A wild, Wild Card preview: What to watch from the Yankees as they face Cleveland

Sep 26, 2020; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Luke Voit (59) celebrates his three run home run against the Miami Marlins with designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton (27) and second baseman DJ LeMahieu (26) during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium.
Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As the most cockamamie baseball season in recent memory has reached its finishing stages, the 33-27 New York Yankees have a best-of-three Wild Card date with the 35-25 Cleveland Indians starting Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. ET in Ohio.

This one-of-a-kind matchup features two teams who have not played one another at all during the truncated 2020 regular season and whose most recent October faceoff was in the 2017 ALDS when the Yankees came back from two games down to win in five.

Though, that series is more of a faint memory at this point as both clubs retained only a handful of players on those teams three years ago – Tuesday is going to be an entirely new ballgame.

Calling Cleveland “a great club with tremendous starting pitching,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone addressed his club’s confidence going into the Wild Card round, despite having “a week where we haven’t played our best baseball,” to conclude the up-and-down year.

“We know if we’re playing our best baseball, we cannot only play with, but we can beat anyone,” Boone said. “We are a group that even in the worst of times has never lost confidence.”

Here’s a look at some of the major strengths and issues in question for the Yankees heading into the playoffs:

Batting champion DJ LeMahieu & home run king Luke Voit being “pillars”

Sep 16, 2020; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees first baseman Luke Voit (59) celebrates his three run home run during the sixth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays with second baseman DJ LeMahieu (26) at Yankee Stadium.Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s regular-season finale also featured second baseman DJ LeMahieu locking in his American League batting title with a .364 average while first baseman Luke Voit reigned supreme as the MLB’s home run king with a total of 22 over the 60 game sprint.

Boone called the duo “pillars” in the Yankee lineup, saying that “both guys are worthy of MVP consideration,” praising LeMahieu’s “amazing consistency” and defensive versatility.

Calling it “pretty cool,” DJ said that earning his second-career batting title hadn’t sunk in on Sunday night as much of his thoughts remained focused on the quick turnaround for the playoffs.

“I love our team in that clubhouse so I’m just excited to get out there with them in the playoffs, I think it’s going to be a really fun month,” LeMahieu said.

Speaking also on his teammate’s success, LeMahieu said Voit’s home run title was”definitely well deserved,” adding that number 59 carried the Yankees this season, not just from his homers, but as a “complete hitter” for the October-bound Bombers.

Giancarlo Stanton & Aaron Judge’s health

Jul 17, 2020; Bronx, New York, United States; New York Yankees designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton (27) and right fielder Aaron Judge (99) participate in drills during summer workouts at Yankee Stadium.Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Following two explosive starts in August, neither outfielder Giancarlo Stanton nor Aaron Judge have exhibited much power at the plate after returning from lingering IL stints from lower-body issues in the season’s final games.

Obviously, the Yankees were a better team when these two stars were crushing multiple homers per week, particularly in a game’s early innings — forcing an opponent to play catchup from the get-go.

In Judge’s case of what general manager Brian Cashman called a “failed rehab” of a calf injury, Boone is confident that the All-Star slugger is on the precipice of a powerful return.

“It really takes one swing, one at-bat to where he really clicks to that next level and hopefully the playoffs is where we see it,” the Yankees skipper said.

Deivi Garcia in the mix

Sep 26, 2020; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Deivi Garcia (83) pitches against the Miami Marlins during the first inning at Yankee Stadium.Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Although a concrete role has yet to be determined for the rookie righty, there has been much speculation that Deivi Garcia will see action at some point in the Wild Card round of play – potentially as a starter.

Don’t let Garcia’s 3-2 record and 4.98 ERA fool you, he’s had quite an abbreviated season for the Yanks.

Kyle Higashioka as starting catcher

Sep 24, 2020; Buffalo, New York, USA; Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (27) dives into home plate ahead of the tag by New York Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka (66) to score a run during the sixth inning at Sahlen Field.Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The entire Yankees pitching staff has a lower ERA when Kyle Higashioka has been behind the plate this season as opposed to Gary Sanchez.

Boone has alluded that “Higgy” will be taking a starting catcher’s role in these playoffs, something that Sanchez has taken in stride, saying through a translator that he will be “be ready in the bench for whenever the team needs me.”

Higashioka has developed particularly strong chemistry with staff ace Gerrit Cole, who will be starting in Game 1 of the Wild Card.

He’s batting .250 in 48 plate appearances this season.

Brett Gardner’s role

Sep 22, 2020; Buffalo, New York, US; New York Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner (11) scores a run on a catcher Kyle Higashioka (not pictured) RBI double during the eighth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Sahlen Field.Mandatory Credit: Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

As outfielder Brett Gardner singled in what possibly was his last at-bat at Yankee Stadium Sunday, it is not certain how Gardner will be utilized in these playoffs.

Off to a slow start, his final few weeks of the 2020 season saw an improvement at the plate, batting .361 over his last 15 games, upping his season mark to .223.

His usage will likely be contingent on how much playing time Boone will dedicate to the hot batted Clint Frazier, who has earned a significant place on the Yankees roster after being called up from Scranton in August.

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