BOSTON – After the New York Yankees lost 6-2 at Fenway Park on Tuesday night to ring in the 2021 postseason in front of a jubilant, raucous sellout crowd and, just as quickly, shut the door on yet another frustratingly brief October appearance for their own storied franchise, Gerrit Cole sat on Zoom at a loss for answers that likely don’t exist.
The Yankees ace and $324 million man lasted just two innings plus three batters. Which is unique in that it was his shortest outing of the season and tied for the shortest outing of his career, a disaster in a season where he was named an All-Star and could win the AL Cy Young. But it was also the culmination of a pattern for a pitcher who had a 5.13 ERA in September and gave up 15 runs in 17 2/3 innings over his previous three starts.
Maybe a tight left hamstring, which first proved to be a problem in a start against Toronto about a month ago, was responsible.
“No,” Cole said, definitive on that much, looking as sick to his stomach as he claimed to feel in the wake of his third career loss in a winner-take-all postseason game.
So then what was it? What was the common denominator in a string of disappointing starts that could be considered isolated anomalies if not for all the other similarly anomalous outings that surrounded them? Try as reporters might, they couldn’t coax a throughline, a diagnosable — and thus solvable — weakness from the generally thoughtful pitcher.
“It just wasn’t the same answer every time,” Cole said.
And then, when the questions kept coming, he explained with unassailable logic and almost profound poignancy that if he had known what was wrong, he would have tried to fix it before such a high stakes moment.
“I just didn’t perform the way I wanted to perform.”
Taken together, those sentiments define the recent era in the Bronx. This season made it five straight playoff appearances for the Yankees, and five straight playoff runs that have ended before the World Series even began; they haven’t played in the Fall Classic in 12 years now. And even though they haven’t looked perfect on paper — no team does, especially in the harsh light of elimination — the decade-plus of October futility defies payroll, projections and expectations.
And the most confounding part is if you analyze each lost season you’ll find: It wasn’t the same problem every time, they just didn’t perform. But also that the weaknesses exposed in the pressure-cooker of the postseason reflect an almost definitional failure to build a better approach before then. October ostensibly offers a fresh start, a chance for anything to happen — but if you can’t identify what’s wrong going in, you’re likely to repeat it.
A tough play, a tough game, a tough season ...
The argument against the current two-team one-and-done wild-card format is that any one game can be fluky, running contrary to the broader contours of a team’s strengths or season. A single do-or-die contest is thrilling, but it can’t be indicative of what defined a team over the six-month regular season.
That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. But the Yankees managed to fit a meaningful vignette of their tantalizing but flawed season into a single half-inning sequence.
Their best hope came in the top of the sixth.
Red Sox starter Nathan Eovaldi had cruised through five scoreless innings of two-hit ball on 64 pitches as a usually disciplined Yankees lineup chased and failed to draw a single walk. The 31-year-old Eovaldi has quietly had a career-defining, dominant season. His 5.4 fWAR is third in all of baseball among pitchers, ahead of Max Scherzer and Walker Buehler and Gerrit Cole. He’s throwing harder than he has all season, he has better command than in previous years, and he’s added a deceptive quick pitch.
It was enough to easily subdue a Yankees lineup that had ranked third in slugging and second in home runs in 2019, but finished eighth in home runs and 17th in slugging during the 2021 regular season.
“That’s obviously been our calling card here for the last several years,” manager Aaron Boone will say after the game about the vaunted offensive potential that stayed largely locked inside his lineup of superhero-sized men. “And then this year, wasn’t the case. We struggled at times. We didn’t score runs like we normally would.”
But in that sixth inning, finally, the bats roused — a home run from Anthony Rizzo, a single from Aaron Judge and the Red Sox turned to the bullpen for Giancarlo Stanton, who had already hit one off the Green Monster.
He did it again, swatting a 114.9 mph drive off the top of Fenway’s signature wall in deep left-center field. Stanton thought the ball was far enough to go out, and third-base coach Phil Nevin thought it was far enough to wave Judge home. They were both wrong.
Nevin sent Judge and followed him toward the plate, and was only feet away when shortstop Xander Bogaerts’ perfect relay — the Red Sox led baseball in outfield assists — beat Judge by enough time for you to scream “Yankees suck!” before the tag was applied.
Not that Nevin needed to be up close to know what the out would look like: The Yankees tied for the major-league lead this year with 22 outs at home plate. Bad baserunning was one of the most galling and maddening features of the Yankees’ worst stretches this season.
“That was better than a home run for me personally,” said Bogaerts, who had launched a two-run shot in the first off Cole. “I mean if that run scores, it’s 3-2. Stanton is at second base, the whole momentum is on their side. The dugout is getting pumped up. As Judge was out at home, I saw Stanton was pretty mad.
“That changed the game. That changed the momentum big time.”
Stanton agreed — both that it squashed the Yankees’ much-needed momentum and that he had been pretty upset. It wasn’t the decision to send Judge — he called the play “bang-bang,” which is demonstrably untrue, but doesn’t matter — he took issue with. Rather, it was the dimensions of their nemeses’ den.
“I was upset that that probably would have left most anywhere, that would have changed the course of the game,” he said, although he’s proven quite capable of getting it over the Monster in the past.
It’s ironic, almost. Because the game would have been somewhere else — in Yankee Stadium, specifically — if the Yankees had managed just one more win this season. Just one more win than a Red Sox team a year removed from trading Mookie Betts, signaling something of a rebuild, in the same offseason where the Yankees ponied up for Cole.
Have the Yankees lost their edge?
Though they showed flashes and streaks of dominance, the 2021 Yankees — expected to be the best team in the league — barely snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season. If that wasn’t a wake-up call, it should have been.
After the game, Boone, casting about for how to eulogize what he has repeatedly called a “challenging year,” said the problem is that the rest of baseball caught up with the Yankees.
“The league’s closed the gap on us. We’ve got to get better in every aspect,” he said. “Because it's not just the Red Sox and the Astros now in our league. Look at our division, the Rays are a beast, Toronto, there's some teams in the Central that are better and better, teams in the West that are better and better, teams that have closed the gap on us."
On Twitter, fans and critics alike complained that the Yankees under Boone haven’t earned the opportunity to position themselves ahead of the pack. But if anything, the analysis was searingly damning.
Whether he intended this or not, it sounds like the team got caught getting complacent. As the Yankees racked up unsatisfying postseason berths, the rest of the league started building championship winners. And now they’re left hunting for the common denominator in a string of disappointing seasons that could be considered isolated anomalies if not for all the other similarly anomalous seasons that surrounded them.
Their next high-stakes moment is at least a year away — whether Boone, whose contract expires after this season, is still manager remains to be seen — which should give them plenty of time for self-reflection. If they can’t identify what went wrong before then, they’re liable to keep repeating it.