Have No Fear, Yankees Fans: Secret Weapon, Improved Play Will Save ’20 Disaster

Kathy Willens/Associated PressIt is Game 3 of the wild-card round, which means the season is down to the final nine innings. The New York Yankees, who staged a comeback from a three-week nosedive that cost them the division, are ready to unveil their secret weapon. But his name isn’t Gerrit Cole or Masahiro Tanaka, who…

Have No Fear, Yankees Fans: Secret Weapon, Improved Play Will Save ’20 Disaster

New York Yankees starting pitcher Deivi Garcia winds up during the first inning of an exhibition baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Monday, July 20, 2020, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

It is Game 3 of the wild-card round, which means the season is down to the final nine innings. The New York Yankees, who staged a comeback from a three-week nosedive that cost them the division, are ready to unveil their secret weapon. But his name isn’t Gerrit Cole or Masahiro Tanaka, who have already started Games 1 and 2.

Instead, the Bombers turn a hopeful gaze toward an undersized 21-year-old rookie who hardly looks the part of a playoff savior. That is, until he unleashes the first fastball that practically explodes on opposing hitters.

Say hello to Deivi Garcia, who just might be the difference-maker the Yankees have been looking for all along. 

A lot has to go right for the Yankees over the final 17 games, but this 11th-hour scenario isn’t impossible.

Garcia has pitched himself into contention for a do-or-die assignment after his takedown of the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night. Not only did he stop the Bombers’ five-game losing streak, but he also (temporarily) put an end to the idea that the Yankees had gone soft.

Things got so bad during the 5-15 stretch that Luke Voit was moved to say, “I feel like teams aren’t really scared of us right now, and it’s kind of a sad thing because we’re the New York Yankees.”

We’ll see how much fear the Bombers can still generate, especially after being dominated by the Tampa Bay Rays and the Jays.

The Yankees are currently engaged in a fierce battle with the Baltimore Orioles for the American League‘s No. 8 spot, which says plenty about their diminished horizons. It wasn’t so long ago when the Vegas oddsmakers considered a Yankees vs. Los Angeles Dodgers World Series inevitable. The 60-game season was supposed to be just a warmup for Fox’s dream matchup.

But injuries to several key players, including Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, as well as quick trips to the injured list by Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu, have turned the Yankees into a shell of their former selves. Throw in Gary Sanchez’s invisibility and Voit’s indictment teetered toward prophecy: Despite the huge payroll, the era of Pinstripe intimidation was winding down.

But hold on.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Judge (calf) and Stanton (hamstring) are in the final stages of rehabbing their injuries. Both are expected to return before the end of the regular season. And although No. 3 starter James Paxton suffered a setback from a flexor tendon injury Thursdaymaking it less likely he’ll pitch again this seasonthat just created an opening for Garcia.

To say the rookie has impressed the Yankees’ hierarchy is putting it mildly. Via a Zoom interview, Aaron Boone said Garcia is “certainly putting his name in the conversation” about the postseason. The manager isn’t giving away any secrets just yet—”we’ll see in the next 2-3 weeks where we are”but the Bombers’ faith in the 21-year-old is growing. 

“I know he wouldn’t flinch at the opportunity,” Boone said when asked if Garcia could handle a critical October start. “I’m totally confident in him. He can handle any situation you throw him in.”

It took just three starts for Garcia to turn his bosses into believers. And what a debut it’s been. He’s the first pitcher in Yankees history to have two games of six-plus strikeouts and no walks in his first three career major league games.

Despite his age and size (5’9″), Garcia takes hitters apart with a veteran’s understanding of the craft. He changes eye levels multiple times within the same at-bat and disrupts their timing by combining a mid-90s fastball with a loopy 77-mph curveball. Teammate Clint Frazier, who faced him during Summer Camp, noted, “Deivi forces you to guess” which one of his primary weapons is coming. But it’s impossible to simultaneously defend against both; they have different signatures in speed and trajectory. 

Garcia also hides the ball by turning his back to the batter before striding toward the plate. Think: Johnny Cueto’s spin move. Older fans will say Garcia is channeling Luis Tiant. Pick your era, but the net effect is the same. Hitters lose the ball for a split second, which increases Garcia’s perceived velocity by 3-4 mph above the radar gun. His four-seamer has 2.9 more inches of vertical movement than the average MLB fastball, 11th-best in the majors, per Baseball Savant.

And here’s the most important part of the dossier: Garcia isn’t afraid.

He easily shut down the surging Blue Jays in the Yankees’ biggest game of the year Wednesday, limiting them to two runs over seven innings. When asked if he’d felt the pressure of rescuing the Bombers from their losing streak, Garcia seemed almost amused.

“It’s no secret we find ourselves in a losing streak, so yeah, it’s in your mind, but I don’t see it as pressure,” he said. “I see it more as a responsibility for me to go out there and give us a chance.”

No wonder Boone is all-in.

But first things first for the Yankees. They need to take the current series with the Orioles. Garcia’s masterpiece would go to waste otherwise. That means Cole and Tanaka, who’ll start both games in Friday’s doubleheader, need to excel. Cole, in particular, has to shake a slump that started a month ago. 

It’s no exaggeration to say Cole, who signed a nine-year, $324 million contract over the winter, has been a disappointment. Boone insists his ace is “close to being the best pitcher in the game.” That’s the company line: It’s only a few mistakes that have hurt him.

Still, he’s allowed 13 home runs, tied with the Detroit Tigers‘ Matthew Boyd for the most in the majors, and hasn’t won a decision since Aug. 14.

Make no mistake: The Yankees aren’t going anywhere without Cole’s best stuff. But because of the wild card’s unusual format, he’s not going to send the Bombers to the next round. At least not directly. Chances are, it’ll take three games to do it, which means Boone will likely have to choose between veteran J.A. Happ and the rookie no one can stop talking about.

Our hunch? He’s going with door No. 2.