CLEVELAND -- Although the New York Yankees have not finalized their roster for the start of the wild-card round, which they have to submit to Major League Baseball on Tuesday morning, one major decision was made: Backup Kyle Higashioka will be catching ace Gerrit Cole in Game 1 against the Indians, not Gary Sánchez.
"Higgy will catch him [Tuesday]," manager Aaron Boone said ahead of the Yankees' Monday workout at Progressive Field, which moved indoors due to heavy rain in the Cleveland area. "Just with the roll that Gerrit and Higgy have been on and knowing that, if we're to go deep in this postseason, we're going to need both of those guys."
Cole finished his first regular season in pinstripes 7-3 with a 2.84 ERA but went 3-1 with a 1.00 ERA in his final four starts paired with Higashioka. In eight games with Sánchez at catcher, three of which were against the American League East champion Tampa Bay Rays, Cole went 4-2 with a 3.91 ERA and 60 strikeouts in 46 innings.
The right-hander's numbers were also better across the board with Higashioka, not only in allowing only 3 earned runs in 27 innings pitched, but also in striking out 34 batters and holding them to a .147 batting average.
Nonetheless, Boone said that even though Higashioka is expected to serve as Cole's personal catcher during the postseason, Sánchez was still considered a cornerstone of the franchise, which Boone stressed when informing him of the decision.
"He was fine," Boone said of Sánchez's reaction upon hearing the news. "Especially when we get past this, when we get into everyday situations, both guys are obviously going to play. In Gary's case, as I talked to him today, he's got to be ready early, middle part of this game, there could be a big situation that calls for him. ... He knows to be ready at any point early in the game, and knows that if we're going to win a championship, he's going to be a big part of it."
Higashioka walked a fine line in celebrating the personal milestone of starting his first playoff game while understanding Sánchez's disappointment. Sánchez, 27, and Higashioka, 30, the longest-tenured Yankees behind only Brett Gardner, came up together through the minor leagues and have a close personal relationship.
"It's kind of beyond what I would have imagined at the beginning of the season," Higashioka said. "Every time, we try to go out and do our best, and that's led us to this point. Just hoping for a good team win, and keep this thing rolling. It's always good to have people want to throw to you. I think it validates the hard work you put in as a catcher on the defensive side, and studying the hitters and whatnot, but at the end of the day, we just we just want to win, so that's the most important thing."
Sánchez, who at one point was one of the most feared hitters in baseball, has had a horrendous season at the plate, hitting .147/.253 /.365 over 49 games, with only 10 home runs and 24 runs batted in. By comparison, Sánchez hit .232 with 34 HRs and 77 RBIs in 106 games last year, but Higashioka said he believes losing the starting job when Cole is on the mound will make Sánchez a better player.
"I know Gary, and I know he's extremely mentally tough. So if anything, it's gonna just spur him onto performing even better, get back to his normal self," he said.
Sánchez has repeatedly indicated that he does not focus on things he cannot control and that he's not upset about being benched.
"I don't focus on just who is behind the plate. We're a team, and it's important for people to understand the bottom line is winning," Sánchez said after Cole's last regular-season start with Higashioka. "I'm a soldier on this team, and if my name is in the lineup, I'm gonna be ready. If I'm not starting, I'm going to be ready for when my team needs to be. Decisions are made. ... My responsibility is to be ready to play when the time comes."
Cole has praised both backstops, but when asked about being paired with Higashioka, he mentioned having similar backgrounds as one of the reasons why their battery has worked so well. Higashioka and Cole both grew up in California and even played together on an elite youth team when they were both 17 years old.
Coincidentally, Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks was also part of that team.
"Probably because we're both from Southern California," Cole said Monday afternoon. "I mean, we have a lot of the same interests, and Kyle's ability to communicate, be a really creative thinker, good pitch framer, good pitch caller. So we've worked out well together."
The first game between the Indians and Yankees will be a marquee matchup between 2019 Cy Young runner-up Cole and the presumptive 2020 winner, Shane Bieber, who went 8-1 with a 1.63 ERA in 12 starts and had 122 strikeouts in 77⅓ innings pitched. Cole is 2-1 in four career starts against the Indians with a 2.79 ERA and 27 strikeouts, 8 walks and 16 hits allowed over 29 innings pitched.