April 18, 2024

If you’re like me, you’ve watched nearly three hours of Dwyane Wade hosting The Cube and are feeling a little woozy. You may even have forgotten why you turned on the television in the first place. Well, let me remind you. What was supposed to happen on Monday night was the Game 5 winner-take-all game of the American League Division Series between our Cleveland Guardians and the New York Yankees. With Monday night’s rain, the game has now been moved to Tuesday after 4 PM Eastern.

I’m a working man with some odd hours, so I didn’t have any time to squeeze in some thoughts about Game 5 between my labors and the supposed 7 PM start time, but now I find myself with some time before bed. Here are some observations on the Game 5 to come.

Who Pitches for the Guardians?

  • Regardless of the extra day, the Guardians will not be utilizing Shane Bieber. The team feels the need to be careful with Bieber and his future, whether that future is ALCS Game 1 or Opening Day 2023. Any rumor about him starting, pitching in relief or any other participation outside of extra innings desperation is just that: a rumor. The pitching plan for the Guardians remains what it would have been on Monday. Aaron Civale will start with a short leash. Due to the extra day off the Guardians’ entire bullpen will be rested rather than just the front-line arms of Emmanuel Clase, James Karinchak, Trevor Stephan and Sam Hentges. I genuinely think that those four relievers could give as many as seven innings if needed. Preferably, Civale will be able to pitch deeper, but depending on his effectiveness he could very well go as little as three batters or as many as six innings, but likely somewhere in between.
  • Civale will be making his first playoff appearance and will be doing it under the harsh focus of a win-or-go-home game at Yankee Stadium. He has a 4.78 ERA in 26 1/3 innings pitched in five career starts vs. the Yankees. He faced them twice in 2022 and the Guardians lost both starts. Four of the planned Yankee starting nine have faced Civale before and have hit a combined .317 with an on-base of .349 and slug of .537 to complete the slash-line. Gleyber Torres, Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo have had all the success, while Josh Donaldson has struggled, going 1/9 in his career vs. Civale. What’s more striking is that Civale has never faced Yankee mainstays like Giancarlo Stanton or Aaron Hicks. I think Civale never being seen before by more than half of the Yankee’s lineup plays in his favor in a must-win game. His match-up against them becomes a matter of whether the element of surprise will outweigh the success some of the other Yankees have had against him.
  • Civale had a 4.92 ERA on the season, but that number is misleading. He was pretty woeful early in the season before the first of his three stints on the Injured List. That first trip to the IL commenced in late May and Civale allowed 27 earned runs in the seven starts that came before it. He allowed on 26 earned runs in the 13 starts that came after, good for a much better 3.55 ERA. Civale struck out hitters at the best rate of his career in 2022 and much of that good work came after that first time on the IL. His K-rate was 20% before that time on the shelf, which was in line with his K-rate from 2021. That same rate spiked to a career-best 26% since that first trip to the IL while he also lost a point and a half percent on his already lean walk rate. Civale has a deep six-pitch mix but has focused on throwing his three most effective pitches this year: his curveball, sinker and cutter, as the season has progressed. He has greatly diminished his four-seam use while basically mothballing his splitter and slider. While Civale’s Yankee-related numbers aren’t especially confidence-inducing, he has been doing some of the best pitching of his career down the stretch and should be prepared to use his arsenal accordingly. Judge and Stanton are the only Yankees hitters above the league average in hitting curveballs based on xwOBA and Civale should be snapping off some nasty hooks.

Who Will Pitch for the Yankees?

  • The Yankees have changed course and will no longer start Jameson Taillon for Game 5 as was planned for Monday night. Instead, they will return to lefty Nestor Cortes who will be pitching on three days rest after his five-inning, two-run performance that led to a no-decision and Yankee loss in Game 2. Cortes has been an effective pitcher all season, compiling a 2.44 ERA and looking like the Yankees’ best starter on any given fifth day. However, he will be facing the Guardians for the second time in rapid succession, will be doing it on only three days rest and following a performance that while far from bad saw him allow nine base-runners in just a mere five innings. Cortes faced the same team in back-to-back starts twice in 2022. On May 21st he pitched five innings and allowed three runs in a 7-5 victory against the White Sox. On June 21st he pitched only 4 1/3 innings and allowed four runs on three homers against the Tampa Bay Rays in what would be a 5-4 loss. These two appearances give him a 6.75 ERA on the season when facing the same team in back-to-back starts. Regardless of the meaning of that small sample size, I find it hard to believe Cortes will pitch deep into the ballgame given all the factors going against him.
  • The key for Cortes will be to remain unpredictable. As someone that profiles as a high-level strike thrower who leans on two different types of fastballs, he will need to be able to mix in his secondary pitches and throw enough chase pitches to keep the Guardians off balance. Teams only slugged .239 off of Cortes’s four-seamer in 2022, but after having seen it on Friday, will a repeat performance in rapid succession have the effect that he wants? I’d believe it more if he was particularly dominant on Friday, but he wasn’t. Will Cortes take the initiative to adjust or will the Guardians be able to pick up on his patterns?
  • The person who probably benefited the most from an extra day of rest was Yankees’ lefty reliever Wandy Peralta. Peralta had been used on three consecutive days and due to manager Aaron Boone’s need to have a reliable lefty to face Josh Naylor and Andres Gimenez was probably going to be forced into action for a fourth day in a row. Now, he will be able to take a day of rest and presumably will be more reliable. Lou Trivino and Jonathon Loaisiga weren’t used on Sunday night due to the masterful outing for Gerrit Cole so outside of Peralta and Clay Holmes, nothing else changes with the extra day off. Still, the Guardians’ bullpen at large should remain with an advantage over the Yankees’. The question mark here continues to be when Boone will pull the trigger and go to his bullpen when he has limited resources that he is confident in. Cortes’ short rest scenario is yet another factor to include, though perhaps Taillon or Domingo German could be used as a bridge between the Yankees’ starter and Boone’s circle of trust at the back end.

What to Watch for From the Hitters?

  • For all the star power on the Yankees’ side, Harrison Bader is swinging the hottest bat of anyone in the series. He has three home runs in the series and has breathed life into the bottom third of the Yankees’ order. He could very well be an X-factor in Game 5. Players with confidence can do a lot of damage and he seems to be brimming with it right now.
  • On the other side of things, Torres has been abysmal. He is hitting .188 for the series with seven strikeouts in 16 at-bats. If the Yankees lineup remains the same, he will be leading off for Game 5 and seems to be a great batter for Civale to get his feet wet against. Hopefully, he can set him aside before having to face Aaron Judge.
  • I’ve said it numerous times before. The Guardians need Gimenez to hit in order to be successful. Unfortunately, he has the lowest OPS of any Guardians starter in the series. Still, he hit .336 against lefties on the season and with a lefty on the hill for New York, a couple of knocks from Gimenez could be an absolute game-changer.

Final Thoughts

  • The Guardians have prided themselves on taking things one day at a time and one game at a time. They have focused on making the most of the game that is in front of them every day. I continue to believe that if this team were to lose on Tuesday night it will not be because the moment was too big for them or because they broke down when it mattered most. It will simply be because the Yankees were the better team. That is still yet to be seen. Everything about this series has been competitive. The Guardians have already proven that they belong. This doesn’t feel like 2018 or 2020 where the organization was clearly outclassed by the top talent of the league. This feels like a situation where they are competitive with that top talent and could beat them on any given day.
  • That day very well may be Tuesday’s Game 5. Again, we end with a prediction and I just can’t bring myself to go against the Guardians. Not now. This may be the only non-objective aspect of this entire post. Guardians win Game 5 by a score of 5-3. The middle innings are filled with peril for the Yankees as Cortes can’t get through the Guards lineup the second time.

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