Déjà vu all over again as Yankees lose 2020 ALDS to Tampa Bay Rays

In the words of their immortal catching great Yogi Berra, this is déjà vu all over again for the New York Yankees, who exited the postseason prematurely for a fourth straight year on Friday night. The Tampa Bay Rays outlasted Aaron Boone’s men in five ALDS games, writing a familiar end to a most unfamiliar season.

This was supposed to be The Year for New York. Then again, I guess last year was, as well. The core was in place. The pieces were all there. Gerrit Cole was the $324 million difference-maker. A first World Series title since 2009 seemed within reach, except maybe the plan was not calibrated correctly after all. Maybe the hype for this Yankees team – heck, this Yankees generation – was disproportionate to its actual skill. Maybe it was not meant to be.

Why can't the Yankees win in October? A recent history

For the last four years, this Yankees team has rolled a stone up the championship mountain, only to watch it roll back down to earth at the crucial moment. While the Core Four became synonymous with pinstriped domination, the mushy nucleus of this Yankee epoch - Judge and Sánchez, Tanaka and Chapman, Hicks and Stanton, Torres and LeMahieu – is slowly being defined by a penchant for heroic failure. They are good, not great, and there is a funereal inevitability about watching them lose in October.

In 2015, they lost the AL Wildcard game to Houston before 50,113 at Yankee Stadium. In 2017, they fell one win shy of hoisting the pennant, losing to the Astros in a seven-game ALCS. A year later, the nemesis Red Sox brushed them aside in the ALDS, before the mother of all heartbreaks in 2019, when the Astros’ José Altuve rocked a walk-off, pennant-clinching home run off Chapman in the throes of desperation.

Alas, when you think of the Yankees these days, you think of indignant grimaces and wry smiles of rage. If you close your eyes and allow the mind to wander, there is Chapman trudging off the mound after surrendering a decisive home run. There is Judge staring blankly from the dugout rail, watching an opposing team celebrate. There is Boone, ashen faced, unable to eke 27 outs from his supremely talented team whenever it matters most. There is failure, in other words, because these Yankees lack the killer instinct of previous iterations.

Cole was supposed to give them that instinct. The most dominant pitcher New York has acquired since Roger Clemens, Cole brought certainty to a capricious starting rotation. He was the lights-out, sure-fire, bonafide ace Yankees fans craved. Yet, despite making a strong first impression in pinstripes, Cole got the ball in a do-or-die October showdown and the Yankees still lost. It was by no means his fault – Gerrit gave his team 5.1 innings of one-hit, one-run ball on short rest in ALDS Game 5 – but another of the Yankees’ grand schemes failed to work. At this point, they seem incapable of finding a viable solution.

Yankees 2020 postseason review

This postseason was always going to be tough for New York, which had to run a gauntlet as the fifth seed. Cleveland was swiftly despatched in the new Wildcard Series, necessitated by an expanded playoff format, but Tampa Bay proved a different proposition entirely. Stanton annihilated the baseball, homering in five straight games, and the offence scored enough to spark hope, yet brittle pitching saw the Yankees unravel. Once again, they came up short on the mound.

In particular, this Yankees bullpen was simply not good enough to facilitate a run deep into October. Whereas Rays manager Kevin Cash had a plethora of monster arms lurking in his bullpen, each capable of hitting triple digits on the radar gun, Boone was forced to mix and match with tired, waning, inconsistent relievers that lacked conviction in their own ability. Zack Britton (postseason ERA: 3.38) was mortal. Adam Ottavino (13.50) was lost. Chad Green (3.38) was unreliable. Then we had Chapman, fatigued from 11 years of throwing 103-mph fastballs, whose timeless mystique now belies mounting inefficiency.

Once again, the enduring image of this postseason – the horrid reconstruction welded to the eyelids of Yankees fans all over the world – will be their supposedly elite closer giving up a gut-wrenching, series-winning, wall-scraping home run in the dwindling hours of a gloomy autumnal eve. This time, Mike Brosseau hit the fatal dinger, an eighth-inning solo shot that travelled just 375 feet. That was the difference as Tampa Bay ran out 2-1 winners and the Yankees were left to lament the career highlight of a $563,500 utilityman with 11 lifetime homers.

Another year, another failure for the Yankees

It was that kind of year for the Bronx Bombers, if not for the world in general. Despite possessing the largest payroll in baseball, the Yankees missed out on a division title to the Rays, who spent 70% less than New York on salaries while winning seven more games. Designed to compete for a ring, Cashman’s Yankees only made the playoffs by sneaking in the backdoor, and that raises questions about his modus operandi.

Ultimately, the same old issues continue to haunt this franchise, which afflicts its fanbase with the same chronic disappointment year after year. Injuries. Streakiness. A dearth of quality pitching. The lack of intangible moxie. There are exceptional highs with this team – moments of subtle inspiration and explosive genius – but we are always waiting for the bottom to fall out, and usually it does. There is never enough substance to the sparkle.

Boone received a lot of heat for his unconventional decision to start 21-year old Deivi García in Game 2 of the ALDS, bypassing veteran hurler JA Happ. We heard whispers of front office interference, and Alex Rodriguez poured scorn on Cashman’s ethos in his analyst gig, but this entire debate obfuscates a wider truth that, regardless of who started that crucial game for New York, they did not possess the ability nor the dogmatic belief to secure a victory. Choosing Garcia over Happ was not the problem; choosing between Garcia and Happ in a pivotal playoff game was the real issue. Neither pitcher was ready or able to follow Cole in that series, exposing the Yankees as frustratingly thin once again.

Yes, Yankees pitching held Tampa Bay hitless in 30 consecutive plate appearances at one point, suggesting other causes of defeat. However, New York has flattered to deceive all season long, and the boxscore does not capture the torrent of kinetic anxiety that spews forth whenever Boone goes to his bullpen after just three or four innings. There is now a dull predictability to Jonathan Loáisiga and Luis Cessa getting knocked around while still displaying impressive stuff. These guys are just not good enough, and the same is true of their bullpen companions. I’m done with the same sorry cast of relievers at this point. Something has to change.

Is the window closing on this homegrown Yankees core?

Likewise, yet more questions now need to be asked about this core in general. Judge will be 29 next year, no longer a bright-eyed prospect. Stanton will be 31, an expensive designated hitter. Tanaka has just completed a seven-year contract that left him with the same number of World Series rings as before it started – zero. LeMahieu is a free a free agent after winning a batting title, sure to garner interest from other teams. Happ and James Paxton will likely depart, too, while Sánchez may also be out of time in the Bronx, a .147 batting average incapable of masking his lethargic defence. 

Once more, then, Yankees fans find themselves looking at possible free agent pickups and potential offseason trades while other teams are still competing for a World Series crown. Taijuan Walker will be interesting this winter. Trevor Bauer deserves a look, too. Marcus Stroman, Julio Teherán, José Quintana and Chris Archer could fit. There are plenty of relievers out there, as well, proven guys like Trevor Rosenthal, Alex Colomé and Mark Melancon who would give Boone more artillery in his arsenal. In the end, though, we are right back at square one, gawping at the drawing board and hoping to concoct a strategy that will get this team over the hump. Precedent says we are unlikely to be successful.

Therefore, to lend another Yogism, the future ain’t what it used to be for these cyborg Yankees. Eight seasons have passed since Judge was drafted, heralding the start of this homegrown renaissance, and still the Yankees are no closer to winning their next championship. There is still time for this heralded group. There is always next year, when Luis Severino and Domingo Germán will return. But if their window is not necessarily closing, it is definitely blowing in the winds of frustration. Now, we have to wait another 12 months to see them scale the October summit. All the while, the clock keeps ticking on a vexatious Yankee age.

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