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The Yankees provided evidence the “bullpenning” idea could work

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Last week on MLB Network, Brian Kenny suggested the Yankees try “bullpenning.” Instead of starting a pitcher traditionally who would ideally throw at least five innings, the Yankees would start one of their many talented relievers. If it were up to Kenny, he would start Chad Green.

As luck would have it, starter Luis Severino lasted only one-third of an inning in last night’s American League Wild Card game against the Twins. Manager Joe Girardi brought in Green, who struck out both batters he faced in the first inning to escape a sticky situation with runners on first and second. Green wound up recording six outs, four via strikeout. David Robertson then came in and pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out five. Tommy Kahnle pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings and Aroldis Chapman closed out the game by getting all three outs via strikeout in the ninth, sending the Yankees to the ALDS.

Inadvertently, the Yankees proved the “bullpenning” idea has merit. As Kenny explained above, it’s not for every team; it’s for teams without an ace and with excellent, deep bullpens. That fits the Yankees perfectly. It doesn’t fit the Astros, for example. But it might work for the Rockies, who do battle with the Diamondbacks in the NL Wild Card game tonight. They’re sending Jon Gray out opposite Zack Greinke.

The big question is whether this new strategy might make pitchers feel uncomfortable as they’re taken out of their normal roles and rhythms. But Eno Sarris of FanGraphs talked to a handful of pitchers and most seemed on board with the idea or at least open-minded. However, Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy did say, “My routine as a starter is fixed to the minute and a lot of guys are like that. It’s certainly not something impossible to deal with but could make a team nervous.”

Marlins veteran Brad Ziegler said, “I don’t think it would be very different for me, as much as it would be for the starter coming into the game [in the later innings]. His whole routine would have to change.”

Bucking orthodoxy is risky. You risk upsetting the players, who — as illustrated above — are creatures of habit. You risk upsetting your fan base by leaving a winner-takes-all game up to an unfamiliar strategy. And because we need a direct cause and effect for our narrative, a game that might’ve been lost anyway would be pinned entirely on this strategy, perhaps making it years before anyone else would dare to try the same thing.

Indians skipper Terry Francona bucked orthodoxy last year when he used Andrew Miller — normally used for one inning in the seventh or eighth inning — in the fifth, sixth, and seventh innings in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Red Sox and in similar positions throughout the postseason. It worked. An increasing number of managers adopted this method of reliever usage during the 2017 regular season and you can bet that Francona won’t be the only one doing it in the playoffs this year. So, who’s going to be the first manager to dare to try the “bullpenning” idea?

The Astros gave the Yankees an opening. Keuchel and Verlander will try to close the door.

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If Game 4 of the ALCS had been even remotely conventional, it’d stand at 3-1 in favor of Houston right now. The Yankees’ starter pitched well but got no run support. A mighty Astros team with an ordinarily good closer in Ken Giles had a 4-0 lead in the late innings. As the Yankees set out to mount a comeback, a base runner fell down in between first and second and should’ve been dead to rights. This is playoff baseball, however, so stuff, as they say, happens. The runner was safe, the closer struggled, the Yankees rallied and now we’re tied 2-2.

But are we even at 2-2?

On paper, no, because the Astros now will send Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander out in Games 5 and 6, and that gives them a clear advantage. Keuchel dominated the Yankees in Game 1, tossing seven scoreless innings and striking out ten batters. Verlander struck out 13 batters in a 124-pitch complete game in which he allowed only a single run. Beyond the mere facts of the box scores, however, the Yankees have looked profoundly overmatched by both of the Astros’ aces, in this postseason and on other occasions on which they’ve faced off against them. Most notably in the 2015 wild-card game at Yankee Stadium when Keuchel pitched six scoreless innings in the 3-0 victory.

But remember: stuff happens.

Stuff like Aaron Judge‘s and Gary Sanchez‘s bats waking up. The two most important sluggers in the Bombers lineup combined to go 3-for-6 with two doubles, a homer, a walk and five RBI in last night’s victory. Each of them had been silent for the first three games of the series but if they’re heating up, the Yankees will be a lot harder to pitch to.

Stuff like Masahiro Tanaka showing that he can tame the Astros’ lineup. Which he did pretty well in Game 1, giving up only two runs on four hits in six innings. He was overshadowed by Keuchel in that game, but it was a good performance against a strong lineup in a hostile environment. Tanaka pitches much better at Yankee Stadium than he does on the road, so don’t for a second think that the Astros bats will have an easy time of it today.

Stuff like the Yankees bullpen still being the Yankees bullpen. Yes, the Astros got to David Robertson yesterday, but it’s still a strong, strong group that gives the Yankees a clear advantage if the game is close late or if they hold a lead.

All of which is to say that we have ourselves a series, friends. While, 48 hours ago, it seemed like we were on our way to an Astros coronation, the Yankees have shown up in a major way in Games 3 and 4. If you’re an Astros fan you should feel pretty confident with Keuchel and Verlander heading into action over the next two games, but we have learned that absolutely nothing is guaranteed in the postseason.