TORONTO — With Toronto Blue Jays at second and third, two outs in the eighth inning and the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead, Manager Aaron Boone and the pitching coach Larry Rothschild looked to the mound from their perch on the dugout railing and gestured to reliever David Robertson.
What did Robertson want to do — pitch to Josh Donaldson or walk him to bring up Justin Smoak?
Robertson nodded toward first base, and Boone agreed, so the manager held up four fingers to the home plate umpire, David Rackley.
After walking Donaldson, Robertson engaged in an intense, nine-pitch at-bat that ended when Smoak — in a mental chess game with Robertson — correctly predicted a fastball and belted a home run over the center field wall to hand the Yankees a 7-4 defeat on Sunday afternoon.
It was the second home run of the day for Smoak, and the second consecutive loss for the Yankees in which their vaunted bullpen had faltered. They split their first series of the season, two games apiece, with the Blue Jays.
Most significant, as the Yankees geared up for their first home game of the season on Monday, was that Sunday’s events laid bare the decision-making process of Boone, their new leader who has never coached or managed before.
The decision to walk Donaldson was reasonable on paper: He had hit two home runs in nine plate appearances against Robertson. Smoak, on the other hand, was hitless against Robertson in six trips, including strikeouts in all three at-bats last season.
The modern game dictates that these types of numbers not be ignored. Experience is increasingly given short shrift when teams hire managers because such in-game decisions can be mapped out well before they actually happen. There is little use for going with one’s gut — or, termed another way, the observation of an experienced hand.
So, the fact that Donaldson was 2 for 13 in the series — or that Smoak had five hits in his previous eight at-bats, including a 2-run home run off Tommy Kahnle in the seventh inning — did not outweigh the long-term data.
“It can,” Boone said. “But less than I think some may think. I don’t get caught up too much in last at-bat, two at-bats ago, or even recent small history. That’s part of it — you’re reading swings and reading how guys are doing and stuff like that, but you’re trying to match up skill set with skill set, more so.”
What Boone liked was that Robertson has a devastating curveball that he mixes mostly with a cut fastball.
“It’s not just on a whim,” Boone said. “That’s the matchup we wanted.”
Robertson froze Smoak with a cutter to climb back in the count to 2-2. Smoak fouled off the next pitch, a curveball, and took another in the dirt to run the count full before fighting off two more curveballs on his hands to stay alive.
“I threw him some really good pitches,” Robertson said. “He just kept fouling them off and stayed on me. I thought I could get a fastball by him. I didn’t think I could throw him another curveball; he’d already seen too many then.”
At that point, Smoak was thinking much the same thing.
“Honestly, he snuck a cutter right down the middle by me and I was pretty much all in on an off-speed pitch there,” Smoak said. “In the back of my mind I had a feeling he might sneak it by me again because I was able to battle those two curveballs off.”
“I’m glad I was thinking the way I was thinking,” he said.
Robertson was asked if he felt good about the decisive pitch when it left his hand.
“It’s a strike,” he said. “It’s 3-2. I’ve got the tying run on third base. Everything I’m throwing right there is as hard as I can, with quality and in the strike zone. I just wasn’t fortunate enough today.”
The same could be said of his manager.
Aaron Judge, back in right field after playing in center on Saturday, threw out Russell Martin at the plate in the second inning … Brandon Drury hit his first home run with the Yankees, belting a hanging slider from Marcus Stroman over the left-field wall for a 2-run shot that gave the Yankees a 4-1 lead in the third inning … Sonny Gray allowed only one run and struck out eight, but he lasted just four-plus innings because he threw 89 pitches.
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