Eye-opening Yankees nugget could be key to playoff success

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“It can’t all be for nothing!”

— Walter White, “Breaking Bad”

OAKLAND, Calif. — The Yankees reported to the Oakland Coliseum in remarkably good shape given their rough beginning, as close to the Rays atop the American League East (4 ½ games) as to their Thursday night opponent, the Athletics, the best team not in the playoffs. The Yankees’ 11-game winning streak and 33-11 record in their last 44 games carries that sort of impact.

Their prime position spoke more than anything to their success in close contests. At 74-52, they had outperformed their Pythagorean record (68-58) by six games. As per the YES Network’s James Smyth, the Yankees entered Thursday’s action tied with the Mets for the most games decided by one or two runs. Their 47-23 record in those games, a .671 winning percentage, gave them the best such mark in the entire industry.

Will this all be for nothing? Or can the Yankees convert these survival skills into October excellence?

“In October, you’re not going to have those games where it’s 11-3 or 10-2. It’s gonna be a 5-4 ballgame, 3-2 ballgame,” Aaron Judge said Tuesday night, after the Yankees outlasted the Braves, 5-4, in a Truist Field nailbiter. “So I feel like, 90 percent of the games we play are one-run games. There’s no panic, even when stuff starts hitting the fan.

“[If] things aren’t going our way in the eighth or ninth inning, guys have no panic and the next man steps up to make a play and get us out of it.”

Judge said that moments after Wandy Peralta retired reigning National League Most Valuable Player Freddie Freeman to end the game with the bases loaded. That kind of high-wire act played out multiple times just over the winning streak, which featured seven victories by one or two runs and saves by five different pitchers, none of them the titular closer, Aroldis Chapman.

The Yankees are on an 11-game winning streak.
AP

Surely the Yankees would feel better about their close-game brilliance if Chapman didn’t look so out of sync, or Chad Green had taken better to closing out games himself. Their opponents had outscored them, 50-31, in the ninth inning. Nevertheless, their difficulties in finishing victories also brought out a toughness when, as Judge put it, stuff starts hitting the fan.

A look at recent history shows … no real trend, unsurprisingly. In last year’s COVID-shortened campaign, the Rays went 14-5 in regular-season, one-run games, while the Dodgers posted a 7-5 mark in such contests. When those teams faced off in the World Series, one game concluded in a one-run margin, and the Rays prevailed in that one, Game 4, by an 8-7 margin. Three more games were settled by two runs, and the Dodgers went 2-1 in those, dropping Game 2, 6-4, before winning the final two contests, 4-2 in Game 5 and 3-1 in Game 6. The Dodgers captured their first title since 1988 because they picked up their other two victories by five runs (Game 1, 8-3) and four runs (Game 3, 6-2).

The 2019 Nationals, plagued by bullpen issues in the regular season that led to them going 17-21 in one-run games, developed a small October circle of trust that included counting on relief help from their starting pitchers. That explains how they won both of their one-run games and all three of their two-run games that October to post their first championship in franchise history, overcoming the Astros’ 24-19 mark in one-run games.

In 2018, more encouragingly for these Yankees, Alex Cora’s Red Sox, who later were found guilty of mild sign-stealing chicanery, went 25-14 in one-run games from Opening Day through their season finale, then 5-1 in October games settled by one or two runs. The Dodgers, meanwhile, lost the Fall Classic, their closer Kenley Jansen blowing two save chances, after going 22-22.

So Judge’s optimism on this topic could prove well-founded. It could all be for nothing. Of course, if you’re the Yankees, you’ll take the optimism now and worry about its accuracy later.

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