SAN DIEGO – The Rays’ trolling of the Yankees was getting down to business in its second hour. A dozen players in shorts and t-shirts were clustered near the first base dugout, break-dancing on the turf, smoking cigars, chugging something that looked stronger than Gatorade.
Just to drive home the point, the Rays toasted themselves as they blasted “New York, New York” and “Empire State of Mind.”
The Yankees may or may not have heard the commotion in their clubhouse. No matter: they were already traumatized, unable to do more than mumble through their Zoom interviews. Another October had ended too soon. Season over, time for the annual post mortem. The scene has become all too familiar.
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So what is it with this franchise? It’s been four years of disappointment with no end in sight. The ALDS Game 5 loss to the Rays wouldn’t have been so devastating except that it happened in 2019 against the Astros, in 2018 against the Red Sox and 2017 against the Astros. Once again, the Bombers were eliminated on one swing – Mike Brosseau’s HR off Aroldis Chapman in the eighth inning, sealing the 2-1 defeat.
Maybe it was karma stomping on Chapman, who’d buzzed that 101-mph fastball at Brosseau’s head last month. To say the Rays hated the Yankees’ closer for weaponizing his four-seamer is putting it mildly. Nothing did more to fuel that post-game party than the stupefied expression on Chapman’s face as Brosseau circled the bases.
It took nearly a half hour for the Yankees to face the media afterwards. Aaron Boone needed the time to hold an emotional team meeting. Several players wept. And by the looks of it the manager had been crying, too, only moments before the interview.
“It’s awful” is how Boone described the disappointment. He looked worn out and not just from the tension of an elimination game. Stress is one thing. But hopelessness is a different kind of heartbreak. Last year the Bombers made it to the League Championship Series. This time they got booted one round earlier. That’s going in the wrong direction.
This isn’t to say the Yankees won’t eventually break through and win a World Series. But this is Year 11 since their last ring and repeating the same cliches every October is getting old. You can argue the Yankees are a model of efficiency and competence. They’re competitive every year. They’re well-run, well-funded, admired throughout the industry. But they still can’t get to the next level.
Thing is, this was the year that was supposed to break the mold. Signing Gerrit Cole was The Final Piece. And he held up his end of the bargain with 5.1 masterful innings on Friday. Working on three days’ rest, the ace struck out nine and gave the Yankees a path to the next round. But except for Aaron Judge’s solo home run in the fourth, the Bombers, who boasted all week about being baseball’s best offensive club, never laid a finger on the Rays.
So instead of a rematch with the Astros in the LCS – and watching Cole go head-to-head with his former teammates – it’s back to Plan B. The Yankees will be home this winter polishing up their sales pitch for next year. It’s always next year.
Only, each postseason it feels a little lousier, as if this tease will never end. Judge called the setbacks “scars” but after a while the disfigurement becomes permanent. At this rate the Yankees will become the 1991-2005 Braves, who made it to the playoffs 14 times with only one championship to show for it. A more recent comparison is with the A’s, the small-market miracle who never fail to put a good team in the October pool. But a World Series? So far, no.
The difference is that the Yankees have the money and resources to do better. The fact that they were outplayed by the poverty-stricken Rays all year, not just all week, is what burns Boone and GM Brian Cashman. Both men can say the Yankees took Tampa Bay to the final inning of Game 5 and were beaten only by baseball’s cruel random nature. But that’s not a satisfying answer. Something has to change. Obviously Cole wasn’t enough.
So let’s start with a few obvious flaws. The Yankees’ reliance on home runs pays a nice dividend during the regular season against mediocre pitching. But you run into the Tyler Glasnows of the world and suddenly you’re gasping for air. Once Game 5 was tied at 1-1, if felt like the Yankees were never going to score again. The Rays’ bullpen was simply too good.
Gary Sanchez has to go – another given. So does J.A. Happ and maybe Masahiro Tanaka, too, whose dreadful performance this month and Game 3 in particular was a back-breaker. James Paxton is leaving via free agency, making room for Deivi Garcia to evolve. Luis Severino will be back from Tommy John surgery. Domingo German will be reinstated. It’s not a bad rotation if Cashman can convince free agent Trevor Bauer to wear the Pinstripes.
Still, the Yankees have learned the hard way about the eternal chase for The Final Piece; the hunt never ends. Tanaka was once that guy. So was Giancarlo Stanton. Cole’s arrival was a downright coronation. But here the Yankees are, heading home from the Division Series after finishing with the majors’ tenth-best record in 2020.
Remember when the Yankees were full of swag, calling themselves “Savages?” It was catchy, but we’ve come to know better. Now they’re just a team that can’t get it done.
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Bob Klapisch is a freelance columnist who covers the Yankees and Major League Baseball for NJ Advance Media.