Wild Card Takeaways: Yankees survive slugfest in the Bronx

New York Yankees' Aaron Judge celebrates in the dugout with teammates after hitting a two-run home run during the fourth inning of the American League wild-card playoff baseball game against the Minnesota Twins in New York, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. (Kathy Willens/AP)

“Uh,” said Minnesota Twins manager Paul Molitor, appearing on ESPN for an in-game interview during Tuesday’s American League wild card game, “a lot’s happened in three innings.”

It was the top of the fourth at the time. Both starting pitchers were out of the game. Nine runs were on the board. Both teams were about to begin their third trip through the order. Everything, and anything, was happening.

This game, which the New York Yankees eventually won, 8-4, was played with the restraint and predictability of Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. It took nearly four hours to get from first pitch to last, when the Yankees mobbed Aroldis Chapman on the mound and got ready to board a flight to Cleveland for a divisional series. We won’t get to all of it, but we’ll get to a lot of it in your AL wild card game takeaways.

Luis Severino’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad night

It was one thing when Brian Dozier led off the game with a home run, crushing a 99-m.p.h. fastball (the first homer by any Twins hitter this season on a pitch over 97-m.p.h., by the way) over the left-field wall before fist pumping and yelling at his dugout the entire way around the bases.

It was another when Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius made a mound visit to try and settle his starting pitcher down two batters later, after Eddie Rosario began his at-bat with a first-pitch ball, and before the Twins outfielder finished it with yet another home run.

But what really torpedoed a night Luis Severino will dread for an awfully long time was Max Kepler’s plate appearance that drove the Yankees starter from the game. You see, Kepler fell behind, 0-2, and Severino had an opportunity to put his first career post-season start back on the rails with a strikeout, preferably, or any type of out at the very least.

But Severino didn’t get an out. While he throws his fastball at an exceptionally high rate of speed, Severino had demonstrated little ability Tuesday to locate his secondary pitches on the outer edges of the strike zone, which made it easier for Kepler to guard against the fastball as he worked the count full.

With the ninth pitch of the at-bat, his 29th and last of the night, Severino left a change-up all over the plate and could only watch as Kepler drove it to right field for a double and Joe Girardi came striding out of the Yankees dugout pointing at his bullpen.

Ervin Santana feels Severino’s pain

Of course, Ervin Santana’s night didn’t start much better. He walked the leadoff hitter in the first and watched an Aaron Judge bloop with an exit velocity of 73-m.p.h. drop in before Gregorius stepped to the plate with a plan.

Santana wasn’t able to locate his slider at all, which limited the ways he could attack Gregorius, who patiently worked the count full on five fastballs and a change-up before getting the pitch he wanted. After laying off a pair of fastballs up and away earlier in the at-bat, Gregorius saw the one out and over the plate he wanted, taking a short, choked-up swing to the ball and knowing he’d hit it out of the park as soon as he hit it.

Just like that, the game was tied. And although Santana got out of the first — an inning that took 45 minutes to play, featuring six hits, three walks, and a whopping 81 pitches — his inability to locate his slider, a crucial weapon, was troubling.

Santana’s manager, Molitor, showed a lot of faith in him by letting the right-hander come back out for the second inning after throwing 41 pitches in the first. And it nearly worked out, as Santana got a pair of fly outs from Jacoby Ellsbury and Todd Frazier to temporarily restore order.

But Santana’s lack of confidence in his slider came back to bite him, as he threw Brett Gardner seven straight fastballs, the final one a 95-m.p.h. pitch on the inner half of the plate that Gardner drove 393 feet into the night for another back-breaking home run.

Superstars doing superstar things

This game featured two of baseball’s best young, dynamic talents on opposite sides of the yard in Aaron Judge and Byron Buxton. And each delivered on the big stage, Buxton with an unbelievable jumping catch at the centre-field wall in the second, Judge with a prodigious two-run homer in the fourth.

Buxton’s night unfortunately ended early, as he was lifted from the game in the fourth due to upper back tightness caused by crashing into the wall while making that great grab. To come out of a game as monumental as this one, you know Buxton had to be in a world of pain.

Judge, meanwhile, led off the bottom of the seventh with a walk and soon after crossed the plate with his team’s eighth run. Premier players like Judge and Buxton are among the best reasons to watch baseball today, and are poised to continue providing moments like these for years to come.

Yeoman’s work

Needing to piece together 26 outs from his bullpen after Severino’s first-inning implosion, Girardi was going to need someone on his relief staff to carry a much heavier load than they’re accustomed to. Enter David Robertson, the right-hander New York acquired at the trade deadline as part of a seven-player trade with the tanking Chicago White Sox.

Robertson picked up Chad Green, who took the mound in the first and struck out the first four batters he faced but ran out of steam and loaded the bases in the third. Robertson worked out of that jam and stayed in the game until the sixth, throwing a career-high 52 pitches over 3.1 innings, allowing only three hits and a walk while striking out five thanks to a wicked curveball that earned him nine swinging strikes.

Truly, the Yankees bullpen as a collective deserves the credit for New York’s triumph in this one, as they combined to hold the Twins to only a run on five hits and three walks while striking out 13 after Severino left the game. Green did his job, Robertson was spectacular, Tommy Kahnle bridged an important late-inning gap, and Chapman was automatic in the ninth.

On a team with a lot of strengths, New York’s bullpen is perhaps its greatest, which means if you’d like to beat them this October you’d better score early and often. Cleveland will do its best starting Thursday night.

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