2022 MLB Playoffs: Yankees bullpen comes through and seals Game 1 victory

With Jake Mintz
FOX Sports MLB Writer

NEW YORK — The Yankees bullpen is currently being held together with string, gum and duct tape. It frays around the edges, weakens and wears down the grueling gauntlet of a 162-game season.

Their ragged face is understandable. New York’s relief corps has endured one hell of a season, from the seemingly never-ending barrage of injuries to Aroldis Chapman’s infected tattoo-related no-show workout to Tuesday’s unexpected UCL tear for deadline acquisition Scott Ephros.

But on Tuesday at Yankee Stadium, this battered and defeated group of relievers held firm and survived Game 1 against the Guardians without allowing a run. Thanks to a pair of timely double plays and a hapless Cleveland offense, the trio of Jonathan Loaisiga, Wandy Peralta and Clay Holmes threw no hits in 2⅔ innings of work and led the Yanks home to a thrilling 4-1 victory. Each wavered, if only for a moment, but in the end held firm.

Yankee ace Gerrit Cole, a.k.a. the most expensive pitcher in the known universe, earned his big bucks in his first career postseason in the Bronx as a Yankee. His complete capitulation in last year’s AL Wild-Card game at Fenway Park now seems like a century ago. Cole’s confident demeanor Tuesday afternoon matched his dominance: 6 2/3 innings, four hits, eight punch-outs, the lone blemish a solo homer off the bat of Steven Kwan.

Steven Quan hits a solo home run off Gerrit Cole

Steven Kwan gives the Guardians an early 1-0 lead with a solo run off Yankees reliever Gerrit Cole.

The entire backcourt figured out pretty quickly — if they didn’t already — that Cleveland’s best shot at pushing for runs would be against New York’s questionable pen. Guardians manager Terry Francona spoke after the game about his players working Cole’s pitch early to reach the Yankees pen. Early on, it looked like that strategy would pay off, but an eight-pitch quarter allowed Cole to get through the middle innings.

However, after Cleveland nine-hole slapper Myles Straw reached on a one-out single in the seventh, Yankees skipper Aaron Boone did the necessary thing, removing Cole from the game after 101 pitches. As the New York skipper walked onto the mound, a fog of concern began to float around the yard. Yankees fans knew what was coming, what was going to be asked of the beleaguered bullpen: eight outs before three runs.

The first volunteer thrown into the fire was right-hander Loáisiga, who just a year ago was considered one of the team’s true high-leverage options. Armed with a 100 mph heater, he’s nearly struck out a batter over 70+ frames in 2021, with an impressive 2.17 ERA to boot. But this year, the 27-year-old struggled with ineffectiveness early in the season before going on the injured list in May because of a shoulder problem.

Since his return in mid-July, Loáisiga has been closer to his old self but has yet to regain his best form.

And so, any concerns about Loáisiga and the bullpen as a whole were only doubled when Kwan, the first baseman he faced, lined a single over the shortstop’s head to put two on with one out. The 47,807 at Yankee Stadium, which for most of the evening had been absolutely raucous, went wild. Outwardly confident, inwardly still glued to Chapman, the crowd grew understandably nervous.

But then a 100 mph fastball in the hands of Guardians shortstop Amed Rosario changed the story. As the 1-2 pitch reached Rosario’s hands, he offered a bland, uninspired swing. The man was blocked. The ball floated harmlessly to Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who calmly stepped on second and fired to first for a double play. Login complete. Disaster averted.

After that dose of good luck, Loáisiga came back for the eighth and promptly allowed a lead-off single to José Ramirez. Again the doubt swelled as Boone walked the path to the mound. This time he hit the opposite hand, bringing up the left-handed Peralta.

Peralta, who hadn’t pitched since Sept. 18 because of a back strain, was tasked with retiring Cleveland’s strongest hitter, lefty Josh Naylor. Naylor — who along with Ramirez was one of two Guardians to eclipse 20 home runs this season — tends to struggle against pitches that look the same. His OPS is .344 points lower against lefties.

But since Cleveland’s bench isn’t exactly loaded with Silver Slugger candidates, Naylor stayed to face Peralta. Predictably, he threw a weak 0-1 slider to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who stepped on the first base bag and pilled to second for the tag and double-play. A pitcher’s best friend, here he comes again.

Like Loáisiga before him, Peralta returned after the Yankees’ inning and retired lefty Andres Gimenez on a harmless pitch. At that point, Francona called on righty Owen Miller to pinch hit, which pulled Boone from the dugout and Holmes from the pen.

At one point this season, Holmes was automatic. After Chapman struggled for a long time and hit the IL, Holmes was given the tight end role. He took it by the horns with his heavy hitting, earning his first career All-Star nod.

But that consistent excellence meant the Yankees leaned heavily on him when their other relievers began falling like dominoes. By the end of the year, that fatigue showed. Holmes’ 4.84 in the second half was hilariously higher than his 1.31 in the first half. His ineffectiveness led to an IL stint in August and an extended period of rest to close out the season. Before Tuesday, he had last been seen on September 26.

His long-awaited return started as badly as one could imagine, with an immediate sinking by Miller.

But like his predecessors, Holmes settled down, getting Will Benson to ground out to Rizzo before Struh ended the game in center.

After such a tumultuous season, Tuesday was a pleasantly indifferent performance for Boone and his bullpen. Even better, Holmes, Peralta and Loáisiga might normally be limited to a Game 2, but Wednesday’s odd day gives New York more opportunities to rest its best horses.

They’ll need all the rest they can get because the road gets rockier from here.

Jake Mintz, the stronger half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He is an Orioles fan who lives in New York, and thus, lives a lonely life for most of October. If he’s not watching baseball, he’s almost certainly riding his bike. Follow him on Twitter @Jake_Mintz.

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