The opportunity in front of the New York Yankees Friday is at once familiar and unique.
It’s familiar in that high-stakes playoff games are almost routine for a franchise that has reached the post-season in 22 of the last 26 seasons. When you’re playing October baseball nearly every year, you’ll find yourself playing must-win games with some frequency.
In that sense, Friday night’s winner-take-all Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays should be familiar for the Yankees, even if they’re technically the lower-seeded team this time. As much as they might try to position themselves as a plucky longshot at times, those attempts tend to be less than convincing.
“We’re clearly the underdog now. They’re the big bad No. 1 seed of the AL,” manager Aaron Boone said of the Rays before the ALDS began.
Whether anyone — Boone included — truly believed that is another question. After all, their Game 5 starter is under contract for $324 million and their hottest hitter has a $325-million deal of his own. Granted, this front office has also done well on the margins with pickups like Luke Voit and Gio Urshela, but that’s not why they’re known as the Evil Empire.
PROGRAMMING ALERT: Watch the Yankees take on the Rays in Game 5 of the ALDS at 7:00 p.m. ET on Sportsnet and Sportsnet ONE.
All of which makes the opportunity in front of the Yankees unique. Despite all of their advantages, they would undoubtedly be the preferred choice of otherwise neutral fans if they advance to the ALCS because their would-be opponent, the Houston Astros, is far less likeable than they are in the aftermath of a scandal that exposed the Astros as cheaters.
Of course, defeating the Rays is no small task, even with Gerrit Cole on the mound and Giancarlo Stanton on an epic offensive tear. The Rays will send Tyler Glasnow to the mound opposite Cole, so Yankees hitters are in for a challenge of their own. Like Cole, his former Pirates teammate, Glasnow will be starting on short rest. With that in mind, both bullpens are likely to factor into the outcome of Game 5 — and on that front the Rays are seemingly better positioned than the Yankees.
Aroldis Chapman (23 pitches), Zack Britton (22 pitches) and Chad Green (24 pitches) all worked in Thursday’s Game 4 win over the Rays. While all three will surely be available Friday, they won’t have had the chance to rest. Green will be especially taxed after pitching twice in a row and in three of the four ALDS games so far, but Boone may still prefer him over Adam Ottavino, who last pitched Tuesday but struggled at times in the regular season on his way to a 5.89 ERA.
The Rays, on the other hand, are better positioned to rely on their bullpen extensively. Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks have pitched just once each in the series, throwing 22 pitches and 25 pitches, respectively, on Tuesday. While Diego Castillo pitched in Games 2 and 3, he rested Thursday as well. Even Blake Snell, the Rays’ Game 1 starter, will be available in relief if needed.
That’s how things line up on paper, anyways. But if the last couple of weeks have taught us anything, it’s that you can’t plan these games ahead of time, tempting though it may be to try. All we can say for sure is that the Rays look to be extremely well-positioned from a pitching standpoint entering Game 5.
As for the Yankees, they’ll look the part of the Evil Empire Friday with Cole on the mound and high-priced relievers like Chapman and Britton likely to follow. But if they can pull out a win against the Rays, widespread support would likely await them in the ALCS thanks to an Astros team that’s despised enough to make even the Yankees seem likeable.