HOUSTON — Aaron Boone conceded games during the season, allowed a few nightmarish blowouts against his bullpen’s soft underbelly, all in the philosophy of lose the battle, win the World.
He recognized from the outset the Yankees were a playoff team. So Boone embraced the big picture. The Yankees manager protected his relievers, never asked any to pitch three straight days, making the Yankees the only team during the regular season in that column.
Boone turned September into a spa month for the best of his bullpen, so light was their workload. All the preservation was done with October in mind. The Yankees saw those special relievers as the strength of the team. Get those pieces into playoff games early and often and ride that to the Canyon of Heroes.
The strategy did not work. Boone got Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle and finally Aroldis Chapman into Game 6 on Saturday night and they allowed all the runs — the last of them Jose Altuve walking the Yankees out of their season with a two-run homer off Chapman with one out in the bottom of the ninth. Chapman stood wide legged on the mound unmoving after the no-doubt blast enabled the Astros to win 6-4 and eliminate the Yankees in the ALCS for the second time in three years.
In this dramatic ALCS, the Yankees lost a crusher in the bottom of the ninth and a game in extra innings in Minute Maid Park. And the big blow that turned the momentum of Game 2 was a tying homer by George Springer off Adam Ottavino in the fifth inning that was instrumental in the Yanks not stealing two games to open the series in Houston. That helped push Ottavino from the ring of relief trust.
DJ LeMahieu had delivered one of the most clutch hits in Yankees history, winning a 10-pitch battle against closer Roberto Osuna with a two-run homer with one out in the ninth. That knotted the score 4-4 and brought in Chapman, which soon brought the end to the Yankees season.
In Game 6, Boone could have gone with a traditional starter in J.A. Happ, but instead used one of his relievers of trust, Green, as an opener. Yuli Gurriel hit a three-run homer five batters into the bottom of the first. Kahnle, as the first Yankees reliever to be used a third straight day this season, surrendered a sixth-inning run. Chapman finished the misery.
It is possible the Yankees have been the second-best team in the majors the past three years, losing to the eventual champion Astros in the 2017 ALCS and Red Sox in a 2018 Division Series. There are no trophies for that. Houston advances to the World Series for the second time in three years to face Washington. The Yankees, meanwhile, are assured of not appearing in a World Series in a decade for the first time since the 1910s.
In this ALCS, the Astros were better — don’t overlook how good they are on defense and the bases. The Yanks’ chance to equalize matters was in the pen. But the losses of Dellin Betances (Achilles) and Domingo German (removed from action by MLB after domestic abuse charges) shortened the group of trust to Green, Kahnle, Ottavino, Zack Britton and Chapman.
That made Game 6 particularly tricky. Without German or total faith in Happ, the Yanks had no clear starter. So Boone turned to Green to try to deal with the righty might atop Houston’s lineup. But Green, even when getting outs this postseason, had been hit hard often. And among the problems with using pen guys so much in a series is showing them to hitters a lot. Relievers are generally relievers because they have one excellent pitch, perhaps a second.
Seen once in a while, that is a weapon. Seen frequently, overexposure sets in. When Gurriel batted with two on and two out in the first, he was making his fourth at-bat of this ALCS versus Green. Gurriel was just 1-for-20 in the series, but two of his outs were liners against Green. Gary Sanchez went to the mound to talk to Green, Happ warmed. Green tried to beat Gurriel with a first-pitch fastball up. Gurriel opened up and crushed it into the Crawford Boxes.
It was 3-0. Houston had won its previous 65 home games when it constructed a three-run lead — last losing in July 2018. Even with LeMahieu’s great at-bat, the Astros weren’t going to lose this time either.
The Yankees lost using exactly who Boone dreamed all season he would use. The plan had been incubating since February, hardened over the months of the season. Preserve the bullpen arms. Have them primed for October. Get them into the game over and over.
In the end — for the Yankees — that strategy did not provide relief.
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