Monday, April 11, 2022

Yankees Thrown Into The Fire To Open Season


Yankees Manager Aaron Boone (at left, holding bat), watches Anthony Rizzo take batting practice Monday. (Photo by Jason Schott)

The American League East is quite possibly the strongest division in Major League Baseball, with the Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays pretty evenly matched. 

You can make the case that, with the new playoff format, where there are three Wild Card teams, that they all can make the playoffs. Three of them - the Yankees, Tampa Bay, and Boston - made it last season, with Toronto just one game behind the Yankees and Boston.

The phrase "every game counts" is particularly apt, even in a sport where you play 162 games.

The Yankees got thrown right into the fire, as they opened the season with a seven-game homestand at Yankee Stadium, with three games against the Red Sox - in which they took two of three - and they opened a four-game series with Toronto on Monday night.

Yankees Manager Aaron Boone, when asked if he relished a chance to gain an edge on his division rivals, said in his pregame press conference on Monday afternoon, "It's a tough opening homestand, that's for sure, but we know these are the teams - a couple of the teams anyway - that we're going to be battling with all spring and summer long, and into the fall.

"We know how tough the division is, so I guess it's a little bit of a measuring stick here early, but you also keep in mind that you've got to play well over the long haul, and any time you're playing a team like the Red Sox, or now the Blue Jays, you know you've got to go play really well if you're going to have a chance to beat them."

The Yankees want to show Toronto that it won't be like last season in The Bronx. The Blue Jays took the season series from the Yankees last season, 11-8, and won eight of the 10 games they played at Yankee Stadium, most notably a four-game sweep in early September that catapulted the Jays back into the playoff race.

Toronto sent Alek Manoah to the mound on Monday night, returning to where he won his Major League debut last season. On May 27, 2021, Manoah threw six shutout innings, allowing just 2 hits and 2 walks, while striking out seven, as the Jays notched a 2-0 win. He became the first Blue Jays pitcher to throw 6.0+ innings, 7+ K's, and 0 runs allowed in his MLB debut.

Manoah went 9-2 last season, with a 3.22 ERA, as he made 20 starts, threw 111.2 innings, striking out 127 hitters, and allowing 77 hits, 40 earned runs 12 home runs, and 40 walks. The 24-year-old hurler led all rookies, who had a minimum of 10 starts, in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched with 1.05, opponents' average (.192), and opponents' OPS (on-base plus slugging) at .604, while second in ERA, third in K rate (27.7 percent), and fourth in strikeouts/9 innings at 10.24.

The Yankees sent Jameson Taillon to the mound on Monday night, looking to follow up a strong first year in pinstripes. Last season, Taillon made 29 starts, and went 8-6 with a 4.30 ERA. He threw 144.1 innings, with 140 strikeouts, and allowed 130 hits, 73 runs (69 earned), 44 walks, and 24 home runs. 

After missing time in Septemeber, Taillon pitched in the season finale against Tampa Bay, throwing 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing two hits, a walks, and notched two strikeouts, in the 1-0 Yankee victory that clinched a playoff berth.

Boone said of Taillon ahead of the game, "I thought he did a good job last year, first and foremost coming off missing, really, a couple of seasons, of just physically getting himself in a good place to go out and give us probably more than we even expected form an innings standpoint. I thought he got better as the season went along, I thought he did a good job of making adjustments along the way with some of his pitch arsenal, but basically just continue to build off. He's an outstanding big league pitcher, has been when he's been healthy, and hopefully last year's a stepping stone to him continuing to get a little bit better with us."

Toronto's Alek Manoah gets ready to throw to the Yankees' D.J. LeMahieu to open the game. Photo by Jason Schott.

On Monday night, Toronto did pick up where they left off, as they shut out the Yankees, 3-0, with George Springer accounting for all their runs. 

Taillon had a fine start to his outing, as he sailed through the first two innings. He ran into trouble in the third when Santiago Espinal laced a one-out single ahead of Springer, who took an off-speed pitch and lined it into the left field corner for a two-run home run. 

Those were the only two runs Taillon would give up, as he went five innings, and allowed five hits and no walks, with five strikeouts.

Michael King came on next for the Yankees, and Toronto tacked on a run in similar fashion, as Espinal singled, and Springer doubled him home to make it 3-0.

Manoah had another solid outing in The Bronx, as he threw six shutout innings, allowing just one hit and four walks, with seven strikeouts.

The only threat the Yankees had against him came in the third inning when Marwin Gonzalez. Anthony Rizzo, and Aaron Judge drew walks, and Giancarlo Stanton came up with the bases loaded and two outs. Stanton hit a broken bat grounder into the hole at shortstop that looked like trouble, but Bo Bichette fired a rocket across the diamond to retire Stanton and end the inning.

With Manoah out of the game in the seventh, the Yankees rallied against Toronto reliever Trevor Richards, as Gleyber Torres singled and Aaron Hicks walked. Richards then got Kyle Higashioka to fly to right field before he was lifted.

Toronto turned to sidearmer Adam Cimber, and he induced pinch-hitter Josh Donaldson, who was up for Gonzalez, to hit into a 4-6-3 double play that was spectacularly turned, with Bichette making a spin move on the throw to first base to complete it and end the inning. 

The Yankees then tried to get something going in the ninth inning against Toronto closer Jordan Romano, as Joey Gallo led off with a single into the right field corner, but Torres hit into a double play. Then, Hicks hit one into nearly the same spot down the right field line for a single of his own, but Higashioka struck out to end it.

The Yankees are now 2-2 on this homestand, with games that have a lot more tension than you usually see in the first week of April, and have three more chances to gain an edge on their rivals.

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