October 4, 2017 at 8:04 AM
NEW YORK — The American League wild-card game felt like baseball at the extreme. The Yankees and Twins, in their slog to an 8-4 New York victory, used nine relief pitchers, struck out 18 times, drew nine walks and bashed five home runs. It was a bonanza of power arms and short-sequence offense — of the 12 total runs, homers accounted for nine, and starters recorded seven outs. The opening innings unfolded like a version of NBA Jam, for baseball.
It was an extreme, and it wasn’t. The game echoed the regular season, and it likely set a fitting tone for the rest of the postseason. Baseball is choked with hitters who swing for the downs and relievers who throw gas. In the postseason, when managers can use only their best pitchers, desperation leads to aggressive bullpen strategy and offenses further abandon stringing hits together, those factors are multiplied.
Major League Baseball set records for both home runs and strikeouts in 2017, marks made possible by shifting strategies, an influx of velocity and, many in the game believe, a ball made to fly farther. The way baseball is played in 2017, and perhaps the way the baseball is made in 2017, dictates a version of the game that would have been unrecognizable even a decade ago, maybe even a few years ago.
In the playoffs, those factors will ratchet another few degrees. Starting pitchers will not uniformly record one out, as did the Yankees’ Luis Severino. But quick hooks will be the norm, and dominating bullpens will decide games. Offenses will try to beat those relievers with home runs. Four Yankees relievers struck out 13 Twins and allowed one run in 8 2/3 innings, and that is why they’re still playing.
“It’s the best against the best,” Twins General Manager Thad Levine said. “What you’re seeing out of these hitters is, instead of the concept of choking up and trying to slap the ball around, guys are still trying to do damage on two-strike pitches. When you’re up against guys who have bona fide out pitches and plus fastballs, that’s going to be a lot of loud contact and a lot of strikeouts.”
“It’s accentuated more [in the playoffs] because the talent’s even higher. You’ve got even better relievers. You’ve got even better hitters, battling against each other. There’s no soft spots in these lineups. Nor certainly was there any soft spot in that bullpen. The guys who came out of that bullpen were throwing turbo stuff at us, multiple plus pitches, and experience to boot. It’s a lethal combination.”
When Severino yielded a two-run homer to the fourth batter he faced, putting the Yankees in an immediate 3-0 hole, Manager Joe Girardi started warming up Chad Green. Not long ago, it would have been unfathomable to get a reliever not four batters in, even in an elimination game. It would only let the opposing team eat away at the soft underbelly of a bullpen.
But that’s the thing about playoff bullpens today: There are no soft underbellies. “It’s a lot different,” Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner said. “The game keeps getting harder every year.”
This season, Green faced 253 batters and struck out 103. The next reliever in was David Robertson, a former closer who plowed through 3 1/3 scoreless innings.
“The thing that was disappointing was, they didn’t seem to be warming up guys after him,” Levine said. “So they were going to let him go. And they were going to let Robertson go. And they were rewarded, because they got them to the bridge to the back end of the bullpen. The hope was that by getting to those guys that early, maybe you would at some point get to a guy who wasn’t murderer’s row. It just didn’t work out that way.”
Neither the Yankees nor any other team will be able to coax 26 outs from four top relievers every game, not even with off days built into the playoff schedule. But managers have grown more aggressive in employing their best relievers early, and for multiple innings.
“It’s the biggest distinction between our sport and other sports,” Levine said. “If New England has a bad first sequence, they don’t start running the wishbone. If we have a bad first sequence — I mean, David Robertson is an accomplished closer, and he’s pitching in the third inning of this game. That’s very atypical relative to other sports. It happens in ours, and it happens at this stage, and it happens pronounced in a one-game scenario.”
The AL wild-card game seemed strange as it happened. By the end of the postseason, it may feel pretty close to the norm.