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One More Night?

We interrupt another day of madness with some relief in a minor note. A baseball game means nothing in the big picture but as a momentary diversion it will do. The Dodgers will try to find someway to get to the Great Verlander, or at least survive him and beat up on the bullpen, as they try to force a seventh and deciding game. If they do manage to win it wouldn’t it be fitting if Justin Turner—the Great Pumpkin—played hero?

My money goes on Verlander and the visiting ’Stros to close them out but here’s hoping it goes the distance.

Never mind the craziness:

Let’s Go Base-ball!

Picture by Bags

Say it Ain’t So

According to reports, the Yankees have decided not to bring Joe Girardi back as manager next year. I am sad to see him go but also think it’s a fine time for a new blood as well. With a team this talented maybe it will be a Buck Showalter-to-Joe Torre kind of transition for the new guy. Whoever they pick, I hope he has a feel for the players, a good sense of humor, and stamina. Seems like a dream gig to me, for the right guy.

In the meanwhile, here’s to Joe G, an upstanding Yankee player and a damn good Yankee manager, better than most in my eyes. Sure he was a tight-ass and sometimes overly stern or proud but I never begrudged him for that, too much. Maybe he was a phony in a righteous kind of way, I don’t know. He worked hard, cared a lot, and he could be funny. And was also a big softy, too—remember how emotional he got during Alex Rodriguez’s departure?

He survived a Fred Merkle-level blunder this October that could have regrettably stained an otherwise stellar career. He won a Whirled Serious title, he more than successfully followed-up the toughest act in show business, Joe Torre, and then ushered the team through the decline of the Jeter, Mariano, A Rod, Texieira years, to the future, which is now.

Curious to hear more as it comes out. I’m sure it’s a tough call for him. He was a good company man. He represented the Yankees well. And that’s not nothing.

The End

Pitchers and catchers report in mid February, the rest of the players follow a week later, and it begins. The first games are in early March, and we begin to see evidence of baseball in highlights shot from odd angles and showing the previous year’s heroes hitting home runs against pitchers we’ll never hear from again. April blooms soon enough, bringing with it a bouquet of baseball. The grass is green, the rookies are raw, and hope is everywhere. A team that had lost a hundred games the year before could make the playoffs; another that lost a hundred games three seasons in a row only a few years earlier could make the World Series. A young rookie might defy the experts and hit fifty home runs; a pitcher unlikely to make the rotation could end up in the Cy Young conversation. A team the experts pick to finish at the bottom of the division could surprise everyone and make a run deep into October.

More than any other sport, baseball is about hope. On Saturday night, hope ran out for the New York Yankees.

They entered the night the same as they had the night before, needing just one win to advance to the World Series and a matchup with the franchise’s most common autumn dance partner, the Los Angeles Dodgers. They exited the way all but one team will, short of the ultimate goal.

There were signs as early as the first inning that this would be a challenging night. Charlie Morton was on the mound for the Astros, and he was ready from the first pitch of the game. He struck out Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius on three pitches each and had little trouble dispatching Aaron Judge in between, spending just ten pitches in the frame. The Yankee dynasty of the late 90s pioneered the idea of working pitch counts to drive starting pitchers from the game, but these Yankees were much more aggressive, especially during this series. Six Yankee at bats on Saturday night lasted only one pitch.

Opposing Morton was none other than the Yankee Savior. CC Sabathia had compiled a 10-0 mark in 2017 with an ERA under two in starts following Yankee losses, so it appeared that the right man was on the hill for New York. He started the game even more efficiently than Morton, yielding a leadoff single to George Springer, but needing just three pitches to retire the next three hitters on three ground balls.

But Sabathia’s control wasn’t as sharp as necessary, and after that first easy inning, the rest of his night would be incredibly stressful. He put up zeros in the second and third innings, but those frames weren’t easy. He threw twenty pitches (ten balls and ten strikes) while allowing a hit and a walk in the second (and he was saved when Judge made a brilliant play to steal a home run from Yuli Gurriel), and then eighteen more pitches with another hit and a walk in the third. Each inning’s last out came with a clear sense that CC and the Yankees had dodged a bullet.

The team once called the Colt .45s took dead aim in the fourth, and this time Sabathia wasn’t able to escape. Designated hitter Evan Gattis started out the inning by battling through six pitches, fouling off the last three shots at his weakness, fastballs at the top of the zone. He laid off a slider down low, but then CC allowed a 2-2 slider to float up into the zone a bit, and Gattis crushed it over the high wall in left center for the first run of the game.

Even at the time, that home run felt huge. Morton was busy doing his best Justin Verlander impression, mowing down Yankee hitters as if they were dandelions in his front lawn, while Sabathia had been spinning plates on poles all night. The first dish had fallen, and it seemed like only a matter of time until the rest came crashing down around him.

It wouldn’t take long. He walked Brian McCann, and two batters later he gave up a loud single to Marwin González to put runners on first and third with one out, and that would be it. In any other game, probably even in any other playoff game, Sabathia would never have been lifted after giving up a single run in three and third innings, but not even CC was surprised when Joe Girardi hopped out of the dugout to get him.

When Sabathia handed the ball to Girardi, it was one of the most pivotal moments of the game, but there was something more. Sabathia had arrived in New York the year after Girardi had taken the helm, and during that time Girardi sent him to the mound 255 times in the regular season and 17 more in the playoffs, far more than any other pitcher. With both men unsigned beyond this year, this could’ve been their final meeting on the mound.

But the game and season was in the balance, so Girardi had no choice but to go to the bullpen. The formula I had had in my head prior to the game had been four innings from Sabathia followed by five from Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman, so perhaps, I told myself, CC’s early exit wasn’t as worrisome as it seemed. Kahnle entered the game, only two outs ahead of my schedule, and used just one pitch to get those two outs on a ground ball double play from George Springer.

The game almost changed in the top of the fifth. Morton had been cruising, needing just 36 pitches to cover the first four innings, but Greg Bird greeted him by rocking the first pitch of the inning to right for a leadoff double. Morton rebounded by striking out Starlin Castro, but then Aaron Hicks walked on four pitches, the fourth ball being a wild pitch that allowed Bird to move to third, and the Yankees were putting together their first rally of the night.

With runners on first and third and a chance to at least tie the game, Todd Frazier dribbled a soft ground ball towards third. Bird and third baseman Alex Bregman were both in motion immediately, Bird breaking for home and Bregman charging hard for the ball. Knowing he had no chance to turn the double play, Bregman instead scooped the ball up and fired home, hoping to cut down the run.

No one can be faulted here. Down by a run in the seventh game of the series and facing a dominant pitcher, the Yankees had to put on the contact play, even with the slowest runner in the lineup on third. Even as Bird was lumbering down the line, it was clear that Bregman would have to field the ball flawlessly and make a perfect throw to get the out. He did both. His throw hit McCann’s glove two inches above the ground and two inches in front of the plate, arriving a breath before Bird’s outstretched leg. If everything hadn’t worked perfectly for the Astros, the game would’ve been tied and the Yankees would’ve had two runners on with only one out. Instead it was two outs, and when Chase Headley followed with a ground ball to second, the Yankees’ best chance was wasted.

But it was still only a one-run game, and New York pressed forward, leaning on a bullpen that had been the strength of its team. Kahnle, in particular, had been a revelation. He hadn’t been the “player to be named later” in the Chicago deal, he had been the “player you haven’t heard of,” but he quickly became one of Girardi’s favorite weapons out of the bullpen. He struck out 36 batters in just 26.2 innings after coming over in the trade, and he had been even better in the postseason, yielding just two hits and no runs over his first ten innings.

After the two outs on the double play that had ended the fourth and a fly out from Bregman to start the fifth, Kahnle’s scoreless string stretched to eleven innings, but that would be it. On a 1-1 pitch to José Altuve, Kahnle left a changeup in the heart of the zone, and Altuve slapped it just over the wall in right field to double the Houston lead. Before the crowd had even settled down, Carlos Correa took the first pitch he saw and lined it into center for a single. Gurriel followed that with a hit-and-run single that skipped right through the spot Castro had vacated at second base, and now things were serious.

The game was only just past its halfway point, but with a two-run lead and runners on first and third and only one out, the Astros had a chance to deliver a death blow. Kahnle responded by striking out Gattis, leaving things to McCann. After mixing his fastball and change throughout the inning, Kahnle decided to throw only changeups to McCann. The first four brought the count to 2-2, and I moved forward to the edge of the couch, knowing the next pitch would likely decide the game. The previous four pitches had all been either just in or just out of the strike zone, but the fifth changeup was just below the belt and in the middle of the plate. A batting practice fastball. McCann ripped it into the left field corner for a double, scoring both runners. Adam Warren came on to get the final out of the inning, but the damage was done.

Over the course of three half innings, from the bottom of the fourth to the bottom of the fifth, the game was decided. The Gattis home run in the fourth, the missed opportunity for the Yankees in top of the fifth, and this three-run rally for the Astros. (Side note: Brian McCann had a great night and a nice series, and there are already ham-handed headlines out there saying “McCann Returns to Haunt Yankees,” as if there had been a decision to make last winter. Be sure to check Gary Sanchez’s stat line before jumping to any foolish conclusions.)

Unlike any other sport, baseball changes when its postseason arrives, and those changes become even greater in an elimination game like this. (Can you imagine Bill Belichick saying the night before a Super Bowl, “It’s all hands on deck tomorrow; all three quarterbacks are available”?) The Yankees (and many teams before them) often chose to reach earlier into the strength of their bullpen during these playoffs, but on this night Houston manager A.J. Hinch did the opposite, choosing to avoid his struggling relievers altogether.

Morton had emptied his tank as planned, and now Hinch turned to Game 4 starter Lance McCullers, Jr., clearly operating with the same instructions given to Morton — go as hard as you can, as long as you can. In fact, if he had run into trouble or if Hinch had needed a closer, I’m sure we would’ve seen Dallas Keuchel, not Ken Giles.

As it turned out, none of that was necessary. McCullers was as good as Morton had been, giving up just a single to Gardner in the sixth and a walk to Frazier in the eighth. He closed out the Yankees uneventfully with two strikeouts and a pop up to center in the ninth, and the season was done.

It’s never easy when a season ends, especially when it ends in the playoffs. Last year’s campaign was a long march through mediocrity, but at least everyone saw the end coming and knew when it would arrive. It’s different in the postseason. The change is immediate and dramatic. One moment the team is battling side by side and fighting to survive, and the next they’re shrinking into the clubhouse, stealing glances at another team’s celebration while wondering about their own team’s future.

And so it was with the Yankees. When asked to look back at the moment he took the ball from Sabathia, Girardi fought back tears as he explained how much CC had meant to him and the entire team. Aaron Judge thanked the veterans for teaching him so much, typically avoided any discussion of his own success, but acknowledged that he couldn’t express the disappointment he felt in the moment.

It will be difficult for the organization to get past this disappointment. Even though no one had expected the team to get to Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, most will remember the failure to get to the World Series, not the heroic effort to win the wild card game over Minnesota or the historic comeback to beat Cleveland in the divisional series.

This is the nature of sports; we remember our defeats. The trick, of course, is to turn those negative memories into something positive. Paul O’Neill spoke about the devastation he and his teammates felt after losing to Cleveland in the 1997 divisional series and admitted that he couldn’t bring himself to watch the World Series that year. But then he dropped this: “When we lost in 1997, it was such a disappointment that I don’t think we win in ’98, ’99, and 2000 without that disappointment.”

So this is the challenge for these young Yankees. Not to win the next three World Series, but to use this defeat to get better.

And what about us? What about those of us who followed this team with religious devotion over the past six months, who recorded games to watch after work in July, who made pilgrimages to the Bronx and other ballparks around the country to see this team in person, who clicked over to Alex’s site to commune with the like-minded, who juggled schedules in October to accommodate inconvenient start times, who carefully selected just the right jersey to wear on Saturday? (For me it was a pinstriped #2; in key moments I noticed my left hand rubbing the DJ3K patch on the right sleeve for luck.) What are we to do?

For the devoted, a loss like this is like a death, and those who know us understand. My family was genuinely sorry for me, and it took about five seconds after the final out for friends near and far to begin texting me. “Sorry bro” from one a few blocks away, “Condolences” from another in Japan. Simple messages to acknowledge the important role this team has played in my life for the past four decades.

But as the sun rises the day after this disappointment, all I can feel is hope and joy. Not since the days of Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera have I loved a team the way I loved the 2017 New York Yankees. There were times when they were hard to love, like when the losses were mounting in August, but even when things looked bleak, there was reason for hope.

This team gave us 52 home runs from Aaron Judge, 104 MPH fastballs from Aroldis Chapman, slow curveballs from CC Sabathia, and a big thumbs down from Todd Frazier. When I think back on this year I’ll remember the on-field exploits, but I’ll also remember the mock interviews in the dugout after big home runs. I’ll remember Didi’s emoji tweets. I’ll remember Torreyes climbing on Didi’s shoulders to reach Judge for a high five.

This was a team that I could cheer for and laugh with, a group that seemed to have more fun than any Yankee team in years. And the best part? They’re only going to get better. Youngsters Judge, Sánchez, and Bird will likely sit in the heart of the lineup for years to come, and more great young hitters like Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar are on the way, as well as top prospect Gleyber Torres. No major pieces of this current team are likely to move on, unless the Yankees decide to part ways with Todd Frazier (possible) or CC Sabathia (highly unlikely), or if Masahiro Tanaka opts out of the final three years of his contract and walks away from $70 million (coin flip).

Beyond that, there’s the tantalizing prospect of Japanese phenom Shohei Otani, a potential superstar who would still be affordable enough to fit with New York’s new sensible spending plans.

So the future is definitely bright, brighter than it’s been in years. Nothing is promised, of course, and the more talented teams in New York’s future aren’t guaranteed any World Series berths, but they will certainly be fun to watch. I’ll be watching. There is so much hope.

What He Said

Hank says Believe and that is good to hear because I have been sulking around since the middle of last night’s game. The Wife and I went out for a hike in nature today and it was lovely to see all the photosynthesis and all but didn’t really help. I still felt the knot in my stomach, and kept imagining all the ways things will fall apart tonight.

But Hank says Believe. And lucky for us—win or lose—I know the Yankee players Believe.

So never mind the gloom:

LET’S GO YANK-EEES!

Don’t Worry. Believe.

If you didn’t watch Game 6 in Houston between the Astros and the Yankees and only saw the 7-1 final score — or even if you only saw the highlights — what I’m about to say will make no sense. This was a six-run Houston win that easily could’ve gone either way were it not for a moment here or there. The narrative that will run in most of the newspapers across the land will be about Justin Verlander’s continued dominance, José Altuve’s continued success, and the reemergence of the Houston offense. There’s truth in all of that, but like most stories, especially the ones told in October, it’s important to take a deeper look.

After the Yankee hitters were able to take care of Dallas Keuchel in their second look at him in Game 5, there was hope that we might see more of the same with Verlander on the mound in Game 6. Looking for a different result, the Yankees came out with a different game plan. Instead of making Verlander work and looking to exploit any lingering effects of his 124-pitch effort last Saturday, the New York hitters were aggressive all night long, jumping on pitches early in the count to avoid falling behind and giving a great pitcher a greater advantage.

Brett Gardner singled on the third pitch of the game, but a double play from Aaron Judge and a popup from Didi Gregorius consumed just eight pitches and the Yankees were done. From there Verlander would throw thirteen pitches in the second, eleven in the third, twelve in the fourth, and fourteen in the fifth. No Yankee hitter would see more than five pitches during those first five innings, one would see just two, and two others (Gardner and Castro) would go down on a single pitch.

Opposing Verlander was Luís Severino. There can be no doubt that Severino has the potential to be the Yankee ace for years to come, but this postseason has been something of an education for him. After that disastrous start in the Wild Card game against Minnesota that almost ended this playoff run before it began, Sevy rebounded with seven strong innings against Cleveland in Game 4 of the divisional series, but was pulled after four innings in the second game of this series when an injury scare forced him from the game.

How would he respond on this stage, paired against one of the best pitchers in the game in a hostile environment, with an opportunity to pitch his team into the World Series? Early on, he was more than good. In fact, he was better than Verlander. He walked Yuli Gurriel with one out in the second, but didn’t yield his first hit until Carlos Correa singled with two outs in the fourth.

In fifth, however, things began to unravel. Alex Bregman worked a leadoff walk, laying off pitches that teased the edges of the strike zone. After Marwin González hit a soft grounder to Starlin Castro to advance Bregman to second, designated hitter Evan Gattis brought his bat up to the plate even though he wouldn’t end up needing it. Perhaps reading from the wrong scouting report, Severino pitched Gattis as carefully as if he were Altuve or Correa, and the result was a four-pitch walk, bringing our old friend Brian McCann into the batter’s box.

One look makes it clear that McCann left his razor in New York when he was traded away following last season’s emergence of Gary Sánchez. He is completely unrecognizable. As he dug in against Severino with one out and runners on first and second, his Keuchelish beard dipped into the strike zone as he prepared for what would probably be the biggest at bat of his Houston career.

The walk to Gattis notwithstanding, Severino was still in control, and if his first two pitches to McCann — a 98-MPH fastball on the outside corner followed by a 90-MPH slider in essentially the same spot — demonstrated this, his next three were even better. With McCann frustrated with home plate umpire Jim Reynolds’s strike zone (more on this later), Severino shrewdly tried to stretch that strike zone a bit more, looking to entice either a swing from McCann or a strike call from Reynolds with a slider and a fastball just a few inches farther outside. Neither hitter nor umpire bit, so Severino came back into the zone with his 2-2 pitch. It was a good pitch, 98 and heading right for his catcher’s glove on the outside corner, but McKeuchel reached across the plate and slashed a hard liner that rocketed past Aaron Judge before leaping into the right field stands for a ground rule double and a 1-0 Houston lead.

With runners now on second and third and only one out (and Verlander pitching well), it was important to turn back this Houston uprising without any further damage. Severino walked George Springer on four pitches, kind of intentionally unintentional, to face Josh Reddick, who hasn’t had a hit in almost two weeks. It was a good choice, as Reddick popped up harmlessly to Aaron Hicks in short center, but all that meant was that Altuve was coming to the plate with the bases loaded.

Altuve had disappeared with the rest of the Houston offense during the three games in New York, going hitless in those three losses, but the tiniest Astro is still a serious threat. Severino was in an interesting spot. The ultra-aggressive Altuve feasts on first-pitch fastballs, so the Yankee pitchers have made it clear that he’ll never see another one from them. The problem with this, of course, is that now Altuve knows that every at bat will start with a breaking ball. In this moment he was clearly sitting on a slider, and Severino threw him a bad one. The pitch floated up into the zone a bit, and Altuve pounced on it, rifling a line drive through the left side of the infield and scoring two more Houston runs to build the lead to 3-0.

Severino’s night was done, but Verlander’s was just about to get interesting. The red hot Chase Headley started the sixth inning with a single, and after Gardner and Judge each made out, Gregorius shot a line drive base hit into right field to bring Sánchez to the plate as the tying run. Verlander went to his fastball, but his three attempts to lure Sánchez out of the strike zone all failed, and suddenly the Kraken was in the driver’s seat. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to jump back into the game with one swing, manager Joe Girardi gave Sánchez the green light. Perhaps sensing that Girardi was sensing this, Verlander went to his slider, and this time Sánchez bit. Kind of. Fooled by the pitch, Sánchez tried to check his swing but ended up making minimal contact, dribbling the ball out to Correa at short for the final out of the inning.

The Yankees’ best chance would come in the following frame. Greg Bird worked a six-pitch walk to lead off the inning, and two pitches later Verlander nicked Castro’s sweatband to put runners on first and second with Hicks coming up. It will be noted that Hicks put on a professional at bat, pushing Verlander for ten pitches before striking out, but one thing that won’t make it into any box score was a pitch that could’ve changed the entire game. Verlander’s first three pitches were balls, and after taking the next pitch down the middle for strike one, Hicks got ready for a 3-1 pitch and waited for the chance to get his team back in the game. Verlander’s pitch tailed out of the strike zone — clearly out of the strike zone — and Hicks began to toss his bat away in anticipation of a walk that would’ve loaded the bases with none out.

But Jim Reynolds called the pitch a ball. In fairness, Reynolds’s strike zone was a moving target all night long for both teams, but this particular call victimized Hicks and stifled a rally. Had Hicks been awarded first base, Houston manager A.J. Hinch would’ve faced a difficult decision: stay with Verlander or take his chances with his shaky bullpen. But he didn’t have to think about that. Five pitches later, Hicks struck out.

Todd Frazier wilted beneath the spin of a curveball on the first pitch of the next at bat, putting him down 0-1, but then Frazier found a fastball to his liking and pounded it deep to center field. I was up off the couch almost immediately, yelling at the ball to get out, but Springer was tracking it, heading confidently back to the wall. He got to the warning track and leapt up against the ten-foot barrier, robbing not a homer but an extra base hit from Frazier and preserving Verlander’s shutout.

Twice it looked like the game was going to change, but twice it remained the same. The next hitter was Headley, who grounded out to end the inning.

The Astros happily accepted those seven scoreless inning from Verlander and turned to their bullpen in the eighth. Brad Peacock came in, and Aaron Judge reminded everyone that Altuve wasn’t the only MVP candidate on the field when he launched a monstrous home run to left, cutting the Houston lead to two runs at 3-1. Peacock was momentarily shaken by the blow and initially struggled to regain the strike zone against Gregorius, but then Didi popped up and Sánchez watched a fastball down the middle for strike three, and the inning was over.

David Robertson came on for the bottom of the eighth to keep things close, but instead he blew everything up, and it only took twelve pitches. Five of those were to Altuve. With the count 2-2, Robertson made a nice pitch, a slider that started at the knees before dipping below the strike zone, but Altuve reached for it anyway and flicked a fly ball that barely carried over the high wall in left for a home run. I see you Aaron Judge, and I raise you. The lead was back to three.

Shockingly, the Astros would add two more runs in what seemed like thirty seconds. Correa jumped on the next pitch and laced a double down the line in left, then Gurriel singled him to third three pitches later. Three pitches after that Bregman pounded a long double to center to score Correa and Gurriel. 6-1. With one eye already on Game 7, Girardi pulled Robertson and waved the white flag, bringing in Delin Betances to finish the inning. Delin eventually allowed a seventh run, and that was that.

While it might sting a bit to know that the Yankees missed a chance to clinch the series on Friday night and avoid the cauldron of Game 7, I can’t imagine there’s a player on the roster, a suit in the front office, or a fan wearing pinstripes who sees anything but opportunity waiting on Saturday night.

When Joe Girardi first saw the replay of the ball hitting Lonnie Chisenhall’s hand after the loss in Game 2 put the Yankees in an 0-2 hole in Cleveland, do you think he would’ve turned down Game 7 in the LCS? When CC Sabathia walked away from the team in the closing weeks of 2015 to pursue treatment for alcoholism, do you think he would’ve shied away from an October start two years later? Or what about when he tweaked his knee in August and feared he might never pitch again? Don’t you think he would’ve given anything to get the ball in Game 7? When Greg Bird was lying in a hospital bed in the winter of 2015, rehabbing throughout 2016, then missing more than 100 games in 2017, don’t you think he’d have given years of his life to play in this deciding game?

During this past off-season, faced with the prospect of rebuilding a team whose stated goal is to compete for a championship every season, do you think general manager Brian Cashman could ever have imagined a one-game shot for the World Series?

And what about you? When the Yankees were wandering aimlessly in the desert, losing fifteen games in August, did you even believe they’d make the playoffs? Did you ever imagine that Judge and Sanchez and Bird and Severino would draw legitimate comparisons — this year — to Jeter and Posada and Pettitte and Rivera? Could you have possibly dreamed of a run like this, a unlikely trip through October that has finally arrived at the most magical of destinations? If you did, your dream has come true.

Game 7.

Don’t worry. Believe.

Take it to the Bridge

Yanks one win away from a date with the Dodgers in the Whirled Serious. Man, would that be sweet or what?

Lot of work to do before they get there.

We’ll be here—as always—root-root-rootin’ out boys on.

Never mind those Houston Astros:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

 

Strictly Business

The Yanks wrapped up a successful 3-game stretch at home by beating the Astros 5-0. They are one game away from the Whirled Serious as the proceedings return to Houston.

Masahiro Tanaka pitched seven scoreless innings. He got some luck. The Astros, pressing, missed a few pitches—mistakes that they could only foul off, fly balls that they just got under—and the Yanks banked their good fortune. They finally got Dallas Keuchel to make a few mistakes and the Bombers got key hits from Judge, Bird, Didi, and Sanchez (who later provided the icing on the gravy with a resounding solo home run).

We’re past the pinch-me stage. One win away from the Serious raises the expectations. Still, it will not be easy.

But how proud are you of these guys, or what?

Thumbs Down Emoji

When my cousin texted on Monday asking if I wanted to go to Game 4 with him and his wife it didn’t take long to respond—Yes! They live in Houston, season ticket holders for the Texans, and are the kind of dedicated sports fans who love rooting their teams on but don’t lose sleep when they lose. They wore Astros hats and orange jackets last night while I sported a crumbling El Duque Yankee T-shirt over a long sleeve shirt just so I wasn’t associated too closely with the enemy.

Scorecard in my lap.

Funny how games are always harder to follow when you are there. There was that strange sequence of events with Aaron Judge in the fourth—and later, was that fan interference on his double, and if so what did that mean? We didn’t have TV screens near us so it was all unclear. All we could tell was that there was some low comedy—a ground ball slowly rolling up the third baseline, sure to stay fair, that kicked foul at just the last minute and was snatched by Todd Frazier, and a pair of bumbling errors by Starlin Castro. Later on, of course, Chase Headley slipped on a banana peel rounding first and turned excitement into peril into relief when he recovered and reached second safely with a deft tag.

The Astros struck first with a bases clearing double after the Yanks had loaded them on a couple of walks and an error. They added another on Castro’s second Benny Hill move. And so my cousins were feeling good, their boys up 4-0.

Now, I am not an In-Your-Face kind of rooter. Not unless provoked I suppose. So it wasn’t as if there was any trash talking going on. But a rowdy Yankee crowd was quieted. It was the simmering quiet of angry New Yorkers.

And while we saw some other Astros fans they were not a noisy bunch.

Once Aaron Judge hit a moonshot to start the seventh, the crowd woke up, and you can say it didn’t relent until after the final out, well past the moment when the Yanks scored six unanswered runs to win the game and even the series. (Final Score: Yanks 6, Astros 4.)

All I know is that it was loud. The Stadium didn’t shake the way Yankee Stadium II did—where the thrill was mixed with terror—but it was impressive. I didn’t let out one yell, I stayed calm—jumping and clapping on the inside—didn’t want to be rude to my cousins. Instead I took great satisfaction looking out over the Stadium and seeing everyone stand and waves their arms and yell and scream. My cousins left with two outs in the 9th but I stayed and after the last out put my fist out to fans passing by, enjoying the hard thump of hearty congratulations.

I stayed and listened to Sinatra and everyone sing to Sinatra on repeat. I sung a little myself.

So many big at bats, but was most thrilled for Gary Sanchez and Judge for coming through in the heat of the moment.

Today gives that sombitch Keuchel who just owns the Yanks. He’s got a beatin’ coming to him one of these days. Hopefully, that time is now. Those Astros are bound to up jump the boogie and score a bunch of runs sometime soon, too. Let’s hope that ain’t today.

Never mind the shadows:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

This Must Be the Place

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.

Up Jump the Boogie

What do you need to know about a 2-1 playoff loss other than it was a kick in the cubes? Second straight 2-1 game, this time, a walk-off, with none other than Jose Altuve—who else?—scoring the winning run. Justin Verlander did his teammate Keuchel one better and stuck it up the Yankees’ ass for 9 innings. During Game 1, I winced the few times the Yankees’ missed their pitch but in Game 2 Verlander just flat threw it past guys all day long—Didi, Judge, Sanchez. The pitches were in the zone, fat part of the plate, but they just had too much zip and the Yankees could not catch up. His breaking stuff just as good and Verlander wasn’t going to take his first L in Houston on this night: 9 innings, 5 hits, a walk, and 13 strikeouts.

Frustrating, no doubt. A play here, a play there, but it was not to be.

And so the Yanks return home and turn to old reliable C.C. Sabathia once again. I keep expecting him to pitch his age and just get ripped, and perhaps the Astros offense will go off on him, but we certainly won’t be surprised if C.C. pitches well either. He sure could use some help from the bats.

Never mind the stakes:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

It’s Not a Series Until the Home Team Loses a Game

Here’s hoping that’s today. Like to see our boys get off the mat and score a mess o runs—Mr. Judge, Mr. Sanchez, we’re looking to you.

Never mind the orange:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Inches

In a game between the two most prolific offenses in the American League, with an MVP candidate in each dugout, the outcome wasn’t decided by tape measure blasts but in moments more easily measured in inches. The stories in the morning papers will all focus on Dallas Keuchel and José Altuve, and rightly so, but the Astros and the Yankees must know that Friday night’s 2-1 win for Houston could easily have gone the other way, were it not for a few inches.

Probably the least surprising development of the night was that Houston’s Dallas Keuchel was dominant from the first inning on. Keuchel, of course, is a rarity in today’s game. While most pitchers force constant recalibration of radar guns and repadding of catchers’ mitts, Keuchel is an artist who dabbles occasionally at the corners of the plate, but only enough to entice hitters to stray outside the zone into regions where they are hopelessly overmatched. The most telling statistic presented all night was the fact that no pitcher in baseball threw more pitches outside the strike zone (57.1%) than Keuchel.

And so it was in the first inning. Aaron Judge earned a one-out walk on five pitches, but Brett Gardner and Gary Sánchez struck out on either side of him, and Didi Gregorius grounded out harmlessly to end the inning. Keuchel’s first eight pitches of the game were 90-MPH fastballs dancing around the edges of the strike zone, and it wasn’t until the third hitter of the game that he brought out his slider, burying two of them at Sánchez’s shoe tops to produce flailing strikes, the last one strike three. Keuchel was ready, and the Houston crowd was roaring.

Minute Maid Park got even louder when George Springer led off the bottom of the inning with a five-pitch walk, but Yankee starter Masahiro Tanaka immediately settled down, needing just six pitches to retire Josh Reddick, José Altuve, and Carlos Correa. Even in these early moments, it was clear that this game was not going to be a slugfest.

Keuchel and Tanaka continued hypnotizing hitters through the first three innings, but things changed a bit in the fourth. Starlin Castro singled with two outs, bringing Aaron Hicks to the plate. On a 1-1 pitch Keuchel made one of his few mistakes of the night, leaving a 91-MPH fastball out over the middle of the plate. Hicks jumped on it and sent a long fly ball to straight away center field, loud enough that it felt like it could carry beyond the wall and give the Yankees a 2-0 lead, but instead it settled gently into Springer’s glove as the centerfielder stood with his back only inches from the wall. Inches.

Tanaka, meanwhile, still hadn’t allowed a base hit as he strode to the mound for the bottom of the fourth. MVP candidate Altuve found a 2-1 pitch in the hitting zone and slashed a grounder through Tanaka’s legs and just inches below his glove. Castro raced over behind the bag at second to make the play, but his throw to first was late by just the blink of an eye. Again, an inch here or an inch there would’ve turned this play in the other direction.

This brought on Correa, the best young shortstop in the game. Even though Tanaka threw over to first several times, keenly aware of the threat dancing off first base, Altuve took off for second on a 1-1 pitch. He got a tremendous jump, but Sánchez, for all his well-documented defensive deficiencies, still has a spectacular arm. The play shouldn’t have been close, but Sánchez and Castro made it so. Sánchez rifled the ball to second on one hop, Castro picked it cleanly and applied the tag, but Altuve was clearly safe. By inches.

Predictably, the next pitch to was up and on the inner half of the plate, and Correa ripped a line drive to left field to score Altuve with the first run of the game. After the game Correa showed the brashness of youth when he claimed that he had known what was coming. He said that his video work had revealed that Tanaka goes to off-speed pitches with runners in scoring position, so he had been ready for it. (This is a nice theory, but only four of Tanaka’s seventeen pitches in the inning were fastballs. The fastball is kind of his off-speed pitch.)

Marwin González pushed a soft grounder to Castro to move Correa into scoring position with outs, and then Yuli Gurriel produced Houston’s third hit of the inning, a ground ball to center field that scored Correa easily from second to give the Astros a 2-0 lead. It had been a shaky inning for Tanaka, but aside from Correa’s line drive, nothing had been hit hard. Well placed grounders and shrewd base running had accounted for the two runs.

The Yankees attempted to answer quickly in the top of the fifth. Greg Bird laced a line drive past Gurriel at first base to lead off the inning, and when Altuve misplayed Matt Holliday’s ground ball into an error, the Yanks had runners on first and second with no one out. But Todd Frazier went down on a soft liner to center, then Gardner struck out on a quintessential Keuchel at bat. After getting a strike call on a borderline fastball at the knees, Keuchel put that brush away and took out his slider for the rest of the at bat. He painted the outside corner perfectly to put Gardner in an 0-2 hole, and then he went to work stretching the eyes of both the batter and the umpire. All artwork is open to interpretation, and Keuchel’s canvas is the strike zone. Beneath his dabbling brush that zone stretches and bends until neither hitter nor umpire can remember the parameters they’ve always known, and Gardner fell victim. Keuchel put three pitches in a row in essentially the same place, an inch or two off the corner of the plate. Gardner watched the first two to even the count at 2-2, but he couldn’t resist the third. It was in an unhittable location, so Gardner went down on strikes.

And so it came down to Aaron Judge. One thing I found interesting watching the telecast was that play-by-play man Joe Buck, while acknowledging Judge’s 1 for 20 performance in the divisional series, refused to give any significance to it. He still spoke of Judge in reverential tones, marveling at his regular season numbers, the threat he posed while standing in the on deck circle, and his menacing presence in the batter’s box. It made sense, I think. I doubt that Keuchel and the Astros were any less concerned about him because of failures in his past five games.

Keuchel fed Judge five straight sliders, but he made a mistake on the sixth one. On a 3-2 count he let a slider drift up in the zone, and Judge hammered it into left field. With the runners going on the pitch, it seemed certain to be an RBI single that would cut the lead in half and bring Sánchez to the plate with an opportunity to tie the game against a tiring pitcher. But Greg Bird was the runner at second. Bird was probably the slowest runner in the Yankee lineup on Friday night, and he compounded this weakness in two ways. First, he didn’t get an aggressive jump off second base. Second — and this is the bigger problem, I think — with two outs and a full count, he should’ve known that he’d be heading home on any base hit. His lead from second should’ve been not just longer, but deeper, more towards shortstop, less towards third base. He wasn’t prepared to round third base, so when Judge rifled that ball directly at González in left field and Bird saw Joe Espada waving him around third, he had to alter his stride a bit and take an awkward route around the bag before digging for home. The short wall in left field, meanwhile, allowed González to play much more shallow than a left fielder normally would against a slugger like Judge, so he was able to take the ball cleanly running full speed in a direct line towards the plate before unleashing his throw. Bird and the ball arrived at essentially the same time, but catcher Brian McCann was able to lay the tag on the runner. Bird was out by inches. Probably less than inches. (The Yankees would challenge the play, but Bird was clearly out. Afterwards Girardi would admit as much. “He looked out,” he said with a humorous shrug, “but I’m never not doing that again,” a clear self-deprecating reference to the Chisenhall play from the last series.)

So if Bird had gotten only a few more inches on his lead or run a touch more efficiently around the bag, or if Judge’s ball had been hit just a few inches to the left or the right, or if González’s throw hadn’t been absolutely perfect — Bird might’ve been safe, and the rest of the game might have played out differently. But none of that happened, and the inning was over.

Tanaka recovered nicely from Houston’s two-run fourth and coasted through the next two innings, though he had to survive a scare when Springer hit a ball to the wall in center for the final out of the fifth. He gave up those two runs, but he was brilliant aside from that.

Keuchel, of course, was equally brilliant, and it wasn’t until he left after seven innings that the Yankees were able to threaten again, even if only mildly. Gardner worked a one-out walk in the eighth, which forced Houston manager A.J. Hinch to bring in his closer, Ken Giles. Judge grounded out to third for the second out, Sánchez drew a walk to make things a bit interesting, but Didi struck out to end the threat.

With two outs in the ninth inning and the Yankees staring at a shutout, Greg Bird found a fastball in the middle of the plate and crushed it. Like many of Bird’s home runs, distance was never a question, but it was headed straight down the line, either inches fair or inches foul. Bird split the difference between those two options, bouncing the ball off the foul pole for a homer that split the Houston lead in half. That home run quickened the pulse a bit, but then pinch hitter Jacoby Ellsbury struck out, and the game was over.

Is there anything to worry about here? Not really. After trailing 0-2 in a five-game series, being down 0-1 in a seven-gamer is nothing. And while nothing Dallas Keuchel did in Game 1 surprised me in the slightest, Justin Verlander is a different pitcher who will likely have different results. He simply doesn’t scare me anymore. (Of course, I haven’t held a bat in my hand in about thirty years.) Also, if the game is close in the late innings, Giles, who threw 37 pitches for his five-out save, might not be available. The Yankee bullpen, meanwhile, will be quite operational if any threat arrives.

Ace Luís Severino will pitch well, Judge will go deep, the bullpen will get nine outs, and the Yankees will go back to the Bronx with a 1-1 split. Book it!

ALCS Game One

Masahiro on the hill against the dread Dallas Keuchel down in Houston tonight. Matt Holliday gets the nod at DH.

Dude, Yanks in the ALCS. How cool is this?

Never mind the beefsteak:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

The Land of the Living

What if you had missed the first half of Wednesday’s Game 5 between Cleveland and New York and somehow heard that one team’s starter was absolutely dealing, starting the game with three perfect innings and striking out nine over the first four a third, and that his shortstop was providing all the offense necessary with home runs in his first two at bats.

Be honest now. Wouldn’t your shoulders have sagged? Wouldn’t your heart have sunk? Wouldn’t you have assumed Cleveland was the team, Corey Kluber was the pitcher, and Francisco Lindor was the shortstop?

But everything was upside down on Wednesday night as the Yankees clinched their first trip to the American League Championship Series in five years in the most unlikely fashion. Their 5-2 win would’ve been thrilling had it been a Monday night game in August against the White Sox, but coming as it did in the deciding game of a five-game series the Yankees had once trailed two games to none against arguably the best team in baseball, this game will resonate for a while.

The narrative most expected included a dominant start from Kluber, the odds on favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award. After a disastrous start in Game 2 in which he yielded seven hits, two homers, and six runs in just 2.2 innings, surely he would bounce back and regress to the mean. In the larger sample size of the regular season, Kluber had posted ridiculous numbers — 265 strikeouts in 203.2 innings, an ERA of 2.25 and a microscopic WHIP of 0.87. Surely we would see that Corey Kluber in Game 5, right?

It didn’t take long for the Yankees to test him. After Brett Gardner was retired attempting a drag bunt on the first pitch of the game and Aaron Judge struck out (more on that later), Didi Gregorius strode to the plate with two outs. After getting head 1-2 with pitches painting the outside edge of the strike zone, Kluber allowed a fastball to float closer to the center of the plate, and Didi pounced. He dropped his head before dropping his bat, and he broke into his home run trot before the ball had reached its apex.

It was just a solo homer, and it was just 1-0, and it was just the first inning, but it could’ve been the biggest swing of the game for the Yankees. It planted seeds of doubt in a Cleveland crowd that had arrived with plans of celebration, it energized a Yankee bench that had arrived with luggage packed for Houston, and it gave all involved the first hint that maybe Kluber wasn’t returning to form.

After Gary Sánchez struck out to end the inning, CC Sabathia walked out of the Yankee dugout and returned to a mound that he knew well. It’s been an interesting season for CC, and I’ll admit that even as closely as I’ve followed this team in 2017, Sabathia has somehow confounded me. There seems to be no comparison between Sabathia, an aging veteran held together with braces and bandages, and Kluber, a dominant young ace in the prime of his career. On the surface, this game, the same as Game 2, seemed to be a mismatch in Cleveland’s favor but for one surprising statistic. Cleveland had won 20 games started by Kluber in the regular season; the Yankees had won 19 of Sabathia’s games — and they should have won Game 2.

And so the Big Man took the mound with the weight of Yankee Universe on his shoulders, and all he did was retire the first nine Cleveland hitters in order, striking out six of them. It was an absolute clinic, and a tribute to the complete transformation Sabathia has embraced. Cleveland fans likely thought back to the days when he was wearing their jersey and mowing down hitters with blazing fastballs, but on this night those first six strikeouts came on four sliders (80-81 MPH) and two cutters (90-91), a pitch that the younger Sabathia never threw.

The Yankee hitters, meanwhile, were still working. Gardner led off the top of the third with a single to right, and two batters later Didi came to the plate with one out and one on. He fouled off the first pitch, then sent the second pitch on a long arc into the Cleveland night, another ball that was gone the moment it left the bat. Really, what can be said about Sir Didi at this point? I don’t think he’ll ever get beyond the fact that he was The One Who Replaced Derek Jeter, but the truth of the matter is that he’s become a great player in his own right. His career won’t end in the Hall of Fame, but if there hadn’t been a Derek Jeter, I think he’d be in the conversation of the best Yankee shortstops of all time. (You probably just spit out your coffee, but think about it for a while. You’ll see that I’m right.)

Kluber would survive the third, but when he walked Jacoby Ellsbury with two outs in the fourth, Cleveland manager Tito Francona pulled him from the game. The best pitcher in baseball hadn’t been good enough when his team needed him the most, but baseball is like that sometimes.

Meanwhile Sabathia, only the third-best pitcher on a team whose starters were thought to be its glaring weakness, was still going strong. He finally allowed his first baserunner of the game when Francisco Lindor singled to start the fourth, but he recovered quickly, striking out Jason Kipnis on three sliders (79, 78, and 80 MPH), using one pitch to get José Ramírez on a grounder, and then striking Edwin Encarnación to end the frame. (Side note: One of the best things about this series is that we never had to watch Encarnación walk his parrot.)

The game changed a bit in the bottom of the fifth. After Sabathia struck out Carlos Santana for his ninth (ninth!) strikeout of the game, Cleveland put together a rally that would eventually push Sabathia from the game. Four consecutive singles, an assortment of ground balls and soft line drives from Austin Jackson, Jay Bruce, Roberto Pérez, and Giovanny Urshela brought Cleveland to within a run at 3-2 and forced Joe Girardi to pull his starter. Having pitched just four and a third innings, Sabathia wouldn’t qualify for the win, but it had still been one of the best starts of his season in the season’s biggest game.

David Robertson came in to face Cleveland’s best hitter, Franciso Lindor, with runners on first and second and only one out, and surely every Yankee fan watching was flashing back painfully to Lindor’s grand slam in Game 2. Suddenly the game — and the season — was in the balance. But it was Robertson’s time. It’s been great having the Alabama Hammer back in the bullpen, and he needed just two pitches to put an end to the Cleveland threat. He got Lindor to hit a hard grounder up the middle to short, and Didi turned a nifty double play to end the inning and preserve the lead.

Robertson needed just seven pitches to get through the sixth inning, which allowed him to come back out for the seventh, eliminating any need to see less dependable relievers like Chad Green or Delin Betances. He struck out Santana and Jackson, seemed to want no part of Bruce, whose game-tying homer in Game 2 had come at Robertson’s expense, but then got Pérez on a comebacker. Mission accomplished.

With six outs to go, Girardi sent Aroldis Chapman out to get them. The eighth inning went smoothly enough, with the usual assortment of 100 MPH fastballs (four of them) and strikeouts (two), but the lead was still slim, and the ninth inning loomed.

But the game slipped away from Cleveland in the ninth, and much of it was their own doing. Aaron Hicks blooped what should’ve been a harmless single to left with one out, but Austin Jackson had been playing rather deep and had to rush in to hold the speedy Hicks at first. Jackson misplayed the ball, allowing Hicks to coast into second, carrying an all-important insurance run in his back pocket.

Chase Headley popped up for the second out, but then Todd Frazier fouled off six pitches on his way to a nine-pitch walk from Cody Allen, bringing Brett Gardner to the plate. One of the few holdovers from the Yankees’ last championship and a player who always seems to be at the center of trade rumors, Gardner has quietly become the heart of the team. If there were ever any doubts about that, they were erased with this at bat. After falling behind 1-2 to Allen, Gardner started battling. And battling. And battling. He worked the count full after six pitches, and then he just decided not to give in. Allen kept throwing strikes, but none were to Gardner’s liking, so he just slapped them into the stands to keep the at bat going. After five straight foul balls, Gardner dug in for the twelfth pitch of the at bat. Perhaps feeling the toll of the twenty pitches he had thrown to Frazier and Gardner, Allen finally made a mistake, leaving a fastball up and on the inner half of the plate. Gardy lashed it into right field for a clean, line drive single to plate Hicks and make the score 4-2, Yankees. Bruce fielded the ball in right field, but his throw was too casual and ended up short-hopping Lindor, who wasn’t able to corral it. The ball didn’t bounce far away, but Frazier alertly took advantage and sprinted towards the plate, sliding home just beneath the tag from Pérez.

With the score now 5-2 and Chapman heading back out for the ninth inning, thoughts naturally turned towards the ALCS, but three outs remained.

To be honest, I had forgotten what it was like. I had forgotten the tension connected those final three outs. I watched the ninth inning on my feet, standing in front of the television, sometimes pacing, sometimes crouching, sometimes hopping with nervousness. When I look back now, it was all relatively uneventful, especially given the three-run lead, but at the time? Not so much.

Chapman had been sitting on the bench for almost thirty minutes, so he naturally came out and walked the first batter of the inning, just to make things more interesting. Encarnación and his parrot were due next, but Chapman dispatched him without much drama. He threw five fastballs, but Encarnación swung only once. The last pitch was 101 MPH down the middle; Encarnación watched it go by, then returned to the bench to make plans for the off-season.

Santana was due next, and I had a momentary heart attack when he rapped a ball out towards second and Starlin Castro got caught between hops. He thought for a moment about charging, then realized he had to retreat, and there was a second when it looked like the ball might skip past him, when it looked like Cleveland would have runners at first and third with one out… But Castro stabbed the ball out of the air and flipped the ball to Didi for the force out.

One out away.

With Austin Jackson coming up to the plate, I pleaded to Chapman through the television: “Just! Throw! Fastballs!” He obliged. The first was a ball, but the next two were strikes, bringing us finally to the game’s final pitch. Chapman pumped a 101-MPH heater across the top of the zone and Jackson watched it pass for strike three, probably because he knew he had no hope of hitting it. Chapman struck his pose and screamed into the night, and the Yankees were headed to Houston and the American League Championship Series.

After the game the analysis centered on Kluber’s failure and CC’s success, on Didi’s big game and Judge’s abysmal series (save those two big moments), but this series was really about Joe Girardi. I will freely admit to being completely furious with him following the gaffe in Game 2, but what angered me the most on Friday night was that he made excuses after the game. He blamed the system, he complained about not having enough information.

None of that was valid, of course, and it fueled anger throughout the Yankee Universe as fans gathered pitchforks and made plans to storm the castle.

But on Saturday we saw the truth. Girardi admitted his mistake during his off-day press conference, but there was even more following the Game 3 win on Sunday night. He accepted responsibility for the earlier loss and fought back tears as he admitted to the pain he felt following Game 2. He knew he had let down millions of people, and I knew he wasn’t just talking to the reporters gathered in the room, he was talking to me.

So as I celebrated in my living room on Wednesday night, I wasn’t just rejoicing in a victory over the best team in baseball, and I wasn’t just dreaming of the World Series. I was celebrating for Joe.

Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls, Dying Time’s Here

Luis Severino wasn’t brilliant but he was damn good and you know the rest as the Yanks tied up the series a few nights ago with a 7-3 win. The new new Yankee Stadium is said to have none of the claustrophobic atmosphere of Yankee Stadium II but for two nights it was loud, baby. Great job by the rattle-your-jewelry playoff swells as well as the hardcore regulars in attendance.

Tonight gives all the marbles out in Cleveland. While I expect the Indians to win it is hard to count our boys out. Let’s hope the give ‘em Hell.

Never mind the waiting:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

Luis Severino Returns

…And the Sox are the first to fall, losing by a run to the Astros in the rain this afternoon.

Hot fuggin’ damn.

Little Luis has had some time to think it over now, huh? He gets the nod against Trevor Bauer, who, I am sorry, can’t be great 2 times in a row, can he, hah? Expect Severino to pitch well—for awhile anyway. And also expect the offense to score couple few runs.

Just want the Yanks to be a tough out. Don’t make it easy on ‘em.

Never mind the load:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

The Road Back

I don’t remember the last time I watched a Yankee game as tense as the one in the Bronx on Sunday night, largely because it’s been so long since the Yankees have had a legitimate shot at a World Series. I think that’s why Friday’s debacle reverberated through the fanbase the way it did. There was a sense that an opportunity was lost, that a shot at a championship had been squandered. When Joe Girard’s failure to challenge the hit by pitch and the base awarded to Lonnie Chisenhall in Game 2, millions of Yankee fans felt betrayed. Their anger was felt throughout cyberspace on Friday night and Saturday morning, and it was felt again as boos rained down on Girardi as he was introduced before Sunday’s Game 3. If the Yankees had lost and been swept by Cleveland, I’m not sure the manager would’ve been able to survive the storm.

And so it was Masahiro Tanaka who saved him. Tanaka has been with the Yankees for four years now, and he’s never pitched a bigger game than he did on Sunday. Thankfully for Girardi and the Yankees, he’s probably never pitched better.

He immediately announced that he was on, striking out Yankee killer Francisco Lindor, using a single pitch to retire Jason Kipnis on a pop up, then fanning José Ramírez for a clean opening frame that set the tone for the rest of the night. His command was exact, his splitter was brilliant, and when he needed it, his tenacity would be formidable.

Equally formidable was Cleveland starter Carlos Carrasco. With a rotation like this, it’s no wonder that Cleveland compiled the best recored in the American League. Carrasco was 5-0 with a 1.48 ERA in September, he tied for the league lead with 18 wins, and he was just about as good as Tanaka on this night. He also struck out two in the first inning, then two more in the second, and when he yielded a leadoff walk to Jacoby Ellsbury in the third, he erased him with a quick double play off the bat of Aaron Hicks.

Tanaka and Carrasco were linked in an October pitching duel. The stakes may have been higher for the Yankees, but there was still a clear sense building that neither pitcher was going to fall victim to an extended rally, and the pressure mounted on both sides. The more zeros the two hung on the scoreboard, the more likely it seemed that the game — and possibly the series — would be decided by one swing of the bat.

Cleveland had the first opportunity with one out in the top of the fourth. Kipnis took a pitch out over the middle of the plate and hooked it to right field. There was no fear that it would find the seats, but it was certainly a dangerous ball that looked like a base hit off the bat. Aaron Judge raced to his left hoping to make a play, but as he leapt and extended his glove, he miscalculated slightly, and the ball actually glanced off the heel of his mitt and back behind him. By the time Judge was able to slam on the brakes, retrieve the ball, and fire it back into the infield, Kipnis was sliding into third with a quirky triple.

With the Yankees yet to garner their first hit off Carrasco, this felt like a moment that could possibly end their season. Girardi had no choice but to bring his infield in, increasing the odds for the already dangerous José Ramírez, but it turned out that the infielders weren’t even necessary. Tanaka fed Ramírez a steady diet of splitters in the dirt and struck him out to keep Kipnis at third. All this did, though, was bring up Jay Bruce, the same Jay Bruce who single-handedly crushed the Yankees in Game 1 with three RBIs, the same Jay Bruce who ripped their hearts out with a game-tying homer in Game 2. A base hit in this spot would be even worse. Tanaka started him out with a low slider for ball one, then went to his splitter. The pitch started at the bottom of the strike zone before tumbling into the dirt, but Bruce couldn’t resist and waved at it helplessly. The next pitch was possibly a bit lower, and it produced the same result, bringing the count to 1-2. With the Stadium crowd roaring, Tanaka cast out his line once more, and once more Bruce bit, swinging and missing for strike three. The crowd erupted in celebration, and Tanaka spun around on the mound, screaming and pumping his fist in defiance. The game was his, and everyone knew it.

Tanaka was tested again in the sixth inning. Roberto Pérez opened the frame by looping a soft single to left, and after Giovanny Urshela lined out to right, Francisco Lindor walked up to the plate. After watching a splitter for ball one and then swinging over a slider, Lindor found the one mistake Tanaka made all night, a splitter that stayed up a bit. He put a good swing on it, and although the ball was only in the air for a couple seconds, it was still enough time to think back to Friday night and the towering grand slam he had hit to change the course of Game 2; it was still enough time to wonder if Lindor had done it again; it was still enough time to worry that the Yankees’ season might be over.

But then there was Aaron Judge. He got back to the wall quickly and had time to take a measure of the fly ball. As fans in the bleachers behind him rose to their feet in anticipation, Judge gathered his six-foot-seven-inch frame, leapt into the night, and came down with the ball. Most of the fans in the Stadium had probably walked through the turnstiles hoping Judge might do something to save the season, but it’s doubtful any of them were thinking about his glove. Even before he fired the ball back towards the infield, Judge showed us something. He smiled from ear to ear, just as countless kids will do at recess on Monday while re-enacting this game-saving play. It was a reminder of why there are so many Judge jerseys in the stands these days. There’s a lot more to this kid than the 52 home runs.

In the bottom half of the sixth, Carrasco began to show some cracks in his armor. Aaron Hicks reached on a dribbler to third, just the second New York hit of the night, but Carrasco quickly doused that flicker of hope by inducing a double play off the bat of Brett Gardner. But then Judge drew a walk, Gary Sánchez sent an absolute missile through the middle of the infield for the second hit of the inning, and Didi Gregorius worked a walk to load the bases and usher Carrasco from the game. Once again the Stadium crowd came to life, but once again the Yankees were turned away when reliever Andrew Miller retired Starlin Castro with a harmless popup to shortstop.

Tanaka worked a clean top of the seventh, and then I was reminded of the 2001 playoffs, the year that the Yankees began playing “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch to honor the victims and first responders of 9/11. There were so many seventh-inning rallies during those playoffs that we began to hear off-the-record reports of opposing managers and players being critical of the extended seventh-inning stretch, as if two minutes of Kate Smith was icing their pitchers.

Whatever the reason, I was hoping for more seventh-inning magic as first baseman Greg Bird walked up to the plate to lead off the bottom of the seventh against Miller. Bird’s story has been well-documented, from his surprising success in 2015, the shoulder injury which cost him all of 2016, and the ankle and foot injuries which robbed him of most of 2017. Much was expected of Bird following his arrival two years ago, but he had largely been forgotten as other young Yankees blossomed, first Sánchez last season and Judge this season. Bird’s fall was so precipitous, in fact, that many wondered whether or not he’d ever return to the lineup. Be grateful that he has.

Bird took one slider for a ball, then fouled off another to even the count before Miller decided to try a fastball. Even though it came in at 96 MPH, it came in belt high and on the inner half of the plate, right in Bird’s wheelhouse. Bird turned on it, and everyone involved immediately knew it was gone. Bird spun around on his follow through and actually took two steps backward and almost into the opposite batter’s box as he watched his majestic blast soar into the second deck. He dropped his head, dropped his bat, screamed in celebration, and let the cheers wash over him as he circled the bases after the most important Yankee home run of 2017.

With six outs remaining, Girardi turned to his bullpen. David Robertson got the first out of the eighth inning, but after walking Michael Brantley, he gave way to Aroldis Chapman, who’d need five outs to extend the series. Chapman didn’t mess around. He threw four fastballs (100, 100, 103, 103) to strike out pinch hitter Yan Gomes, then three fastballs and a slider (102, 101, 88, 102) to fan Urshela.

Chapman was a bit shaky when he came back out for the ninth, but he was still throwing heat. He had to throw 26 pitches while working around two singles, but 23 of those pitches were fastballs ranging from 100 MPH to 104. Carlos Santana lofted the last one of those to left center field, and when it settled into Aaron Hicks’s glove, the game was over and the Yankees were still alive.

Masahiro, We Turn Our Lonely Eyes to You

Yanks with their backs against the wall. Been such a fun season, shame to see it end so quickly.

Never mind the nightmare flashbacks:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

Nuts



You can put this up there on the mantle piece with the Sandy Alomar game and the fuggin’ midges, too. The Yankees beat the crap out of Corey Kluber, staked the bullpen to an 8-3 lead, and then watched it all fall apart as they went on to lose in 13, 9-8. At the center of it all was Joe Girardi’s boner not to challenge a hit batter in the 7th. What clearly looked to us at home like a foul tip—which would have resulted in a third strike and the end of the inning, Yanks up by five—went unchallenged even though Gary Sanchez immediately signaled for review. After the game, Joe wasn’t ready to accept blame square in the face and that’s his business; rightly or wrongly this gets hung on him now and will be remembered bitterly by Yankee fans for as long as we remember.

There were heroes—Sanchez, and Aaron Hicks, who had a 3-run bomb, Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances with fine work out of the pen—and there were goats—looking at you, kid Torreyes—but this one will be remembered as one that famously got away.

Nuts.

 

Gainin’ on Ya

Yanks turn to old reliable C.C. Sabathia tonight. Boy, you can see this going south on him quickly, looking old and feeble, the Indians beating the snot out of him. Revenge. Old wounds. All that old salt shit. But you can also see him keeping out boys in it as they try to survive Kluber and somehow find a way to steal this goddamn game.

Biggest one of the year.

Never mind the shadows (or the odds):

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver