner Houck


This isn’t the typical dominant Yankees bullpen we’ve grown accustomed to seeing the past couple years, Chapman almost got demoted out of the closer role around the All-Star break, but that doesn’t mean they’re to be slept on. These guys throw gas by you and couple it with nasty Pitching-Ninja-level breaking balls. Good luck putting the ball in play, but if the Sox do, chances are they’re getting a good piece of it. This is a strength for them in a one-gamer, as all of these guys (except maybe Chapman) can give you multiple innings should the starter falter out of the gate. The real wild card is Severino, if he clicks out of the pen and can give Aaron Boone 2-3 stellar innings once every three days, this bullpen will have kicked up into another gear and elevate the Yanks into serious World Series territory.


The Red Sox closer-by-committee works in the regular season and works for the Rays because of stability and trust. We let the Rays slide with it because they’ve proven time-and-time again they can do it, and because they could pull a random 26 year old accountant out of the office and have him either throwing 95+ with a nasty slider or throwing a sweeping slider from a funky arm angle in 20 minutes. I’m a bit more skeptical of Alex Cora’s options. All of these options have had their ups-and-downs this season, albeit all of them have significant upside. Robles has been fantastic this year, look for the Sox to set up their game plan to make sure he gets the ball when the game is on the line. Chris Sale threw 62 pitches on Sunday, but he reportedly stormed into Cora’s office asking to pitch in this game, and while Cora said “No,” I’m not buying it. The Sox have used Eduardo Rodriguez in similar situations recently so this may all just be a ploy to throw Aaron Boone off the scent. Whitlock has been a steady presence all year and can give them multiple innings, Matt Barnes has been shaky but also could go 3-up-3-down with 3 K’s, and Ottavino/Houck will be good matchup plays with funky arm angles to throw off Judge/Stanton.


Advantage: Yankees


My write-ups made it obvious, but I’m quite bullish on the Yankees pen. It’s almost impossible to hit off Chapman even though he only throws two pitches because you’re just guessing which one you have to cheat to beat. Throw in one of the best relievers in baseball in 2021 in Loaisiga, plus the reliable Chad Green, and the possibly-electric Severino and I think this bullpen could be the best of any team in the postseason (save for the White Sox).


Prediction


While I’ve said advantage Yankees in every category, I’m not saying that they are miles better than the Red Sox, because they’re not. There’s a reason that these teams have the same record and there’s a reason that the Red Sox own the tiebreaker. Because they are a good team. However, Boston was the best team in the American League in the first half of the season. It seems like forever ago, but there was a time when the Red Sox were comfortably in first place not only in the AL East, but in the American League. Since the all-star break has been a different story. Instead of dominate, it’s been about holding on. It took until the last game of the season to clinch a wild card berth and even then they lost 2 of 3 to the Orioles and required a four-run comeback to beat the Nationals just to hold off the Blue Jays.


Meanwhile, the Yankees had a horrific first half (for their standards) playing mediocre baseball before rattling off 11 straight wins to get themselves back in to the picture. Admittedly that was followed by another stretch of mediocre ball that led them to a similar scenario the Red Sox faced, but the Yankees largely played themselves into the playoffs, unlike the Sox who almost played themselves out of a spot.


The advantages I give to the Yankees are marginal. The lineup is better than the Sox, but not by much. Cole is better than Eovaldi but not by that much in 2021. The momentum is in New York’s favor ever so slightly. The big separator here is the bullpen, and in the days of endless pitching changes (especially in a do-or-die setting) I think this tilts the scales in New York’s favor significantly enough that I expect them to win at Fenway. Give me the Yankees by 2.


Yankees 4 - Red Sox 2

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