Yankees’ pitching gamble is at a dangerous postseason crossroads

You remember starting pitching, right? Those are the guys before the relievers.

Well, they are back in this postseason. The Nationals have advanced to the World Series behind the strength of their rotation. The Astros and their powerhouse starters already had a 2-1 edge in the ALCS and gained an advantage with Wednesday’s rainout of Game 3 that will exert more pressure and physical stress on the Yankees bullpen.

After a steady trend toward the Yankees’ way of winning in October, there is either a blip or sea change ongoing this postseason with starters re-asserting their value. There have been 27 postseason games, thus 54 starters used. There were two clunkers — Atlanta’s Mike Foltynewicz in Game 5 of the NLDS (seven runs, six earned, one-third of an inning) and St. Louis’ Dakota Hudson in NLCS Game 4 on Tuesday night as Washington won the NL pennant (seven runs, four earned in one-third of an inning).

In the other 52 games, starters have a 2.77 ERA. The Yankees have contributed to that with their rotation accumulating a 2.39 ERA in six games. But their starters have thrown just 26 1/3 innings compared to 28 2/3 for their relievers.

If the Yankees are eliminated for a third straight year by a team with a superior rotation (the Astros in 2017, Red Sox in 2018), questions will rise anew about whether general manager Brian Cashman’s administration should have been bolder with dollars and/or prospects to acquire Max Scherzer, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, etc.

Is that fair? The Yankees won 103 games this year essentially without their ace, Luis Severino. Masahiro Tanaka was a huge expenditure and has been a great October pitcher.

Brian Cashman
Brian CashmanCharles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Plus, doing it the way they have done it so far, the Yankees have a narrative-defying 2.29 ERA, the lowest in the playoffs. Their run prevention has been terrific. The problem is that doing it this way is more of a Jenga game than having a Cole, Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg provide 21 or more outs from the start. Have something go awry and the whole plan could collapse.

For example, if one high-leverage reliever falls apart in October, he imperils the whole structure. Aaron Boone has used Adam Ottavino in all six Yankees playoff games. The sidewinder has lost command and seemingly his confidence. In just 2 1/3 innings, he has allowed three runs on six hits. The quartet of Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle has permitted two runs on six hits in 19 1/3 innings.

The biggest moment of this series, to date, was George Springer’s fifth-inning homer Sunday in Game 2 on the first pitch Ottavino threw, which tied the score en route to Houston winning in extra innings to even the ALCS.

And another Jenga piece is the weather. The rainout Wednesday means that for the Yankees to win, they have to now either win three straight or three out of four — the last two in Houston — without an off-day. The off-day Friday, like the one on Monday, would have allowed a built-in rest day for the relievers.

Now, for the Yankees to reach their first World Series in a decade, Boone will have to intensify the burden on that pen without the rest. Remember, Boone was preparing for this all year. The Yankees were the only team not to use any reliever three straight days this year. Aroldis Chapman is the only active Yankees reliever who has pitched three straight days in Boone’s two years managing, having done so July 1-3, 2018.

“I definitely would do it,” Boone said Wednesday of using relievers four straight days, noting it is dependent on the workload from game to game.

Still, the question is: What does the stuff look like on Day 3 or 4, and what is the greater burden to others if Ottavino remains a liability? Can J.A. Happ, who surrendered the walkoff homer to Carlos Correa in Game 2, or CC Sabathia, who has faced one batter since Sept. 25, cover innings? Can young Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa be handed key moments? The Yankees carried 13 pitchers, and even Tyler Lyons may have to retire a lefty such as Yordan Alvarez or Michael Brantley.

Rather than the scheduled bullpen game, Tanaka will now start on full rest Thursday in Game 4. He has provided 11 terrific innings so far (James Paxton and Severino have combined for 15 1/3). As Boone conceded, “We are going to have to get distance from our starters in the next several games if we are going to be successful.”

Houston’s advantage in this series was going to be starting pitching, and Zack Greinke and Verlander will start in the Bronx on full rest, with Cole looming in Game 7 if necessary. The starting edge projects larger after the rainout, which impacts the Yankees bullpen far more than it does the Astros rotation.

A Jenga piece was removed from the Yankees plan. Will they survive?

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