NEW YORK — On an October night 15 years ago next week, Aaron Boone sent a flyball into the Bronx sky that vanquished the hated Boston Red Sox, sent the New York Yankees to the World Series and ensured that Boone, at the time the Yankees’ third baseman, would never have to buy a drink in this town again — a bargain that, unbeknown to any of the involved parties, came with an unspoken caveat and a provisional expiration date.
The caveat: Don’t do anything dumb that might torpedo some future Yankees season.
The expiration date: It’s a little hard to make it out all these years later, but there’s a good chance it says Oct. 8, 2018.
On another October night in the Bronx, in another postseason game against the hated Red Sox, in another moment that demanded decisive action, Boone, now the Yankees’ rookie manager, did the managerial opposite of hitting a walk-off homer: He pulled a sit-down blunder, and it sent the Yankees to an ugly and shocking 16-1 loss in Game 3 of the American League Division Series at Yankee Stadium — a historic beatdown that placed the Yankees’ 100-win season on the brink.
His free-drink card, it is safe to say, has been revoked until further notice.
We will never know what would have happened had Boone pulled starting pitcher Luis Severino before the top of the fourth inning, when it was painfully clear the latter did not have the requisite weapons on this night to hold off Boston’s relentless offense.
“Just hoping he could get something started to get through the bottom of the lineup there,” Boone explained of the rationale. “. . . It just snowballed on him.”
And we will never know what sort of fight the Yankees could have mustered over the remaining innings had Boone — after Severino, already down by three runs, loaded the bases with no outs on a pair of singles and a walk — inserted one of the many strikeout artists in his bullpen to face the top of the Boston lineup, rather than right-hander Lance Lynn, a starter for all but six of his 170 big league appearances over the past six seasons.
“The reason he’s down there, and in that spot, is for that part of the lineup,” Boone said of Lynn. “He just came in struggling right away with his command. So the inning just got away.”
All we know is what did happen: At a moment when the Yankees desperately needed someone to come in and minimize a bad situation with a strikeout or three, Lynn, perhaps the least-equipped arm in the Yankees’ bullpen to do such a thing, gave up a bases-loaded walk to Mookie Betts, followed by a bases-loaded double to Andrew Benintendi.
By the time reliever Chad Green finally mopped up the mess — and not before giving up an RBI single to first baseman Steve Pearce and a two-run triple to second baseman Brock Holt, who was making his first start of the series — the Red Sox had sent 11 men to the plate, scored seven runs and put themselves in position, Tuesday night in Game 4, to clinch a berth in the AL Championship Series against the Houston Astros.
“From pitch one,” Red Sox Manager Alex Cora said, “we let them know that we were here.”
As it was, the Yankees appeared to have little fight left after the interminable, deflating fourth inning, though a large part of that could be attributed to Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi, who carved up their vaunted lineup for seven dominating innings with a fastball that topped out at 101 mph. The Yankees, who set a major league record with 267 homers, were held without one for the first time in four games this postseason.
By the end of a dreary night for the Yankees, they were reduced to sending backup catcher Austin Romine to the mound to pitch the ninth inning in a mostly empty stadium — and watching him give up a two-run homer to Holt, who thus completed the first postseason cycle in MLB history and ensured this would be the most lopsided postseason defeat in the Yankees’ storied history.
“As awful as a night it was for us, we’ve got to turn the page,” Boone said. “Tomorrow’s obviously do or die.”
The Yankees had been a perfect 7-0 at home in the postseason since the 2017 wild-card game, winning those games by an aggregate margin of 42-14. And on the mound, in Severino, they had their ace — a pitcher who, five days earlier in this year’s wild-card game, had shut out the Oakland A’s over four borderline-dominant innings.
The aggressive, deft manner in which Boone managed that wild-card victory was instructive: driven by the do-or-die stakes, he pulled Severino at the first sign of trouble and used only his best relievers in guiding home a 7-2 win.
While it’s true the stakes were not quite as high Monday night, they were close, and at the very least required some higher degree of urgency than Boone displayed — particularly when the signs were everywhere that Severino lacked his best stuff.
Severino’s first pitch was rifled to the wall in center field by Betts, the likely AL most valuable player, for a 400-foot out. His first trip through the Boston order produced a series of line-drive outs, two singles and a walk. In the third inning, which began with the Yankees down by a run, the first four batters went single, single, sacrifice fly, single — at which point the Yankees still didn’t have anyone warming up in the bullpen.
Finally, as Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers was driving in the second run of the inning to make it 3-0, Boone got a pair of relievers heated up. But they sat back down when Severino escaped the third and were still seated when he jogged to the mound to open the fourth against the bottom of the Boston order.
Only when those three hitters — Holt, Christian Vazquez and Jackie Bradley Jr. — went single, single, walk did Boone finally emerge from the Yankees’ dugout, at a slow gallows stroll, to pull Severino. Grumbles, sarcastic applause and a smattering of boos from the crowd of 49,657 greeted the entire transaction.
The Yankees were peppered with questions after the game after TBS reported during its telecast that Severino was late getting to the bullpen before his start and had only 10 minutes to warm up. But Boone, Severino and catcher Gary Sanchez all said Severino had his normal pregame routine, including long-tossing in the outfield and his standard bullpen warmup.
“I go 20 minutes before the game. I play catch. And then I always get on the mound with 10 or eight minutes before the game,” Severino said. “Whatever these guys say, I don’t know where it comes from.”
Because “the Aaron Boone game” is already taken — Boone’s 2003 pennant-winning homer will remain a landmark moment in Yankees lore, no matter the trajectory of his managerial career — this game, for the sake of historical convenience, is likely to be known, somewhat incongruously, as “the Angel Hernandez game.”
That’s because Hernandez, the first base umpire Monday night, is the only person in the stadium who can be said to have had a worse night than Boone; his calls at first base were challenged four different times via replay and overturned three times.
As is the case with Boone, Tuesday brings Hernandez a chance for redemption but also a slim margin of error. The bad news: he has the home plate assignment in Game 4. The good news: balls and strikes are not subject to replay.