Five lessons we learned from Yankees-A's

From who's hot to who's hurt, if this week's series was indeed a preview of the AL wild-card game, what did it tell us about Oct. 3? Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Back in May when they met in the Bronx, the New York Yankees overpowered the Oakland A's in an early-season series win.

Things have changed.

In obliterating the Yankees 8-2 Wednesday night en route to their own series win at home, the A's just tilted the balance of power among these playoff-contending teams. Granted, with the Yankees likely getting back a couple of key power-hitting stars from injury relatively soon, this shift might only be temporary.

Still, the past three nights in the East Bay indicate the Yankees and A's are on a collision course to meet in this season's American League wild-card game.

"It's hard not to look at the standings and see how things might line up a few weeks down the road," Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner said. "There's a good chance we'll see them again at the end of the year. It's just up to us to try and play some better baseball and get back to the way we know we're capable of playing."

Of late, the Yankees have played just well enough to contend for either of the two available wild-card spots. They currently lead for the top wild-card seed by 3 ½ games. But the red-hot, second-place A's are on the kind of roll that might lead to the teams switching places.

If that happens, the Yankees would be taking a cross-country trip for an elimination game here in early October.

Until then, here's what we've learned from this September series:

1. The Yankees still can't trust Sanchez behind the dish

If you ask Yankees fans if the team can depend on Gary Sanchez based on Wednesday night's series finale, they'd likely struggle to say yes. Despite the promise of power his bat brings, Sanchez still doesn't engender further confidence when it comes to his defense behind the plate.

As part of a ragged first inning Wednesday, he was charged with two passed balls and was also on the receiving end of a pair of wild pitches from starter Luis Severino. Despite both players saying a pregame change of signs might have led to some early-game miscommunication, Sanchez still said he thought he ought to have caught all four pitches.

"At the end of the day, they were near the zone, and as a catcher, I have the ability to stop those," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "I didn't."

Sanchez, who has only played about half the season due to a recurring groin injury, is now tied with Martin Maldonado for the major league lead in passed balls with 13. The two catchers who relieved Sanchez while he was hurt, Austin Romine and Kyle Higashioka, own a combined five passed balls.

His issues receiving pitches aside, Sanchez still possesses the kind of elite arm that causes baserunners to think twice about stealing. That's one reason benching him isn't likely. He also has the kind of power that can make him a headache to pitch around, as A's starter Mike Fiers discovered at the end of his strong six-inning, three-hit start Wednesday.

Just before Fiers was chased from the game, Sanchez unloaded on an 85 mph two-seam fastball, blasting it deep into the left-field bleachers. That homer gave the Yankees their seventh player with 15 or more home runs this season.

Ahead of the wild-card game or any other postseason pursuits, the Yankees could surely use a bat like Sanchez's. But his glove? Until he shows consistent and marked improvement catching, they're going to have a hard time justifying relying upon it.

2. Oakland's hitters are fearless

As far as their rotation is concerned, the Yankees, in theory, threw three of their best pitchers at the A's this week: CC Sabathia, J.A. Happ and Severino.

Only Happ had any success.

A healthy Sabathia turned in one of his worst outings Monday, giving up five runs in a 3 1/3-inning appearance that was his second-shortest of the season. Similarly, Severino was awful, not even getting out of the third inning Wednesday. He was chased by a six-hit, six-run battering conducted by the A's.

The wild pitches and passed balls aside, Severino had trouble avoiding Oakland's barrels in the first inning. Of the six balls the A's put in play off him in the first, five were hit at exit velocities of 90 mph or faster. Four of them were hit faster than 103.

While facing Severino and the Yankees bullpen, the A's hit six doubles Wednesday. Ramon Laureano and Khris Davis took the most advantage, each doubling twice. Despite the two-hitter Happ and his bullpen threw Tuesday, Oakland's hitters batted .240 (23-for-96) with a .704 OPS overall in the series. Half their hits were of the extra-base variety.

Right fielder Stephen Piscotty and third baseman Matt Chapman had hits in all three games. With Piscotty over the 20-homer mark, and Chapman's average in the .280s, both have proven to be key cogs in the Oakland offense.

3. The force is with Luke

Prior to Aug. 24, Luke Voit was a virtual unknown in the Yankees universe. True, he had been traded to the Bronx nearly a month prior as part of a move that dealt away pitchers Chasen Shreve and Giovanny Gallegos to St. Louis.

Still, after a rather unproductive initial stint with the Yankees less than a week after the trade, there wasn't much of a reason to know who he was and just what he could do. So back down to the minors Voit went. He went down for a stay that would only last eight days before coming back up -- to stay, it appears -- in time for the playoff chase.

After a home-run explosion in Baltimore at the end of August, Voit has provided just the voltage the occasionally punch-less Yankees offense has needed. Take Tuesday night's game, for example. Voit and his teammates had been no-hit into the sixth inning by Oakland's relievers, who began the game. The Yankees hitters made some noise in the sixth, but it was in the eighth when the first baseman delivered the booming blow that put New York ahead for good.

An emphatic shot, the laser to left was his seventh home run in a dozen days. It also was his fifth in that stretch to either tie a game or put the Yankees ahead.

"We've kind of been in a funk, and it's baseball, you're going to go through phases. We're going to get hot at the right time," Voit said. "This team is so freaking dangerous. And especially when you get some of these guys back, too, from injuries. The sky is the limit, and I'm excited to get deep into the playoffs with this team."

Voit went 1-for-4 with a ninth-inning single Wednesday, but he proved this series to be a capable sparkplug who can help carry this team down the stretch as Greg Bird has fallen out of favor and the wait for Aaron Judge's return continues.

4. Just tell the Yanks it's the sixth

The Yankees' offense has generally been poor the past 10 days. From the time they opened a home series with the White Sox, the Yankees have hit .203 with a .689 OPS.

But as poorly as they have played in those ballgames, their ineffectiveness early has been most noteworthy.

In part, that's because three times in the past week opposing pitchers have taken no-hitters well into their second time through the Yankees' lineup. But by the fifth and sixth innings of those games, New York's hitters have been waking up.

Since Aug. 27, when the Yankees opened a homestand against the White Sox, they're hitting .160 with a .551 OPS across the first five innings. Within that same 10-game stretch, they're hitting .252 with a .843 OPS from the sixth inning through the end of the game.

During this series -- one in which, remember, A's relievers had a no-hitter going into the sixth inning of a bullpen game -- the Yankees batted .125 (6-for-48) with a .402 OPS in the first five innings.Though they didn't fare a whole lot better, they did improve in the series from the sixth inning on, hitting .239 (11-for-46) with a .798 OPS.

5. Who starts the wild-card game is ... a wild card

It would seem clear after Severino's stinker and Happ's highlight that maybe the latter ought to get the ball for the Yankees in a pivotal wild-card game.

After all, in addition to giving up just two hits through a six-inning outing Tuesday, Happ is now 5-0 with a 3.10 ERA in the seven starts he's made with the Yankees since being traded from Toronto at the trade deadline. New York is 6-1 in the games he has started.

Severino, meanwhile, is 3-3 in his past seven starts, compiling a 5.75 ERA in that span.

Going back even further, the 1.98 ERA he had on July 1 was the lowest in the American League. The 6.83 ERA he has posted in starts since then ranks as the third-highest in the league.

Toss the recent numbers to the side, though. Yankees manager Aaron Boone still believes in the now-embattled battery of Severino and Sanchez, the pairing he used on Opening Day, and the one his predecessor, Joe Girardi, used in last year's wild-card win over the Twins.

"We have a few weeks for that kind of stuff to unfold and see where we're at, and we'll make those decisions as we go, but do I think those two are capable of going out and shoving?" Boone said. "Absolutely."

As for the A's, a team that has four of its five opening week starters currently on the DL, the choice for the wild-card game could look a lot like it did Tuesday.

If Sean Manaea isn't back by then, maybe it's worth considering the bullpenday option? After all, the Yankees have struggled at times against that setup, scuffling against the notorious creators of the bullpen game, the Rays. Although they won, the Yankees also had some limited success against Oakland's bullpen day on Tuesday. After Liam Hendriks threw a scoreless, hitless first, Daniel Mengden came in and threw 4 2/3 innings of one-hit ball.

Then there's also Fiers, the A's trade acquisition from Detroit who went six scoreless, three-hit innings Wednesday.

They still have time to decide, but the Yankees and A's showed this week that whomever they choose to start their first playoff game will likely step onto the mound, in the Bronx or Oakland, on Oct. 3.