A first-person account from Curtis Granderson as told to Bleacher Report's Adam Wells.
Over the course of my 16-year MLB career, I played for and against the New York Yankees in the playoffs. My first exposure to October baseball was in 2006 with the Detroit Tigers in an American League Division Series against the Bronx Bombers.
During that series, I remember seeing Denzel Washington sitting behind our dugout at Yankee Stadium. I looked over at Justin Verlander to tell him to get a DVD from our locker room and ask Denzel to sign it because that was my mindset in the middle of a playoff game in New York.
The Yankees do a great job of putting up a bunch of great highlights of all their legends; all these intimidating things that, if you're not careful, can kind of get to you. Oh, there's Reggie Jackson on the field. There's Goose Gossage on the field. And oh, they're on the scoreboard, and so-and-so is throwing out the first pitch. If you're not careful, it can catch you.
This year is different, though.
The Yankees won't even have a home game during the postseason by virtue of being the No. 5 seed. They will begin their quest for a 28th World Series title at Progressive Field against the No. 4 Cleveland Indians.
MLB has taken away home-field advantage from every team in the playoffs this year after the best-of-three Wild Card Round in an effort to reduce the possibility of players contracting COVID-19. Starting with the ALDS, each series will be played at a neutral site, culminating with the World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
Although Cleveland is near the bottom of the league in runs scored (24th), the Indians are 7-1 in their last eight games, which means they've scored enough to get hot and move from playing the wild-card series on the road to hosting. Outslugging the Yankees would have been a huge concern if this series was being played in New York—where the Yankees have hit more than 70 percent of their home runs this season. Instead, the Yankees face the vaunted Tribe staff after slashing a disappointing .220/.317/.350 line on the road.
The Game 1 pitching matchup promises to be great as Shane Bieber faces Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. Bieber's ERA and runs allowed in two career starts against the Yankees aren't the best (8.31 ERA, 1.61 WHIP), but that was in 2018 and 2019. The 2020 Bieber is in line to win the Cy Young and has 25 more strikeouts than any other American League pitcher.
If he needs to get an out, he can do it without the opposition putting the ball in play to potentially bring a run in. No team faces a tougher Game 1 starter than the Yankees.
For the Yankees, Cole is still one of the best pitchers in the game, and when he's on, he's very tough to hit. Both Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor are hitting better from the right side, minus the homers by Lindor. These are the two guys I'm trying to limit the damage from if I'm the Yankees.
If the Yankees lose Game 1, I don't think there is any panic at all. In a normal season with fans, every game the Yankees play is a pressure game. They are booed in every road park, and at home you must win or you could get booed in Yankee Stadium. So playing in tough situations, in must-win games, happens every game. If they lose Game 1, they know that all they need to do is focus on Game 2 and by winning that one, now the Indians are also in an elimination game going into Game 3.
Game 2 and 3 starters Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac have both pitched very well at home, so if the Indians win Game 1, they are set up nicely to close out the series. For Game 2, I would start right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who has pitched well on the road this season. Although he went 0-2, his ERA was 2.33, and he only gave up two home runs in four starts. If it goes to Game 3, it's all hands on deck, and we could see veteran J.A. Happ get the start, with 21-year-old Deivi Garcia being used in relief.
One wrinkle could be Terry Francona's medical absence, as Sandy Alomar Jr. has been named the manager for the postseason, according to Zack Meisel of The Athletic. Despite losing one of the best managers in MLB, the Indians did play well under Alomar in the regular season.
Ultimately, the biggest factor for the Yankees is going from potentially hosting this wild-card series, where they hit the ball out of the ballpark frequently, to playing on the road, where they compiled an 11-18 record.
Playing a hot team is never a good thing, but eventually hot teams cool off. Will the Indians cool off against the Yankees, or are they only starting to heat up? If they faced the Minnesota Twins, the historic playoff numbers against them would have made advancing to the ALDS a-near lock. The White Sox, unlike the Indians, have gone 2-8 in their last 10. That could have been a very good matchup for the Yankees. However, I think this matchup with the Indians will be the most exciting option and most fun to watch.
Will Injuries Be a Factor?
Expanding things beyond that particular matchup, New York has already overcome several hurdles during the season. Injuries have been a major storyline for the franchise over the past two seasons, but a number of key players returning down the stretch set the Bronx Bombers up well for October.
The returns of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gio Urshela have gone a long way toward silencing any concerns after the Yankees appeared to be in trouble when they were 21-21 after a Sept. 8 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Judge's return from ongoing calf issues could be a storyline in the playoffs because there will be no off days once a series begins. He's still trying to get his timing in the batter's box right after missing three weeks, but the light could go on at any moment.
The Yankees have been a streaky team this season. They opened the year 16-6 before losing 15 of their next 20 to fall to .500. They rebounded with 10 straight wins.
In the postseason, especially this year with the limited number of off days, even the ability to stay neutral can be conducive to a successful run because you are avoiding the potential lull that comes with playing so many games in a compressed period of time.
The playoff structure puts more pressure on every manager who's trying to determine how to handle his staff. Yankees skipper Aaron Boone knows Cole will be ready to take care of business in Game 1 on the biggest stage.
The Yankees have quality starters behind Cole. Tanaka has proved himself to be one of the best playoff pitchers in the game, as the Japanese star has allowed more than two earned runs only once in eight career playoff starts. Happ has had a fantastic bounce-back season with a 3.47 ERA and is holding left-handed hitters to a .577 OPS.
Boone's impact on the postseason also can't be overstated because playing as many as five consecutive days in the ALDS and seven consecutive days in the ALCS—depending on how far the Yankees advance—will require him to go further into his bullpen than normal.
One luxury the Yankees have is the benefit of two elite closers. Zack Britton began this season handling the ninth inning while Aroldis Chapman was recovering from COVID-19. But there could be more games this October when Boone is forced to use the 24th, 25th or 26th guy on the roster because of the schedule.
The Yankees could turn to Chapman on consecutive days for extended appearances in a playoff series. However, he's only thrown 20 or more pitches on back-to-back days once in his playoff career: Games 6 and 7 of the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs. Chapman allowed at least one run in each game, including a game-tying home run to Rajai Davis in the eighth inning of Game 7.
Instead, Boone may elect for a mix of Chapman, Britton and Chad Green for high-leverage or closing situations in the first three rounds when there are zero off days between games. But under the circumstances, it seems inevitable to see Chapman in consecutive days if the Yankees were to advance to the ALDS.
This is where a pitcher such as Garcia could come into play for Boone.
Asking Garcia, who started six games this season, to throw one to two innings in the middle of a game as a bridge to Britton and Chapman—instead of trying to turn a lineup over multiple times—would work to their advantage if Boone decides to go with the veteran Happ in a potential Game 3 of the Wild Card Round. The rookie right-hander has fared better at home than on the road this season.
Boone's handling of Garcia in the Wild Card Round—and possibly beyond—will undoubtedly be one of the big storylines of the Yankees' postseason.
For the Yankees, it's World Series or nothing almost every season, but maybe not in 2020. This year is unlike any other, especially with every team having to play a three-game wild-card series to start the playoffs regardless of where it finished. Win two games and advance to the divisional series, and anything is possible for not only the Yankees but for all 16 teams in this year's playoffs.
Ultimately, I like the Yankees a lot, but I don't like them in their wild-card matchup against the Indians in Cleveland. The Indians are hot, have great starting pitching and get to stay home, where they have been since Sept. 21. The Yankees won't be traveling far, but with all the restrictions for the road teams this year, it's another potential challenge that could work against them. I see the Yankees with an early exit, losing the wild-card series in three games.
Curtis Granderson is a three-time MLB All-Star who will be part of the new MLB on TBS studio team anchored by five-time Sports Emmy Award-winning host Ernie Johnson with Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez and World Series champion Jimmy Rollins.