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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

It Wasn’t as Bad as You Think

Everything is amplified and magnified in October, and so it was on Tuesday night as the Yankees dropped the first game of the five-game American League Division Championship series in Cleveland. This is the same Cleveland team who rattled off a 22-game winning streak in August and September, the same team that many analysts tap as the most complete team in baseball, so it shouldn’t be a terrible surprise that the Yankees dropped a game to them. No one, after all, expected a Yankee sweep.

Nothing went right for the Yankees on this particular October night. Cleveland manager Terry Francona surprised everyone by tabbing Trevor Bauer to start Game 1 instead of Cy Young favorite Corey Kluber (can’t wait to see him in Game 2), but Bauer quickly justified Tito’s faith by retiring the first five Yankee hitters he faced. After an odd four-pitch walk to Greg Bird in the second, Bauer rebounded to strike out Todd Frazier to finish the inning. The pitch to Frazier appeared to be outside, just the first of many questionable calls that would benefit Bauer over the course of his outing.

Based on what we saw during the regular season, Joe Girardi’s choice for his Game 1 starter was also a surprise. Instead of pitching Masahiro Tanaka, who had had five days rest since his scintillating performance in his final start on September 29th (Tanaka will start Game 3 on eight days rest), Girardi decided on Sonny Gray. We’re supposed to be excited about Gray, a talented young pitcher with a manageable contract, but he’s been more grey than sunny during his time in the Bronx, losing seven games since he arrived and pitching to a mediocre 4.58 ERA in September.

Gray’s troubles on this night began in the bottom of the second. Jay Bruce led off the inning by pounding a ball off the wall in left field for a double, Carlos Santana singled to center, and then Gray made things worse by plunking Lonnie Chisenhall with a fastball to load the bases with nobody out. With the Yankee bullpen still recovering from its work on Tuesday night, this was the last thing Girardi needed to see. But Gray dug in and made a big pitch — and got a big assist from shortstop Didi Gregorius — inducing Roberto Pérez to ground into a nifty 6-4-3 double play. Bruce scored from third on the play, but no one in pinstripes was complaining. When Gray got Giovanny Urshela to fly out to end the inning, there was a sense that disaster had been avoided. Gray had weathered the storm.

The third inning was quiet for Gray, but he wandered into trouble again in the fourth. As most rallies do, this one started with a leadoff walk to Edwin Encarnación. Two pitches later it was Jay Bruce again, this time lifting a lazy fly ball to right field that floated over Aaron Judge and over the outfield wall for a lazy home run. Instead of digging in again, Gray began digging his own grave. He walked two of the next three hitters (his last three hitters), and then Adam Warren came in and made things worse by allowing a single to Urshela.

Once again, the bases were loaded; once again, the game seemed to be hanging in the balance. Once again, the Yankees wriggled free as Warren retired Jason Kipnis on a fly ball to right field. Cleveland held a 3-0 lead, but with the Yankee bats as cold as they were, those three runs felt like touchdowns.

Bauer was coasting. He had given up that walk to Bird in the second, and Judge had reached in the fourth after striking out on a wild pitch, but that would be it as Bauer compiled five hitless innings to start his night. His curveball was devastating, and during the postgame show YES Network commentator Jack Curry revealed that his average break of 9.6 inches was the biggest in baseball, greater even than Clayton Kershaw’s. Working off of that curve, Bauer confounded Yankee hitters with a mid-90s fastball up in their eyes and a backup slider that started in at the hands of the left-handed batters before breaking back over the inside corner.

As good as Bauer was — he’d finish with eight strikeouts and just two hits over six and two-thirds of an inning — he had help from the umpires. Third base umpire Brian O’Nora seemed to be flipping a coin when handling check swing appeals, but worse than that was home plate umpire Vic Carapazza’s strike zone which seemed to breathe in and out all night as if it were alive. Chase Headley, Didi Gregorius, and Aaron Judge all struck out on pitches that were outside the strike zone presented by TBS, but neither of the network’s broadcasters made mention of this. (It’s no surprise that John Smoltz remained quiet, considering how much he and his Hall of Fame teammates benefited from the stretching of the zone during their careers.)

When Cleveland scratched out another run in the fifth on the strength of a single from José Ramírez, two wild pitches from Warren, and a sacrifice fly from Bruce, the 4-0 lead felt insurmountable. The Yankees made one last push in the eighth when Headley and Brett Gardner worked walks against Andrew Miller to bring up Judge with two outs and a chance to put some runs on the board, but the MVP candidate struck out for his fourth time of the night to end the inning and effectively end the game. Cleveland 4, New York 0.

It was a frustrating three and a half hours, but it wasn’t all bad. The announcers breathlessly reported all night that the Yankees had only two base hits, and they seemed almost disappointed when Starlin Castro punched a ball to right in the ninth for the team’s third hit, but Cleveland had only five hits themselves, none after the fifth inning. Jaime García pitched well enough in relief that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get a start instead of Gray should that spot in the rotation roll around again, and Dellin Betances appeared to put his September struggles behind him as he struck out the side in the eighth inning on just eleven pitches.

So there’s hope, my friends. Cleveland is a good team deserving of all the accolades that have come its way, but I still believe in these Yankees. This is the most interesting Yankee team in half a decade, and I’m sure they’ve got some fight left in them. I’m already looking forward to Game 2. Oh, and there’s one more thing — at least there weren’t any midges.

Here We Goski—ALCS: Game One

So, the Yanks get one out from Luis Severino and still win going away, 8-4, to advance to the ALCS against the Indians.

It was a swell night, by you already know that.

First up today gives Chris Sale vs. Justin Verlander as the Red Sox play against the Astros in Houston. Yanks go tonight at 7:30.

With Kluber looming tomorrow, this is the game you figure the Yanks need to steal in order to have a shot in the series. Yanks will go with Sonny Gray (C.C. in Game 2, followed by Tanaka and Severino).

Never mind the gravy—11 wins gets the big prize:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

One Night Only

The Yanks host the Twins tonight in the do-or-die wildcard game at the Stadium.

Beautiful day in the Bronx, sunny, warm, no humidity. Will get a little cool tonight, just about ideal.

The more than capable Ervin Santana goes against our dude, Luis Severino. This match-up has bothered me for weeks, karma-wise. I think back on John Bonnes and Aaron Gleeman and Batgirl—and all those faithful Twins fans—and can’t help but see the upset clearly. At the same time, the Yanks are the favorite on paper and plus I love this team and feel good about their chances.

Aw, Hell, we know it could go either way. Point is, we’ll be there, root-root-rootin’ our boys on every step of the way.

Never mind the pressure:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

(P.S. As a reminder, I know we’re a modest bunch in the comments section these days, but if that spikes tonight, please remember to be civil. You can vent if you’re frustrated and you can curse—just don’t curse at each other, put one another down, or generally act like a putz. Thanks—A.B.)

 

It’s a Family Affair

Would you believe these Yanks? Now, that was a fun season. Let’s hope there is more to come and not some bitch-slap of a one-and-done tomorrow night against the Twins, who have Karma on their side, many times as they’ve taken it on the chin agains the Yanks.

Never mind that just yet. It’s been a memorable summer. Maybe more to come.

In the meantime: Thanks, Yanks!

[Photo Credit: Paul J. Bereswill]

A Good Place to Be

Yanks won again last night (again with the 6-1)—Sox did too and they are this close to clinching the division.

Tonight is beautiful in the Bronx, not cold but the humidity is gone and it is cool. A hint of what is to come next Tuesday night when the Yanks, in all likelihood, host the Twins at the Stadium.

Stay healthy, keep chugging away, fellas.

Never mind the future:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

Round the Outside (Round the Outside)

Nice 6-1 win last night, eh? Loved it—looking at you Mr. Montgomery. Chris Sale stumbled, Sox lost. Doesn’t mean they are collapsing but it was pleasant all the same.

More tonight.

Never mind this humidity:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

50 is a Beautiful Thing

Monday was a goldbricker’s delight for Yankee fans. Matt B, a longtime Banterite, actually offered me a ticket, but I couldn’t make it, dammit. Anyhow, as you already know, it was a dream afternoon as our man Aaron Judge hit a couple more dingers—49 and 50!—tying and then passing Big Mac for the rookie home run record.

Happy?

Three game series vs. the Rays starts tonight. Final stretch. Let’s pad those stats and stay healthy and get ready for the do-or-die game against the Twinkies.

Never mind the Indian Summer:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

[Photo Credit: Adam Hunger/Getty Images]

Step Up Front

The Yanks are headed back to the postseason as they clinched at least a wildcard berth yesterday with a tidy, 5-1 win. The pitching was superb and a 3-run dinger by Greg Bird was enough to lift our boys back to October.

Look, let me be the first to say that I am awfully nervous that the Twins, after being whipped by the Yanks so often in the playoffs, will finally get their revenge. But if the Yanks can win that game, they can give the Indians a pain in the ass.

Never mind the future, let’s stay in the moment.

This has been a weird but enjoyable season thus far.

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

One More Pin, Rodney

Aaron Judge had a nice night—and there was some welcome and spirited banter in the game thread, which I’ll address separately—but that was about it as the Yanks took one on the chin in Toronto while the Red Sox won again. More today—a win gets our boys a ticket to the dance.

Never mind the blue birds:

Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Picture by Bags

(p.s. And here is an update on the little girl who was hit by a foul ball earlier in the week.)

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