All the Yankees need in this postseason, it seems, is a return home to Yankee Stadium, their Fortress of Solitude. After suffering through two nail-biting losses in Houston, the Yankees came back to New York and delivered the most relaxing playoff win in recent memory, a casual 8-1 win over the Astros to hold serve in an ALCS that has yet to see a home team lose.
Getting the start for the Yankees was CC Sabathia. As I watched the early innings of the game I was thinking that if I were an Astros fan, I wouldn’t believe in Sabathia. I would have dismissed his stellar record in starts following Yankee losses this season as nothing but a fluke, no more proof of his effectiveness than presents on Christmas morning are proof of Santa Claus.
But facts are facts, and while Sabathia might look more like Santa Claus than the Yankees’ ace at this point in his career, he took the mound on Monday night and did what aces do. On a night when his team needed him the most, Sabathia gave them exactly what any ace would. He cruised through the first two innings, keeping the Houston bats quiet — even José Altuve’s — to give his team a chance to jump out in front early.
The first Yankee rally began in the bottom of the second inning. With two men already out, Starlin Castro took a big swing and hit a dribbler to the left side of the infield for a base hit. Next up was Aaron Hicks, who blooped a ball into center to bring up Todd Frazier with two on and two out. For his 1-1 pitch, Houston starter Charlie Morton threw what he’d probably say was the perfect pitch for the situation, a 95-MPH fastball at the knees and on the outside corner. That’s normally a pitch that a dead pull hitter like Frazier would either swing through or foul off, but instead Frazier reached out over the plate and punched the ball one-handed towards right field. The nature of his swing seemed to indicate a lazy fly out, but the ball left his bat in a hurry and kept carrying and carrying until it fell into the first couple of rows in the right field bleachers for a three-run home run.
It was the Yankees’ first lead of the series, and with Sabathia looking good and the bullpen incredibly fresh, Yankee fans from New York to California were surely feeling confident. Almost immediately, though, Sabathia worked himself into some trouble in the top of the third. After getting the first two outs rather quickly, he walked George Springer and gave up a single to Alex Bregman, putting runners on first and third with Altuve headed to the plate. At this point there’s really no reason to pitch to Altuve, even with Carlos Correa looming behind him, and Sabathia was more than a little careful. Even though Bregman was on first, there was still a base open, as David Cone is always reminding us, so Sabathia gave Altuve nothing to hit while issuing a five-pitch walk.
If there was a moment when the game might’ve turned, this was clearly it. Even just a base hit from Correa, who had produced three of the Astros’ four runs in Houston, would’ve tightened the game into a tense affair, and a home run would’ve sucked the life out of the Stadium. But Sabathia stood strong, surprising Correa with a cutter over the heart of the plate for strike one, then riding another in on his hands to get a pop-up to end the threat. It would be the last tense moment of the game.
Cameron Maybin was in left field for Houston, and in the bottom of the fourth he had a good look at a play that would eventually lead to the demise of his Astros. With the outfield swung all the around to the right, Greg Bird sliced a fly ball down the left field line. The ball was in the air for an awful long time, and I’m sure everyone watching, whether in gray or in pinstripes, assumed Maybin would make the play. But he inexplicably pulled up at the last minute, let the ball bounce at his feet, and then watched helplessly as it spun into the stands for a lead-off ground rule double.
The two-out rally continued when Frazier drew a walk, and then the Yankees cashed in Maybin’s misplay when Chase Headley’s grounder up the middle glanced off Altuve’s glove for an RBI single to put the Yankees up 4-0. Mr. Morton had pitched well, much better than his eventual stat line would indicate, but now things were unraveling. To makes matter worse, and to end his night, Morton plunked Brett Gardner to load the bases for Aaron Judge.
All I wanted in the world at that moment was a grand slam for Judge, something to quiet the critics, reward his patience, and send the Stadium into euphoria, but it wasn’t to be. Reliever Will Harris threw a 58-foot curve ball that bounced over his catcher’s head, allowing one runner to score and the others to advance, denying the grand slam but adding to the Yankee lead.
Somewhere David Cone was looking at that empty base at first, but Harris wasn’t. He threw a 2-1 fastball that Judge barely missed, then came back with another that he didn’t. Judge sent a rocket to left that never seemed to get more than fifty feet off the ground as it screamed towards its destination in the first row of the bleachers. Judge allowed himself a smile of relief as he rounded first, and the Stadium celebrated the 8-0 lead.
After Judge had fouled off that first fastball, it seemed like catcher Evan Gattis had recognized the folly of trying to sneak another one past him, and looked to be calling for a curveball. Harris shook him off twice, though, until he got what he wanted and delivered that fateful fastball. The whole thing felt like a scene out of Bull Durham. (It should also be noted that Judge made two fantastic plays in the field, one jumping high against the wall in right, the other diving to catch a line drive in front of him. The whole package was on display.)
Nothing much happened after that. The game wasn’t half over, but the eight runs felt like more than enough. After two weeks of tense playoff baseball, it was nice to have the game on in the background during dinner with the family. Heck, it was nice to be able to breathe.
Sabathia continued dealing, although he had to work around two hits in the fifth, and a hit and an error in the sixth. He’d throw 99 pitches over six innings, allowing just three hits, four walks, and not a single run. He improved to 10-0 this season following Yankee losses, the first American League pitcher to do that since another great Yankee, Whitey Ford, in 1961.
If there was anything to be concerned about, it was Delin Betances. With the game already in his pocket, Joe Girardi wisely took the opportunity to pitch Betances in the ninth, clearly hoping to give his big reliever some confidence should he be needed in a tight spot later on. Unfortunately for Betances, he walked the first batter on four pitches that weren’t close to the plate, then walked the next, forcing Girardi to get him. I feel bad for Delin. We know him as an unhittable all-star, but he’s fallen into a terrible funk at the worst possible time. My guess is that barring an extra-inning marathon, we won’t seem him pitch again until April. It’s a shame.
But the good news is that the Yankees are back in business. A win today evens the series, and then all things are possible.