Originally I wasn’t sure what I thought about baseball’s new playoff format — I’m generally against any expansion of the playoffs, any further dilution of the regular season — but I actually think they got something right this time. (Mets fans, sadly, likely have a different thought right now.)
But our Yankees are fresh and ready to go, and so are we. Sure, it’s nice that the bullpen arms are rested, but I didn’t mind having five days free of anxiety either. So bring on the Guardians!
If you’ve been paying attention for the last twenty years — and you wouldn’t be reading this if you haven’t been — you know that there’s some deep recent history between these two teams. As the Yankees were rising in the mid ’90s, the rivalry with Cleveland was sometimes more intense than the one with Boston. It’s blasphemy, but it’s true.
It began with Mariano Rivera’s ill-fated cutter that floated up in the zone and then into the seats off of Sandy Alomar’s bat in 1997, one of just two bad postseason losses during an otherworldly six-year run. The following year, Cleveland gave the 1998 Yankees their only moments of tension (helped a bit by Chuck Knoblauch) before El Duque Hernández showed that he was still an ace, fourth starter or not. Almost a decade later, Cleveland had the upper hand again, this time when a swarm of midges engulfed Joba Chamberlain and changed the course of the 1997 ALDS.
The Yankees eliminated Cleveland in the 2017 divisional series and again in the 2020 wild card series, but it’s interesting that I don’t remember a single thing about either of those moments. Didn’t Giancarlo Stanton do something monstrous in 2020? Perhaps.
And so what will 2022 hold as these two teams face off again? Will we remember this series forever, or will it disappear into the corners of memory?
There’s been drama in the Yankee camp, as Aroldis Chapman has been left off the roster for this series because he failed to show up for a workout — or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, we’ve likely seen the last of Chapman in pinstripes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After all, who among us would’ve felt comfortable watching him on the mound in an October game that mattered?
Our old friend Matt Carpenter is back, and even though his role is yet to be seen — will Stanton play the field to let him DH, or will Carpenter just be a pinch hitter? — I’m as happy for him as I am for the potential impact he might have on the Yankees’ playoff run.
Aside from the efforts of the Cleveland Guardians, a better team than some might think, there are two things that will determine the Yankees’ success or failure in this series. The first one is obvious, the $324 million elephant in the dugout, but we’ll get to that later. What I’m interested in seeing is how the more inexperienced Yankees fare in the postseason spotlight. I don’t worry for a minute about Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton or Luís Severino or even Josh Donaldson. Even if those players don’t perform, it won’t be because of the moment.
But what about Nestor Cortés? We’re told that he doesn’t fear anything, but I don’t think that even Nestor himself knows how he’ll feel when he toes the rubber on an October night in Yankee Stadium. Oswaldo Cabrera has been an important contributor over the past month, and observers have noticed how comfortable he looks. Will he still have that same comfort with two outs and a runner on second in the eighth inning? We’ll see.
The truth, however, is that nothing that I’ve written so far matters nearly as much as how Gerrit Cole pitches tonight. He’s still one of the best pitchers in the game, the type of pitcher who’s a threat to throw a no-hitter every time out, but this season he’s also been one of the most volatile pitchers in the game. At no point tonight, no matter how well he appears to be throwing, will I be relaxed. It won’t matter who’s in the batter’s box, it won’t matter how many strikeouts Cole has, I will always worry that he’ll groove a fastball or hang a curve or lose a changeup and the ball will disappear into the night.
The Yankees gave him the richest contract in their history precisely for Game 1. It’s the reason that Aaron Boone named Cole the starter for this game weeks ago, even though an objective look at the statistics would’ve resulted in Cortés getting the ball instead, or even Severino.
But it always had to be Gerrit Cole. This was always going to be his moment. And so much depends on this moment.