The Game 2 lineup came out and Giancarlo Stanton was not in it and that felt right for the player and these 2019 Yankees.
Game 2 leaked into extra innings and suddenly Aaron Hicks, last seen in a major league game on Aug. 3, was leading off the top of the 10th and CC Sabathia, last seen in a major league game on Sept. 24, was asked to get the first batter in the bottom half.
This too was the 2019 Yankees, a fire drill in search of a baseball team.
The Yankees have lived by the next-man-up credo, but even in a successful season the next man up sometimes falls down over and over again like Stanton. Or is being asked to shake off rust like Hicks and Sabathia. Or, as will be the case Tuesday night, will be Luis Severino, making his fifth start of an injury-clobbered 2019 and tasked with dueling Houston’s Gerrit Cole, currently the greatest pitcher in the world.
The Yankees left Houston with a valuable win, a dispiriting loss and familiar questions about who is available and at what level. Much of this centers around Stanton, who had his most impactful playoff game as a Yankee on Saturday and then did not play Sunday. Aaron Boone announced Stanton had a right quad strain and was available to hit if necessary.
But perhaps the more important pronouncement came from Reggie Jackson, a special Yankees advisor, who — unaware he was speaking on a live MLB Radio Network microphone — used a cursed-filled few sentences to wonder how a player who missed most of the season could be out again. Jackson would later explain he was making fun of the question and apologized to Stanton. Believe that if you want. Or believe Jackson, in an unfiltered moment, was representing the frustration — or worse — from inside the organization and among the fanbase about not being able to trust Stanton.
This is an issue that will hover over this player and the team not just for the rest of these playoffs, but for the final eight years of one of the most expensive contracts in the game. Alex Rodriguez was the focal point of anger in his Yankees days for a combination of large contract and personality and, before 2009, small postseasons. But his durability was never in question.
Stanton actually was mounting support by rehabbing late — but better than never — back into the lineup at a time when outfield injuries to Hicks and others were imperiling the vitality of the offense. In a 7-0 ALCS Game 1 triumph, Stanton had produced his most meaningful playoff moment yet when his sixth-inning homer off Zack Greinke gave the Yanks a 3-0 lead. That came after beating out an infield single in the second, which Boone explained was when the injury occurred.
The Yankees’ operating theory on facing the Astros, particularly Justin Verlander and Cole, is that the chances of stringing together hits for runs is limited, so between the domination of the co-aces, you better hunt mistakes and do damage. For example, Verlander overwhelmed Aaron Judge with a three-pitch strikeout in their first meeting Sunday. In their second faceoff, Judge crushed a two-run homer. That was the Yankees’ only scoring in a 3-2, 11-inning loss.
Might Stanton have had one big swing if in the lineup to change the outcome? Unanswerable. To open the 10th inning — if Stanton really was available to pinch-hit — Boone could have turned to him rather than Hicks. It was against the kind of side-winding righty in Joe Smith that gives Stanton fits (hitless in four career at-bats) and Hicks had homered in a past meeting against Smith. But Stanton has had good at-bats this postseason and Hicks last played in the majors the same day Marcus Stroman made the first of his 11 Mets starts. But there was not going to be a gimpy Kirk Gibson moment Sunday night for Stanton.
So what now for Stanton and the Yankees? Can he play the field Tuesday? If not, does Hicks start vs. Cole? Can Stanton hit? If so, should he DH because after two terrific games to open the playoffs vs. the Twins, Edwin Encarnacion is 0-for-12 with six strikeouts?
Is Severino capable of being an October ace and going zero for zero with Cole? The Yankees had a day off Monday. So that will just further motivate Boone to aggressive bullpen tactics. But one of his key relievers, Adam Ottavino, has been bad so far in October, the Yanks are likely to make Game 4 a full bullpen game (though there is rain in the Wednesday forecast that could change plans) and James Paxton’s short start plus extra innings Sunday meant 7 2/3 innings and 129 pitches for Yankees relievers.
Thus, quality length (even five good innings) from Severino would be invaluable. But, as with so much in 2019 with these Yankees, there is mystery of who is available and what their capabilities are. So far, the Yankees have overcome it all, found what didn’t kill them made the roster longer.
Does that carry them successfully to the finish line or does the next man up ultimately fall down?