When Gary Sánchez jumped on an 0-2 fastball from Houston’s Blake Taylor in the top of the 8th inning, he did more than just give the Yankees an insurmountable 7-2 lead. Before he had even finished the follow through on a swing so pure that it must’ve been hard for any observer to imagine his two-year slump, it felt as if we were witnessing a massive recalibration of Yankees Universe.
With just six more outs the Bombers would complete not just a 5-1 road trip heading into the All-Star break, but a decisive three-game sweep of the team that has clearly surpassed the Red Sox as the principal villains on the Yankee schedule.
Nestor Cortes, who always looks to me like he’s just gotten off his shift at Ray’s Pizza (Original Ray’s, not Famous Rays), started the opener and came an out shy of qualifying for the win but still lowered his ERA to a city-best 1.05 as the Yankees set the tone with a 4-0 win.
Cortes was impressive, but on Saturday evening Gerrit Cole was phenomenal. After yielding nine runs in eight and a third innings over two mediocre starts, the whispers were no longer whispers. Cole had struggled since baseball’s crackdown on illegal substances, and suddenly the most important member of the Yankee pitching staff — in 2021 and for the next five years — was no longer a known quantity.
Given those circumstances along with the current desperation of his team, his complete game shutout in the middle game of the series was his most important and most impressive outing in pinstripes. When Cole struck out Robel García with his 112th pitch to close out the eighth inning with a slim 1-0 lead, anyone who’s been watching baseball for the past decade logically assumed his night was complete, even it wasn’t statistically complete. So when Cole climbed back out of the dugout for the ninth inning to act as his own closer, it was as if we were all stepping back in time.
Perhaps we weren’t headed all the way to the days of Tom Seaver, who hit double-digits in complete games in each of his first eleven seasons, or Bob Gibson, who had fifty-six complete games over 1968 and ’69, but it felt a lot like Jack Morris’s World-Series-clinching ten-inning shutout of the Atlanta Braves in 1991. (I understand that a performance like that in Game 7 of the World Series puts Morris on another level, but if we focus just on the pitching, this is a good comparison.) While Morris pitched all ten of his innings that October night without any runs on the board for either team, Cole worked his masterpiece with the benefit of just a single run, courtesy of an Aaron Judge homer (more on this later).
Like Morris three decades ago, Cole impressed just as much with his determination as with his brilliant stuff. After a lead-off single to José Altuve forced Cole to work the the rest of the ninth inning with the game-winning run standing in the batter’s box, the once and future Yankee ace took hold of the moment and refused to let it go. A ten-pitch battle with Michael Brantley ended with a harmless fly ball to center field for the first out, and then Yuli Gurriél went down on three quick strikes. What followed is the stuff of legend.
When Cole had last faced the Yankees back in May, Yordan Álvarez had touched him twice for two long home runs, so it was no surprise that Aaron Boone popped out of the dugout as the Houston slugger made his way to the plate to face a hurler who had already thrown 126 pitches. Pulling Cole would’ve been the easiest decision of Boone’s night, and it would’ve been that rare move that could never have been second guessed. After all, this is 2021, not 1951.
But Gerrit Cole was not ready to go quietly into that good-night. Surrounded by an infield ready to pat him on the back, Cole greeted his manager with defiance rather than deference, his head bobbing to punctuate words that didn’t need to be heard to be understood. When asked afterwards what he had said, Cole admitted that, “I said the f-word a lot, and I kind of just blacked out. I don’t really remember what I told him, to be honest.”
Whatever he said, he won his case, then threw three fastballs past Álvarez at 97, 99, and 99 miles per hour, the last pitch accompanied by a primal scream that echoed from Houston to the Bronx and back again. In a month that had seen two of the worst regular season losses in recent memory, Cole had spun a superlative on the other end of the spectrum, giving goosebumps and optimism to Yankee fans everywhere.
The Yankees hung on to that momentum into the third game, plating single runs in the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh behind an impressive effort from starting pitcher Jamieson Taillon, so when the Kracken launched that three-run homer in the top of the eighth, I celebrated.
After a long first half of mediocrity and several different losses that felt like rock bottom, I truly believed the team had found itself, and perhaps even forged a new identity. Saturday’s game had ended with the signature moment of Cole’s defiance and determination, but there was a moment during Judge’s home run trot that seemed, at the time, to carry more longterm weight than anything happening on the pitcher’s mound.
As Judge rounded third, he took a quick peek into the Yankee dugout before clutching his jersey with two hands and pulling it tight, clearly mimicking Altúve’s celebration after his ALCS-clinching homer in 2019, an action that led to rampant speculation about cheating that was more high-tech than just the banging of a trash can.
It was a decidedly un-Yankee-like moment for the de facto captain of this team, an on-field jab at an opponent that we never would’ve seen from Jeter or Mattingly or Randolph or even Munson, but it seemed like exactly what this team needed. When asked about it afterwards, Judge smiled mischievously and talked about how chilly it is in Houston in July. He was just reminding the guys, he said, to stay warm.
Joe DiMaggio was probably spinning in his grave, but the modern day Yankees welcomed the opportunity to join the rest of baseball in 2021. When Sánchez returned to the dugout after his blast, his teammates had somehow found a parka, and he wore it draped over his shoulders (stay warm!) as he paced up and down, accepting congratulations.
It was a happy time. The Yankees would surely close out this game and head into the much needed break in the best possible way. Only a week earlier I had texted friends saying, “The Yankees aren’t going to make the playoffs, but for real this time.” But thanks to this series — thanks to Judge, thanks to Cole, thanks to the Kracken — all of that Sturm und Drang had washed away. The Yankees were back.
But you know what happened next.
The stunning part of this latest ninth-inning collapse wasn’t so much that it happened — we’ve grown used to this now — but how quickly things fell apart, how quickly the universe tilted back into disarray. And unlike previous games, it was hard to question any of the manager’s decisions.
Domingo Germán had looked great in two innings of relief of Taillon, and with a five-run lead and Jonathan Loaisiga on the Covid list and Aroldis Chapman on the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you list, it made sense to roll with Germán through the ninth.
And you know easily things could have broken differently? Gurriél led off the inning with a single, but it was a ball that dribbled down the third base line before dying in the grass for a base hit. Two pitches later Kyle Tucker hit a rocket off the wall in left for a double, and Green was done.
The unhittable Chad Green came in at 4:39 local time, and things combusted quickly.
4:40 — Double by McCormick, 7-4 Yankees.
4:42 — Double by Toro, 7-5 Yankees.
4:44 — Single by Castro.
4:46 — Line out by Maldonado, one out.
4:49 — Home run by Altúve, 8-7 Astros.
Ryan Roucco described it perfectly: “A crushing gut punch here in the ninth.”
LoCastro might have had a shot at McCormick’s double, Judge had come about two inches short of catching Toro’s double, and Torres really seemed to have skillfully dropped Maldonado’s lineout, setting up what should’ve been an easy double play. Had just one of those butterflies flapped its wings, the Houston rally might not have happened.
But it did happen. As Altúve stepped on home plate to complete the comeback, the smallest man in the ballpark disappeared beneath a horde of celebrating teammates. He was shirtless when he emerged, giving the Astros not just a win but the final word in the conversation Judge had started the night before.
So where do we go from here? If there’s one thing we know, it’s this — no team in baseball has the experience that this team does in rebounding from devastating losses. The only difference now is that they’ll have to rebound with a roster decimated by Covid and against the Boston Red Sox.
We. Shall. See.