Aaron Judge’s return from the injured list took care of right field Wednesday night against the Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium because the Yankees didn’t activate him not to play when every inning left in a very weird season counts.
What it did do was make Aaron Boone decide between a very productive Clint Frazier, a right-handed hitter who has morphed into the Yankees’ third best player, and the left-handed hitting Brett Gardner in left field. Boone also could have gone with fellow lefty swinger Mike Tauchman.
Boone went with Frazier, who entered the game hitting .350 (7-for-20) with a 1.090 OPS and a .440 on-base percentage in the previous six games, over Gardner and Tauchman, who were mired in deep slumps. Based on where Gardner, who has been a mentor to Frazier, and Tauchman were and how well Frazer was swinging the bat and playing defense, it couldn’t have been that tough of a call for Boone, whose club was trying to extend a six-game winning streak.
Gardner was hitting .185 (20-for-108) in 41 games and Tauchman had batted .156 (5-for-32) in the previous 14 games.
Not only has Frazier been a difference-maker in the batting order, his play in right field is eons away from what it was last year when fly balls and ground balls were adventures. That, he said recently, was related to the concussion he suffered in 2018.
While Boone talked about Gardner and Tauchman “being game-changers’’ defensively, he lauded Frazier’s improvement.
“Loved what we see from Clint. His athleticism is really starting to show up for him in the outfield,’’ Boone said. “Looking forward to see him continue to build on what has been a really nice run for him.’’
While the Yankees are tasked with getting Judge ready for the postseason, they also have to balance that against him not re-injuring the right calf that had limited him to one game since Aug. 12. Boone said Judge wouldn’t be in the lineup Wednesday. That means Frazier will likely move from left to right.
Though Boone gushed about Frazier’s defense, it won’t be a shock if the manager lifts Frazier for defense in the late innings of games in which the Yankees have a lead.
“Possibly,’’ Boone said about using Gardner or Tauchman to protect a lead. “With Clint going over to left field and left field in our stadium and all that ground and [Gardner and Tauchman] play it so well out there, kind of game-changers defensively for us out there.’’
For far too much of Boone’s three-year tenure he hasn’t been able to put Judge’s name on a lineup card as much as he would like. So, understandably, dropping Judge into the No. 2 spot between MVP candidate DJ LeMahieu and the switch-hitting Aaron Hicks, whose .374 on-base percentage helps offset a disappointing .209 batting average, got Boone’s juices flowing.
“Lot of excitement, just seeing him walk in [Wednesday] and seeing how everything went [Tuesday at the alternate site], writing him back in the lineup is big,’’ said Boone, who explained he didn’t give much thought to leaving Luke Voit, who led the majors with 18 homers, in the No. 2 spot, which is Judge’s home. “Get through today and start building these guys [Giancarlo Stanton and Judge] and getting a lot closer to being whole.’’
As for where Gardner fits, Boone wasn’t ready to count out the 37-year-old.
“I feel like the last couple of weeks he starting to get it going a little bit. The results haven’t necessarily matched what we have seen on some of the underlying things he has been doing,’’ Boone said of Gardner, who was 4-for-11 (.364) with a .533 on-base percentage in the previous five games. “There are going to be opportunities down the stretch. A lot can change between now and next week, three weeks from now. He is a very important player for us and I expect that to continue.’’
Brett Gardner over Clint Frazier in Game 1
When Clint Frazier was sizzling at the plate in the middle of this month and playing solid defense in the outfield, it wasn’t hard to envision a struggling Brett Gardner being relegated to a bench role in the postseason.
Yet, Aaron Boone predicted a time was coming when Gardner would be counted on to contribute.
During a seven-game stretch from Sept. 12-19 Frazier went 11-for-25 (.440) with three homers, eight RBIs and posted an obscene 1.451 OPS. The hot streak boosted Frazier’s average from .276 to .306 and he was a big reason the Yankees went 7-0 in that stretch.
Frazier’s tear followed a rough five-game period for Gardner in which he went hitless in 14 at-bats, had a .125 on-base percentage and the Yankees lost four of five from Sept. 4-9.
Maybe Boone was simply being himself, a guy who can find something positive in situations that others would believe are dire. Or Boone was seeing something from the 37-year-old Gardner not showing up to the untrained eye.
Either way, when Boone made out the Yankees’ lineup card for Game 1 of the Wild Card Series against likely AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber and the Indians at Progressive Field on Tuesday night, Gardner and a hot bat were in left field batting eighth and Frazier, whose wood went cold, was on the bench.
“Something we discussed a lot and thought about here a lot the last couple of days which way I wanted to go. Really feel good either way I would have gone. I just feel like the way Gardy has started to swing the last few weeks and what he brings defensively in this ballpark,’’ Boone said when asked why he chose Gardner over Frazier. “And just to get a different look in there, with all our (right-handed hitters) against Bieber you get at least a second lefty in there little bit of a different look that was the way ultimately I wanted to go.’’
The only other lefty bat belonged to switch-hitter Aaron Hicks.
Gardner, whom the Yankees have a $10 million on option on for next year that has a $2 million buyout attached, finished with a subpar .223 batting average. However, he hit .385 (10-for-26) with a .500 on-base percentage in his last nine games.
Conversely, Frazier cooled off in his final six games, hitting .050 (1-for-20) and whiffed 11 times. He ended a solid season hitting .267 with eight homers and 26 RBIs in his final six games.
With the Indians planning to start right-handers Carlos Carrasco in Game 2 and Zach Plesac if there is a Game 3, Gardner could start in left for all three.
While Frazier has vastly improved in the outfield over last year, Boone said Gardner’s defense is always a factor when it comes to choosing the veteran.
“Anytime I am considering Gardy as an option or considering him in a matchup the defense always factors always into that decision because he is an elite defender,’’ Boone said. “As far as (Progressive Field) there is a big wall out there, a big left-center field as it moves toward center field. It is a little unique in how it is set up. It wasn’t an overwhelming factor in this. This was something that was very close to me and anytime I am considering Gardy the defense factors in.’’
Progressive Field’s left-field wall is 19 feet high (10 feet higher than the walls in center and right) and can cause some weird angles of balls hitting high off it. Obviously, Gardner has more experience playing the wall than Frazier.
What Frazier and Gardner didn’t have was experience against Bieber. Frazier had a single in one at-bat and Gardner was 1-for-3 with a homer.
Giants’ putrid offensive line is doing one thing right
He likes it.
No, not the performance. Not the production. Certainly not the results.
But at least Marc Colombo, the Giants’ offensive line coach, likes the attitude of his group amid all the losing.
“I love that they’re pissed off,’’ Colombo said Tuesday. “That’s the type of group we want. They came out and played physical. Again, it’s tough to play really physical in the passing game. We have to do better in the run. Period. That’s where we’re falling short right now. It’s going to alleviate a lot of stuff in the passing game. That’s something we have to do. We have to do it early. We can’t wait to crank it up.’’
That about sums it up. The Giants are last in the NFL in rushing offense, averaging 56.7 yards per game. Until they solve this glaring issue, they will never be a competent offensive unit. It was more of the same in the 36-9 loss to the 49ers. The Giants had 66 rushing yards, but 49 of them were from Daniel Jones. Their three running backs got 17 yards on 10 attempts.
Nick Gates has not played well at center. Cam Fleming has not done much at right tackle. Fans are interested in seeing Matt Peart (for Fleming) and Shane Lemieux, a guard from Oregon who is learning how to play center, for Gates.
“Well, we give these guys opportunities every week in practice and the starting five had a really good week of practice last week,’’ Colombo said. “Obviously it didn’t translate to the game. These guys are young. We didn’t have an offseason. To them it’s really like the third friggin’ preseason game. They just have to keep developing. We’re going to keep giving them shots in practice and it all comes down to how you practice. If a guy is going to practice hard, it’s a balance between continuity and playing the best five, so we’re going to keep pushing in practice, create competition, and see where it shakes out.’’
Starting strong safety Jabrill Peppers lasted only nine snaps on defense against the 49ers before he was forced out with an ankle injury that occurred on the extra-point block team. Joe Judge said a day later Peppers was going to be evaluated “day by day.’’ Peppers escaped serious injury, but he likely will not be able to make it back for Sunday’s game in Los Angeles against the Rams.
The Giants signed CB Madre Harper off the Raiders practice squad.
“Right now I don’t know a lot about him,’’ defensive backs coach Jerome Henderson said. “Coach Joe took a look at him and really liked his physical skill sets and his demeanor as a player and thought he was a guy who we would benefit from having him on the roster. So I’m excited to work with him and get to know the kid.’’
Harper went undrafted out of Southern Illinois after getting kicked off the team at Oklahoma State early in the 2017 season. At the time, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said Harper “stepped out of our culture a little bit.’’
Masahiro Tanaka’s Yankees legacy is clear even with uncertain future
Masahiro Tanaka was pitching like the ace he was imported to be when he suffered an injury that led to, of all things, defining his time as a Yankee as durable and dependable.
Is that time nearing an end?
Tanaka is scheduled to start Wednesday night in Game 2 against the Indians in the playoffs’ first round. Any start this season could be Tanaka’s last as a Yankee. He is a free agent after the season and he conceded when he made his final regular-season start in Buffalo that it entered his mind that it could be at least the last non-playoff start as a Yankee.
“I just thought to myself it has been seven years and it has been a quick seven years,” Tanaka said Tuesday before Game 1. “It is kind of an end to a chapter in a way, just that thought of being there for a good seven years that is what came to my mind in Buffalo.”
It was better than good. Tanaka cost $175 million between salary and posting fee and the Yankees believed they were purchasing a No. 1 starter. That evaporated when his elbow began aching in his 2014 rookie campaign. But what emerged was worth every penny to the organization — a cross between Andy Pettitte’s reliability and Orlando Hernandez’s big-game sturdiness.
It is why the Yankees will almost certainly want to retain him in tandem with Gerrit Cole to steady a rotation that is breaking in youngsters such as Deivi Garcia, Clarke Schmidt and Jordan Montgomery and reintroducing Luis Severino. And Tanaka has always seemed to love being a Yankee, embracing with joy and accountability the intensity and frequent big games.
So the money is going to be on a reunion. But how money is spent this offseason will be a relentless major league storyline. Teams took in less revenue in this COVID-19-impacted season. Already most have seen that season-ticket renewals for 2021 fall any place between down and a disaster. And there are no certainties even of crowds next year. So who knows who will spend and how much?
Aaron Boone said he hopes Tanaka is back, citing him as a “great example for any player watching to want to latch onto … he is super prepared. Takes great care of himself. Obviously, he is completely dedicated and great at his craft. It is fun watching how precise he is and how precise he expects himself to be. Coupled with, if you get to know Masa, he is completely beloved by his teammates. He really has a great sense of humor. I have had a joy getting to know him and manage him. He’s just somebody who carries a tremendous amount of respect in the room and is still a great pitcher. He’s been a very consistent Yankee performer in all his years here.”
Constancy became the hallmark once dominance faded.
Through 18 starts of his first Yankee season in 2014, Tanaka was leading the AL in ERA (2.51), striking out better than a batter an inning and was on the way to being rookie of the year and perhaps a Cy Young winner. Then word came he had a small tear in his elbow. What followed was belief that maybe the dominance was gone and Tommy John surgery would be needed.
He was never a No. 1 starter again. But this is where Tanaka became Pettitte. He was a trustworthy No. 2 or 3 starter who like a metronome kept taking the ball. He never needed Tommy John surgery. His 153 starts from 2015-20 are 18th in the majors. He has a 114 ERA-plus as a Yankee — Pettitte was 115.
And, like Pettitte, you could put him in a playoff game without fear he would blink. But in that arena, he was even more like El Duque because of a combination of guile and tenacity. He could remake himself on the mound, depending on what he had that game — heck, last season he abandoned his previous key pitch splitter because it wasn’t obeying and succeeded behind his slider.
In eight playoff games, Tanaka has a 1.76 ERA, never having pitched fewer than five innings, never giving up more than three earned runs and five times having given up zero or one. Most famously, with the Yankees down 2-0 in a best-of-five Division Series, he shut out the Indians for seven innings in Game 3 in 2017 to ignite the Yanks to rally to win the series. It was reminiscent of Hernandez’s seven shutout innings in Game 4 of the 1998 ALCS when the Indians led two-games-to-one and the Yanks were teetering on wasting a 114-win season.
“The most important thing about pitching in a big game like this is to try to be yourself,” Tanaka said.
Who Tanaka has been as a Yankee has changed over time — from ace to dependable, big-game stalwart. Even with the downgrade, he was worth every cent.
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