SAN DIEGO—This anomaly of a COVID postseason continues Monday, as the New York Yankees take on the Tampa Bay Rays in a battle of the top two American League East teams, not at Yankee Stadium nor at Tropicana Field, but 3,000 miles away at Petco Park.
The team that wins the best-of-five AL Division Series will stay here to play the AL Championship Series in the first neutral park playoff games in Major League Baseball history. They’ll play the winner of the Houston Astros-Oakland A’s series, which is taking place at Dodger Stadium.
The ALDS will be played over the course of a maximum five days followed by a short break before the best-of-seven ALCS will be waged over seven days. The World Series, which will take place at the brand new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, is scheduled to begin Oct. 20.
“This is one of the things we’ve said from the get-go,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone noted Sunday before his team worked out in the home of the San Diego Padres. “There’s going to be a lot of uncharted territory, a lot of things none of us have ever experienced.”
Another anomaly: The two National League Division Series open Tuesday with the Padres playing the Los Angeles Dodgers at Globe Life, home of the Texas Rangers, and the Atlanta Braves facing the upstart Miami Marlins at Houston’s Minute Maid Park.
“That’s by design so no team has a home-field advantage,” former Commissioner Bud Selig recently explained.
There will be no fans in any of the four ballparks for this round.
Boone, in his third season as Yankees manager, has taken his team to the postseason for the third straight year. But this time, he did it while navigating an injury-plagued 60-game sprint of a season, a best-of-three game Wild Card Series sweep of the Cleveland Indians and now this.
“One of the advantages, one of the edges to be gained is who can handle those things the best through a challenging season,” he added. “I feel like our guys are in a really good place.”
For one, the Yankees are again opening the series with Garrett Cole, a stellar right-handed pitcher they didn’t possess when they lost an ALDS to Boston in 2018 and the ALCS last year to Houston, who had Cole at the time pitching behind Justin Verlander, who’s now recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Astros ultimately lost a seven-game World Series to Washington.
Cole defeated Cleveland’s Shane Bieber in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series and will be matched up against Tampa Bay’s ace, Blake Snell, Monday.
It’s why the Yankees signed Cole last offseason to a nine-year, $324 million free agent contract. Cole was 7-3 with 2.84 ERA in 12 starts this season, but against Tampa Bay, he was 0-1 with a 4.96 ERA, having allowed five home runs in three starts.
“Everyone on each club has their own story and has to be as motivated as you can be to take this trophy down,” Cole said. “Anything you can use adds fuel to the fire. Unfortunately, it usually comes as some sort of failure. It’s hard to stomach at the time, but hopefully it can be useful down the line.”
Even at prorated money, the Yankees’ payroll is an MLB-high $109.4 million, a shade higher than the Dodgers at $107.9 million.
The Rays’ payroll ranks 28th in the league, at $28.3 million, ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles, who combined to lose 76 games. The Rays, meanwhile, still won 40 and finished seven games ahead of the Yankees, beating them eight out of the 10 times the two teams played.
“We really respect the challenge of it, we look forward to the challenge of it,” Boone said. “They were the best team in the American League this year.”
How was that even possible?
First of all, the Yankees were beset by injuries to most of their key offensive players, losing heavy-hitting Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge to leg injuries for most of the abbreviated season.
The two are just rounding into shape, with Judge hitting his first homer since returning in the first inning of Cole’s 12-3 Game 1 victory over the Indians.
“No question, when we’re healthy, one of our strengths is the length of our lineup,” Boone said. “Pitchers know that they have to really work to get through it.”
To that point, Tampa Bay’s pitching held the Yankees to 3.38 earned runs, well below the team’s season scoring average of 5.25 runs per game. This despite the fact the entire Tampa Bay starting rotation makes $9.9 million, about $3 million less than the Yankees are paying Cole.
“They’ve got a lot of good guys down there,” Judge said, trying to explain the Rays’ dominance over the Yanks this year. “They throw in the upper 90s and have a lot of good breaking pitches they can throw in the zone. That’s the big thing. That’s what makes them tough at times.”
“Tough at times” could aptly describe the entirety of Major League Baseball’s year. As Boone has said all season, that’s the way 2020 goes.