It wasn’t enough to hold the hammer. The Yankees had that. They’d body-slammed the Rays in Game 1 of this best-of-five American League Championship Series Monday night. They’d slapped around Tampa’s ace, Blake Snell, and clobbered its bullpen. They scored nine runs, making it 31 for three postseason games.
They led 1-0. They held the hammer. If a 1-0 lead in a best-of-five without home field isn’t exactly playing with the house’s money, it’s still the best place to be after one game. No need to start overthinking stuff. No need to make a simple game harder than it has to be.
No need to be too clever by half.
But the Yankees couldn’t help themselves.
They opted to be too clever by half.
In the 20 or so hours connecting the final pitch of Game 1 with the first pitch of Game 2, the men who make such decisions for the Yankees — and it’s a collaborative effort, but we’ll stick with the Big Two, manager Aaron Boone and GM Brian Cashman — decided that their choice of 21-year-old Deivi Garcia wouldn’t simply be a nod to history, Garcia the youngest man to ever start a playoff game since the Yankees started playing them in 1921.
So almost as soon as Garcia finished his warm-up pitches on the mound, J.A. Happ began his in the Petco Park bullpen. Even before Randy Arozarena crushed his daily home run to give the Rays a 1-0 lead with two outs in the bottom of the first, Happ was hot.
And even before Giancarlo Stanton evened matters in the top of the second with the cuter of his two home runs on the night — the other, two innings later, took an orbit around Saturn before landing in the distant left-field seats — Happ was walking to the Yankees dugout, ready to take the handoff.
This wasn’t the only reason the Rays climbed back into the series with a 7-5 win, of course. At some point even the most egregious strategy is simply water-cooler conversation. The way the Yankees have clobbered the baseball all across October they easily could have outslugged this curious decision.
They just weren’t going to do this. Not this night. Not this time.
And so the only question that really needed to be asked after Tampa squared this series just before midnight was this:
Why not let Garcia see if he could do what Ford had done exactly one day shy of 70 years before, Oct. 7, 1950, when he’d thrown eight zeroes at the Phillies in Game 4 of the World Series and was only denied a shutout because Gene Woodling dropped a fly ball with two outs in the ninth inning?
Ford was 21 years and 352 days old. It was a precursor of some awfully legendary things out of his left arm. Garcia was 211 days younger as he took the mound and nobody was asking him or expecting him to channel the Chairman of the Board.
But if you’re going to give him the ball, give him the ball.
This wasn’t Luis Severino getting his doors blown off two years ago in the ALDS against the Red Sox, overwhelmed by an overpowering team. Garcia allowed that home run to Arozarena, sure, but that was almost incidental, barely anecdotal; he was getting an inning. The Yankees were going with an opener against the team that essentially invented the opener.
And again: why?
Why try to over-manipulate something like nine-inning pitching matchups? For one thing, it didn’t work. Mike Zunnino, a righty, hit a two-run blast off Happ, a lefty. So did Manuel Margot. When lefty Austin Meadows led off the sixth with a home run that extended the Tampa lead to 7-4, it was off righty Jonathan Loaisiga.
The Yankees wanted to play chess instead of checkers?
They wound up playing Parcheesi.
Or maybe Candyland.
They were too clever by half on a night when there was no need to behave that way. They held the hammer. They had the upper hand. Now they have another best-of-three on their hands. What a waste. What a shame.