"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
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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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

The Ghost of Phenoms Past

Whenever I think of Homer Bailey, I’m reminded of how treacherous it is to anoint a pitching prospect as a future star. Sure, things worked out with Clayton Kershaw, but we don’t have to look beyond our own backyard to remember the trials and tribulations of Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes. According to Baseball Prospectus, the top five pitching prospects in 2008 were Clay Buchholz, Joba Chamberlain, Clayton Kershaw, David Price, and Homer Bailey. That group has produced a first-ballot Hall of Famer, an occasional All-Star, a middle of the rotation innings-eater, a flash in the pan, and Bailey.

Homer’s had a nice career, if you allow that any eleven-year stint in the major leagues is a nice career, but he appears to be nearing the end of the road. He’s only made six starts this year, but they’ve been forgettable. In 27.1 innings he’s allowed 26 runs (I’ll spare him the embarrassment of calculating that ERA) along with 43 hits and 13 walks. He did manage two wins in his first two starts of July, allowing a total of two runs over 12.1 innings, but his last two starts have been abject disasters — 14 runs in 4.2 innings. (That sound you hear in the background is Gary Sánchez starting up the Score Truck.)

It seems perfect that the Yankees have their own phenom on the mound today. Luís Severino has been exactly what you’d expect from a young pitcher with a huge future. He hasn’t been Dwight Gooden, but no one has, really. There have been bumps in the road, but in general he seems to be getting better over the course of the season. At his worst he tends to lose focus and make mistakes; at his best he is virtually unhittable, carrying his 100-MPH velocity deep into his starts. His spot in the rotation is the one that I look forward to the most. Each dominant outing pushes my memories of the misguided handling of Hughes and Chamberlain deeper into my subconscious. Severino will be a star.

All of this, of course, points to a huge win and a series sweep for the Yankees, so relax and enjoy!

As Alex would say, Let’s Go Yank-ees!

Gardner, LF
C. Frazier, RF
Sánchez, C
Holliday, DH
Gregorius, SS
Headley, 1B
Triple Play Frazier, 3B
Ellsbury, CF
Torreyes, 2B

Severino (6-4, 120.2 IP, 136 K, 30 BB, 104 H, 3.21 ERA, 1.11 WHIP)

Wrestling with the Reds

When I think of the Cincinnati Reds, I will always and forever think back to the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. I’m not old enough to remember watching those teams, but after a fortuitous trip to Yankee Stadium when I was seven years old transformed me into a Yankee fan for life, I vividly remember flipping through a pack of baseball cards and painfully reading about the Yankees’ sweep the previous year at the hands of the Reds in the 1976 World Series. Sure, that was decades ago, and the Reds have since given us players like Paul O’Neill and Aroldis Chapman, but the little boy in me still holds that grudge.

Tonight the Reds come in to town for a brief two-game series. It would behoove the Yankees to win both games, because these Reds aren’t big, and they aren’t a machine. Only three teams in baseball have worse records than Cincinnati, and if it weren’t for Scooter Gennett’s four-homer game from a few weeks ago or the trade rumors surrounding shortstop Zack Cozart, they’d be completely irrelevant.

Our young Jordan Montgomery takes the mound against the equally young Luís Castillo. The Yankees have historically struggled against rookie pitchers (Castillo will be making just his seventh career start), but hopefully that won’t be case tonight. Perhaps the Score Truck will even make an appearance. As Alex would say, “Let’s Go Yank-ees!”

Gardner, CF
C. Frazier, LF
Judge, RF
Holliday, DH
Gregorius, SS
Headley, 1B
T. Frazier, 3B
Wade, 2B
Romine, C

Montgomery (6-5, 101.1 IP, 93 K, 32 BB, 4.09 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, .247/.305/.413)

The Little Things

The Yankees have had lots of disappointing losses over the past six weeks, so many that after a while it became pointless to label one or another as the “worst loss of the season.” Saturday night’s game in Seattle certainly doesn’t fit into that category, but I’m certain that several different Yankees went to bed wondering about what might have been, about all the small ripples that could’ve bent this game in New York’s favor.

Things begin nicely enough with a run in the second, but the manner in which the run came across is a bit troubling. Todd Frazier may have been acquired more to keep him from the Red Sox than for any benefit he may give the Yankees – so far that benefit is minimal – but he’s been struggling. He came to the plate in the second inning with no one out and runners on first and second, and wasted little time in killing the rally. After swinging through two pitches to dig an 0-2 hole, he bounced into a 5-4-3 double play. The run scored, but a big opportunity was missed. Todd Frazier likely did not sleep well last night.

Masahiro “Box of Chocolates” Tanaka was on the mound for the Yankees, and after two uneventful innings, things unravelled for him in the third. Mike Zunino led off the inning with a homer to tie the game at one, and two batters later Ben Gamel whacked a dinger of his own to give the Mariners a 2-1 lead. Tanaka rebounded by striking out Robinson Canó for the second out, but then there was an infield single by Nelson Crúz, a splitter that landed on Kyle Seager’s foot, and then consecutive RBI singles from Danny Valencia and Mitch Haniger. Tanaka threw 39 pitches and allowed four runs in the inning, adding to the confusion which swirls around the most enigmatic pitcher on the Yankee staff.

But then things got even more confusing for Tanaka. He set down the side in the fourth on just six pitches, then did the same in the fifth with only eight. He had to work just a bit harder in the sixth, but he still managed a one-two-three inning on thirteen pitches. If you happened to duck away from the game for some reason during the third inning, you probably think Tanaka had a brilliant outing, and except for that third inning he did. In his other five innings he faced just seventeen batters and allowed only two singles. In that fateful third frame, however, the Mariners sent all nine batters to the plate and produced three singles, two homers, and a hit batsman. Were it not for that inning, this would’ve been an easy win for the Yankees. Masahiro Tanaka likely did not sleep well last night.

After Tanaka righted the ship, the Yankee batters began to chip away at Seattle’s Ariel Miranda. They cut the lead to 4-2 in the fifth inning when Garrett Cooper tripled and came home on a sacrifice fly from Ronald Torreyes, and Aaron Judge lofted a ho-hum homer to right to make it 4-3 in the sixth.

In the eighth, another opportunity was missed. Brett Gardner singled with one out, bringing up Clint Frazier. (Yesterday, by the way, I campaigned for Frazier to continue playing over Jacoby Ellsbury; I can only assume that Girardi reads the Banter, because before Saturday’s game, the manager said he’d continue to play the youngster, and revealed he’d explained this to Ellsbury.)

Frazier looked at the first pitch he saw from Seattle reliever and former Yankee David Phelps and hit a laser that looked like it might make its way into the stands in left field. Instead the ball hit the yellow line that marks the top of the wall and fell to the turf for a double that pushed Gardner to third. Only two inches, perhaps, separated the Yankees from a 5-4 lead, but they’d at least get the tying run two batters later when Matt Holliday came up with the bases loaded and produced a sacrifice fly to right, scoring Gardner and moving Frazier to third.

Next up was Gary Sánchez. Last year’s phenom hasn’t matched the obscene numbers from his rookie campaign, but it could be because he seems to hit rockets into fielders’ gloves at least once or twice a game. Batting with two out and runners at the corners here in the eighth, he did it again. He sampled a 2-0 pitch and sent a rope out to right field that seemed certain to be an RBI single (or perhaps more), only to watch Haniger race in to snare it for the final out of the inning. An inch here or there and this would’ve been a huge inning. Clint Frazier and Gary Sánchez likely did not sleep well last night.

As the game moved into the bottom of the eighth, all signs seemed to favor the Yankees. With a relatively fresh holster of flame-throwing relievers, Girardi would be able to bring one in after another, casually putting zeroes up on the scoreboard as confidently as a riverboat gambler laying aces on the table. All he’d have to do was wait for the Yankee offense to scratch out another run before playing his final card and securing the win, right?

That idea lasted about thirty seconds. Fresh off Friday night’s dominant performance, David Robertson came in to face Canó as he led off the eighth. Robertson put a fastball exactly where he wanted it – at the knees and on the black – a perfect pitch that would’ve crippled any ordinary left-handed batter, producing a ground ball to second if he swung or an 0-1 count if he didn’t. Robinson Canó, however, is no ordinary hitter. He reached out across the plate with his smooth-as-molasses swing and served the ball out to left field. The ball carried deep and deeper until it finally settled into the stands for a home run and a 5-4 Seattle lead.

After following the path of the ball into the bleachers, Robertson immediately snapped his head back towards Sánchez in disbelief. The replay of Canó’s swing showed Sánchez equally surprised, turning his empty glove and his bare hand up to the heavens in the universal symbol for “what the hell just happened?” Robertson easily mowed through the next three batters, but the two continued discussing the pitch as soon as they got to the dugout. Afterwards Robertson admitted that he had put the pitch exactly where he wanted, but acknowledged he had simply been beaten by a great hitter. David Robertson likely did not sleep well last night.

So after scraping their way back into the game and looking poised to win, the Yankees were suddenly three outs away from defeat. Didi Gregorious led off the ninth with a walk, but when Todd Frazier fouled out, dropping his average to a lusty .201, and Chase Headley (batting for Cooper) flied out to center, the Yanks were down to their final out, and this is when the gears started turning.

Ronald Torreyes was headed to the plate, and Girardi could’ve pinch hit Ellsbury, but instead he chose to use Ellsbury to run for Gregorious, explaining afterwards that he felt like he needed to steal a base. I suppose the marginal upgrade in that spot outweighed what would be (sadly) a similarly marginal upgrade had he hit for Torreyes.

You probably already know that it worked out, and Torreyes drove in the tying run, but unless you were watching you don’t know how it happened. Torreyes, naturally, fell into an 0-2 hole, putting the Yankees even deeper into the jaws of defeat, but when Ellsbury stole second on the next pitch, suddenly there was a glimmer of hope. On a 1-2 count, Seattle closer Edwin Díaz threw a slider that darted away from Torreyes and into the opposite batter’s box. Having already committed to his swing before realizing he couldn’t possibly reach the pitch, Torreyes did the only thing he could do; he threw his bat at the ball, barely clipping it to stay alive. The bat came to rest just behind the pitcher’s mound, and Díaz politely retrieved it for him, only to have his next pitch rudely laced into left field, easily scoring Ellsbury with the tying run.

The bottom of the ninth inning was interesting for two reasons. First, all of Girardi’s maneuvering had left him with a makeshift infield: Todd Frazier was still at third, but Torreyes had moved over to short, Headley was placed at second for the first time in his major league career, and Austin Romine came in to play first. (Part of the problem was that Starlin Castro had been put on the disabled list earlier in the day, and his replacement, Tyler Wade, hadn’t been able to get to Seattle in time for the game; the Yankees were playing a man short.) The second interesting thing was Tommy Kahnle, who continues to be dominant. Guillermo Heredia reached on a hit by pitch (the play was upheld by review, but I still don’t believe the ball hit him), but Kahnle struck out the other three hitters he faced, something I think we’ll see a lot of over the course of the summer.

Home plate umpire Pat Hoberg decided to insert himself into the game during the tenth inning, and a disgruntled Yankee fan could easily argue that Hoberg decided the game. Clint Frazier led off the tenth against Tony Zych and worked his way into a 2-2 count. The next pitch came in low, probably an inch or two below the knees, but Hoberg saw it as a strike, and Frazier returned to the bench. Judge was up next and pushed the count full before taking a pitch and immediately tossing his bat back towards the Yankee dugout. He had taken three steps towards first before Hoberg rung him up for strike three. Perhaps more than any Yankee, Judge has a firm understanding of the strike zone, and this pitch was a clear ball, even a touch lower than the one which had victimized Frazier. So instead of having runners on first and second with no one out in the top of the tenth, the bases were empty with two outs. Holliday followed all that with a grounder to short, and the inning was done.

Adam Warren came in for the bottom of the tenth and was promptly touched for a loud double by Ben Gamel, and suddenly the game was there for Seattle’s taking. After an intentional walk to Canó, Nelson Crúz stepped to the plate looking to be the hero. The real hero, though, would be Hoberg. With the count 1-1, Warren threw a pitch at the knees, a pitch that appeared to be even a hair or two higher than the strikes to Frazier and Judge, but Hoberg didn’t flinch. He saw it low, and Gary Sánchez wasn’t happy about it. His body slumped in disbelief when he didn’t get the call, and he turned his head to bark at Hoberg twice before returning the ball to Warren. Still not satisfied, he got up from his crouch and said a few more words before finally sitting back down. I’d like to think that Hoberg gave him some leeway because he knew he had missed the call.

Ten seconds later the game was over. Swinging aggressively at a 2-1 pitch (instead of defensively, had the count been 1-2), Crúz lashed a single to right, and Gamel scored easily. Mariners 6, Yankees 5. I’d like to think that Pat Hoberg did not sleep well last night, but I’m guessing he probably slept like a baby.

If Friday night’s game was the blueprint for future success, Saturday night was the ghost of failures past. It was the fifth time the Yankees had been walked off, something that happened only four times last year, and it lowered their mark in one-run games to an abysmal 9-19.

The good news, of course, is that tomorrow is another day and another chance to win the series. It won’t be the most important game of their season, but it’s certainly a big one. Don’t worry, though, I feel a victory coming on, as likely as hot coffee on a rainy day in Seattle.

The Face of Things to Come

If the Yankees are going to track down the Red Sox and make a push towards more meaningful games in September and October, Friday night’s game in Seattle will serve as the blueprint, starting with the pitching.

After Luís Severino set the tone in the series opener and laid to rest any thoughts that he might not be the Yankees’ ace, the elder statesman of the staff came out and reminded fans that he’s far from done. CC Sabathia has battled well-publicized issues on and off the field over the past few years, so this season has been something of a revelation. He pitched to a 4.54 ERA from 2013-16, but on his 37th birthday, Carsten Charles earned his ninth win (matching his nine wins in 2016 and his total from ’14 and ’15) and lowered his ERA to 3.44.

In the first inning, however, it didn’t look like Sabathia would be in the mood to celebrate anything at night’s end. The first two batters went down harmlessly enough, but Robinson Canó singled and went to third on a booming single off the bat of Nelson Crúz. (How Crúz could end up at first after hitting a ball to the base of the wall is completely beyond me. Cadillac much?)

Sabathia did his best to get out of the jam by getting a ground ball from Kyle Seager that should’ve ended the inning were it not for the inexperience of Chad Headley at first base. The ball was hit hard to Headley’s right, but instead of leaving the ball for Starlin Castro, who was pulled over and deep in a shift for Seager, Headley took a dive and missed. When Castro fielded the ball easily, Headly had to scurry back to first to take the throw on the run while searching for the bag with his foot, something he’s likely never done at third base. He missed the bag, and the Mariners had a 1-0 lead.

Seattle had Andrew Moore on the mound, and in the third inning the Yankees began to take his measure. It was the bottom of the lineup that started things off. Headley set about redeeming his earlier misplay with a leadoff double to center, then came home on rocketed double to right center off the bat of Clint Frazier. A quick word about Frazier – there’s no way this kid should be going anywhere. Whether you want to believe the numbers or what you see with your eyes, he has the résumé of a major league ball player. In addition to this RBI double, he also produced a diving catch in left that would fit comfortably on any outfielder’s highlight reel. I understand that Jacoby Ellsbury is making roughly forty times Frazier’s salary, but is there anyone out there who thinks Ellsbury is the better player? Anyone?

But back to our game. That Frazier double tied the game at one, and after a fly out from Brett Gardner and a walk to Gary Sánchez, Aaron Judge came to the plate with runners at the corners. Judge got a good pitch to hit from Moore, but he just missed squaring it up – and lofted a sac fly to the wall in center field. It was 2-1, Yanks, but there would be more from Judge later on.

Sabathia, meanwhile, was fighting through his start. He wouldn’t allow a run after that first inning, but there was a loud double from Ben Gamel in the second, and then a walk and a hit batsman in the third. It wasn’t easy, but then suddenly it was. After hitting Seager, Sabathia coasted through the next eight batters, striking out four of them.

Normally, that would be the story of the game, but Aaron Judge simply isn’t normal. Judge came to the plate in the fifth inning with one out and runners on first and third and watched the first two pitches sail outside the zone. He fouled off a 2-0 fastball and was clearly frustrated that he had missed his pitch, possibly also frustrated that it had been ten games since his last home run.

He didn’t miss the next pitch. Moore left a slider up around the belt and on the inside half of the plate, and Judge hit a ball as hard and as far as any he hit during last week’s Home Run Derby. Everyone in the park knew it was gone immediately, so Judge took a glance towards left field during his followthrough, but his head was down before leaving the batter’s box, and he didn’t look up again until rounding first, long after the ball had been caught by a fan in the upper reaches of the upper deck. Another ten feet and it would’ve left the stadium, a feat not accomplished in the eleven-year history of Safeco Field.

How prodigious was this home run? It was too big for Statcast, which couldn’t track the blast. (The Twitterverse ate this up, by the way.) With no high-tech data, people were forced to do it the old-fashioned way, with Mariners’ PR people offering a ludicrous estimate of 415 feet before someone, somewhere, settled on 437, a guess which calls to mind our President’s estimates of his Inauguration crowd.

But as many have said, it’s probably better this way. The Legend of Judge grew a few sizes on Friday night, and on Saturday people will take selfies in the seat where the ball landed and an intern will no doubt be dispatched with a tape measure, just like the days of Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Mantle.

Oh, and another thing – don’t worry too much about Judge and his second-half slump. The big fella appears to be just fine.

The scoring was done for the night, thanks mostly to the Yankee bullpen. Sabathia walked the leadoff batter in the sixth inning, and Joe Girardi didn’t hesitate, jumping at the chance to unwrap the back end of his bullpen, gifts that just keep on giving. First up was Tommy Kanhle, who touched 100MPH on the gun while setting down all three batters he faced, and then David Robertson and his high socks took the seventh and struck out the side. (Welcome back!)

Dellin Betances had the eighth and worked around a double and a single before giving way to Adam Warren who faced just three batters in the ninth. In total, the bullpen logged four innings and struck out six while yielding just three hits.

So this 5-1 Yankee win is the blueprint for how the team might climb over the Red Sox and back into the division lead. Of course, before we start thinking about division flags and playoff rotations, these Yankees have to win a series, something they haven’t done since early June. This is the time.

Out of the Wilderness

Sevy

My son and I went to see the Yankees play in nearby Anaheim on the night of June 12, and it couldn’t have been better. Angels Stadium was overrun with Yankee fans, a boisterous group who came to praise Aaron Judge and bury the past few seasons of Yankee mediocrity. All of us got what we came for as Judge launched a homer to put the game away (eliciting chants of M!V!P!, right there in Mike Trout’s house) and the Bombers won their fifth straight game, reaching a high-water mark for the season at 38-23.

What’s happened since has been well documented. The seven-game losing streak that began on June 13 was just a taste of the slide yet to come. The Yankees have won neither a series nor consecutive games since then, wandering through the wilderness on a 10-22 streak that threatens to erase all the hard work and good fortune of April and May, and eliminate any hope for October.

Thank the Ghosts for Luís Severino. Feel free to fall in love with Aaron Judge if you haven’t already, keep holding that torch for Gary Sánchez, and lament all you want about Clint Frazier’s impending demotion, but Severino deserves as much hype as those three. (The next Core Four? Dare we dream so big so soon?)

Severino opposed the Mariners’ Felix Hernández, who is somehow already 31, and the two of them traded zeroes through the game’s first five innings. The Yankee hitters offered little resistance, earning just a second-inning walk, a third-inning single, and a walk that produced a fourth-inning double play. Early on, it was just another one of those games where you sat wondering how they’d ever manage to score.

Thinks weren’t quite that easy for Severino, but he rose to the occasion when challenged, aided by a fastball that’s rapidly become one of the best weapons in the league. (By the way, here’s an interesting article in which Tom Verducci explains that even though Yankee pitchers have the highest average velocity on their fastballs, no staff in baseball throws as few fastballs as they do, a trend that seems to be spreading throughout baseball.) But back to Severino. He blazed a 99-MPH fastball past Kyle Seager with runners on first and second to end the first, induced a pop-up from Mike Zunino to end the second with a runner on third, and wriggled out of a bases-loaded jam in the fourth by victimizing Jean Segura, showcasing 100-MPH heat just off the plate before using a curve to induce a feeble ground ball to short.

The spell was finally broken in the top of the sixth. Five minutes before midnight Eastern Stadium Time, Brett Gardner crushed King Felix’s ninetieth pitch, launching it deep into the Seattle night for a 1-0 Yankee lead. It still seems odd to see Gardner hitting no-doubters, as he occasionally does, but that’s what this was. Hernández was cursing himself before finishing his follow-through, Gardner was in his home run trot just a step out of the batter’s box, and Robinson Canó immediately began examining the dirt between his feet at second base. No doubt.

But would that single run be enough? Severino came back out and immediately took the game by the throat, retiring the Mariners on ten dominant pitches in the sixth and just eleven in the seventh. How good has Severino been lately? In his last two starts, opposing Chris Sale in Boston and King Felix in Seattle, his numbers are impressive: 14 IP/12 H/1 R/3 BB/12 K/1.07 WHIP/0.64 ERA. The Yankees may be sliding, but Severino is riding a personal three-game winning streak.

In the top of the eighth the Yankee hitters scratched out another run, but that single run should’ve been so much more. Aaron Judge found himself at the plate with the bases loaded and only one out, and I found myself irrationally hoping for a grand slam that would ice the game and soothe any concerns about Judge’s current slide. Instead it was a soft liner into right that moved everyone along ninety feet. If it were a fish you wouldn’t throw it back, but you wouldn’t mount it on the wall either. Matt Holiday came up next and grounded into a third-to-first double play, and the inning was over. (Side Note #1: Seattle’s Tony Zych faced the final three batters of that inning, and to confirm what you’re wondering, I looked it up. Assuming they still publish a hard copy of The Baseball Encyclopedia, Zych would be on the very last page. Side Note #2: On the first page of that volume you’ll find one-time Seattle pitcher David Aardsma, meaning that the Mariners are the alpha and omega of Major League Baseball. Kind of.)

Severino had thrown an easy 100 pitches over seven frames, and even though it might’ve been nice to send him out for the bottom of the eighth and squeeze another inning out of him, it seemed the perfect time for Joe Girardi to take advantage of his shiny new bullpen (The Embarrassment of Pitches?). I expected to see our old friend David Robertson in the eighth inning role, but Delin Betances came in instead. Even though the boxscore makes it look like he struggled, it wasn’t that serious. Sure, the hit by pitch was concerning, but the single that followed was just a harmless ground ball that found its way between Castro and Headley, and were it not for a botched double play, the inning could’ve been over a batter earlier than it was. (It also could’ve been much worse; that botched double play went to review, and I was ready for them to rule that Castro hadn’t actually secured the (wild) throw from Betances and put the runner back on second, loading the bases with just one out, but the ruling came down in favor of the Yankees.) The inning ended uneventfully.

Even after Double Agent Cano gift-wrapped two runs with a throwing error in top of the ninth, doubling the Yankee lead to 4-0, Girardi still sent Aroldis Chapman out to pitch the ninth, no doubt hoping to get his closer straightened out. That didn’t happen. If you weren’t watching, you still know exactly what it looked like. The fastball was live, but there was no control. He walked Mike Zunino to lead things off, then two pitches later he missed his target by about four feet, blazing a fastball past a lunging Sánchez for a wild pitch that sent Zunino to second. Chapman recovered to strike out Jean Segura and Ben Gamel, but it took 14 pitches for him to slog through those two at bats, and it didn’t seem that much had been straightened out. Due next was Canó, who reached to his shoes to slash at a slider and lace a double to the gap in right center, driving in a run and shrewdly maintaining his cover. The next batter popped up harmlessly to the right side, and the game was done. Yankees 4, Mariners 1.

Ah, but tomorrow night brings the question the Yankees haven’t been able to answer since that night in Anaheim more than five weeks ago. Can they win two games in a row? Tomorrow night they will. Book it.

A Day to Remember, A Moment to Forget

Fowler

Imagine for just a minute that you’re Dustin Fowler. As the 2017 season unfolds, you watch as one of your former minor league teammates becomes the biggest star in baseball, and as spring ripens into summer, one prospect after another climbs through the ranks and debuts in New York. Undaunted, you continue to grind at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, putting together a season that turns heads and has many observers wondering when you might join the rest of the Baby Bombers at the major league level.

In late June your hard work pays off. On Wednesday night your manager pulls you aside and tells you that tomorrow will be your day. Instead of riding the team bus to Thursday night’s game in Syracuse, you’ll be hopping a plane to Chicago and the major leagues. To make the day even more special, you get word on Thursday afternoon that you’ve been named an International League All-Star. For a moment you wonder about the league All Star Game, but it only takes seconds before you realize that you’d trade twenty minor league all star games for just one game in the show.

Your parents can’t make it to Chicago for the game, but when you arrive at the stadium and see your road jersey hanging in a locker marked “Fowler,” your parents are the only thing you can think of. Just as it still is for millions of kids across America, your baseball journey began with your parents. Games of catch with your father in the waning twilight after work, countless rides to practice and games, rolls of quarters and trips to the batting cages, and on and on and on. Because they were there then, you are here now.

It doesn’t take long for the media to find you during warm ups, and you answer different versions of the same question with different versions of the same answer. “It’s hard to put into words how excited I am,” you explain, “but it’s great to be here. It’s what I’ve worked for my whole life, and I’m just excited to get my career started.”

Before you know it the game arrives. A two hour and fifty minute rain delay does nothing to dampen your spirits, and when you sprint onto the field to take your position in right field before the bottom of the first inning, you float. After two quick outs Jose Abreu flicks a fly ball in your direction down the right field line. You take off after the ball in a flash, just as you’ve tracked thousands upon thousands of fly balls. There’s no thought, only reaction laced with twenty-two-year-old adrenaline, and before you know it the stands are rushing towards you far faster than they should. The ball you’ve been chasing curls harmlessly into the seats just as your body slams into the restraining wall. You’ll shake it off like you’ve shaken off so many bumps and bruises, but then your right foot hits the ground and you collapse in a heap.

Before you realize what’s happening, you’re surrounded by teammates and coaches and trainers. Steve Donohue crouches down and examines your knee while Joe Girardi buries his face in his hands, wiping tears from a face that’s seen fifty years of baseball. Veterans and rookies who had celebrated your arrival only hours before, form a circle of sorrow around you. Their words are positive and encouraging, but you see something different in their eyes. When they look at you they see Moonlight Graham, a player who came and went on this very day in 1905.

And then you’re on a cart driving out of the stadium with your knee in a splint and your heart in your mouth, the day your whole life has been pointing towards suddenly crashing down around you.

The game, of course, continues without you. Your team had taken advantage of an error to grab a 1-0 lead in the top of the first, but the White Sox jump back with two runs in the second, a rally made possible when your replacement, Rob Refsnyder, simply drops a fly ball. Your Yankees never lead after that, and nothing much of interest happens the rest of the away aside from a spotless performance from the much maligned bullpen (3.1 innings pitched, one hit, zero runs, zero walks, five strikeouts), and the curious case of Aaron Judge.

You know Judge well and nothing he’s doing surprises you, but as you listen to the end of the game while being prepped for surgery on your torn patella tendon, two things strike you as odd. First, with two outs in the seventh and the bases empty, Judge draws an intentional walk, making him only the third player this season to get a free pass with no one on board. That’s certainly strange, but in the ninth inning something happens that doesn’t fit the game you’ve grown up with.

After getting the first two outs of the inning, White Sox closer David Robertson gives up a clean single to Brett Gardner, setting up a showdown with Judge, and this is where things stop making sense. Even though the speedy Gardner carries the tying run in his pocket, the White Sox choose not to hold him on. Even though the speedy Gardner carries the tying run in his pocket and isn’t being held on by the White Sox, the Yankees choose not to have him steal second. The White Sox want Girardi to send Gardner, which would open up first base and allow them to walk Judge, but Girardi doesn’t take the bait. Judge eventually strikes out to end the game, but it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.

The final score of the game is White Sox 4, Yankees 3, and the Yankees have fallen out of first place, but as the anesthesia creeps into your lungs and begins to fog your mind, your last conscious thought is for yourself. Again you see Abreu’s fly ball slicing off his bat, but this time it stays in play, this time you easily gather it in, this time you trot down the line towards the dugout, your adrenaline rising as each step brings you closer to your first major league at bat.

To The Surprise Of Absolutely No One, Yanks Beat The (B)uck Outta The Orioles

potpie-4

“Oh Look, it’s the Score Tru–“NEEEYYOWWWW!!!!

No, that would be the right fielder. Let’s just call him Score Truck so everyone can get out of his way. This guy is amazing (in the good way, not the Northern Blvd way). And the best part is that it seems like it hasn’t gone to his head yet.  Here’s hoping that it remains that way for the entirety of his career and whatever follows. But I’m not here to anoint a new Chosen One; all things considered, Aaron Judge has been better than anyone could imagine so far, but that’s the thing: did anyone really expect this?

Well, later for that; what’s even more amazing is that he’s far from the only one doing major damage for this team. Everyone in the lineup from lead-off to the nine-spot has the potential (and pretty much has in this series) break out with a moonshot or two: ask the guy whose been playing serious catch-up lately, Gary Sanchez (thank goodness they wised up and put him back in the middle of the lineup instead of the two-spot? Really?) Ask Brett, Ask The Other One >;), Starlin, Matt, Didi, well not so much Chase though he could and has before… but Chris Carter is probably the home-runningest guy hitting ninth and that’s not getting into the nicks-and-scratches guys on the bench. These guys got that swing.  The Mostly Baby-Faced Bosses were last seen making chicken pot pie out of the visiting Baltimore Orioles to the tune of 38 runs to the Orioles’ 8 over three days in the Bronx.  Talk about a critical beatdown…

So yeah, that’s all I wanted to say for now.  This team is pretty much speaking for itself and is constantly leaving people speechless. I suppose some folks are busy stuffing bad pizza in their orifices due to that unfortunate promotion offering half off anything when the Yanks score six or more runs in a game… but we won’t speak of that either. Chicken Pot Pie is a nice alternative for the time being. Starting pitching is still a hold-your-breath kind of issue, but so far I enjoy what I’ve seen for the most part. Happiness is a win in front of the home crowd, after all). Next up: 31934

 

P.S.: 495 feet… I mean, who does that?

Tell ‘Em Tiny Montgomery Says Hello

YS 3What’s good, everyone? My first post of the season happens to coincide with a couple of other firsts: first major league start for rookie lefty Jordan Montgomery, who impressed just about everyone with his steady Spring Training, and for yours truly, my first visit to the new iteration of Yankee Stadium. Yep, first time;  thanks to my buddy Omar Nieve Capra for the belated birthday gift! I brought another buddy Joe Hunt with me to journey to this new planet…

YS 1

Hey babe… take a walk on the Chyll side…

And what a gift it was: Jordan Montgomery, part of a cadre of young and apparently effective farmhands making their presence known to us and the rest of the baseball world was making his major league debut at Yankee Stadium 2.0; a ballpark that from what I had always heard reminded me of an indoor mall with a baseball field in the middle. More on that later. Well, I wish I could say that Tiny (all 6’6″ of him) set the place on fire the moment he stepped foot on the tiniest grain of dirt on the edge of the mound (more on that later).  He is a rookie, and the rookieness showed within his first few batters. After getting the first two outs on a couple of sketchy fly-outs, he walked the venerable Yankee pain-in-the-ass Evan Longoria worked out a walk. Rickie Weeks Jr…. Rickie Freakie-Deakie, Leakie WEEKS… JUNIOR fercryin’outloud… took a pitch and sent it packing over the left field fence, with Aaron Hicks kinda looking at it like it was a fine lady in a red dress on her way to Paris by levitation or something; just looking and wondering… where she was going, what she was doing, could he get them digits, well never mind.  Back to work.

Joe was disappointed, but I figured that this would be a good opportunity to test the kid’s mettle. After all, he’s gonna be the fifth stater for a little while, and this is New York, and his parents were probably here watching from somewhere special, right? Give the kid a chance. He got the third out and the Yanks went to work.

Well, not exactly.  Tampa Bay starter Blake Snell shut down the side fairly easily in the first. with a fly-out by Jacoby Ellsbury, a grounder back to Snell by Hicks and an infield pop-fly by Matt Holliday to end the inning pretty easily.  Joe got the feeling that this might be a long and kinda rainy afternoon for the Yanks.  No doubt a thousand others felt the same way after that inning, but I wasn’t about to give up.  Let’s see how the kid does.

In fact, Tiny did pretty well. He sat down his side of the inning as well, and kept getting them out through the third and fourth.  In fact, in the fourth the umps decided to help out a little when catcher Derek Norris lined a single to left, and for some strange reason decided that Aaron Hicks wasn’t good enough to get him out at second. As the throw came in, I saw that Norris didn’t know what the hell he was likely thinking as the ball was in Starlin Castro’s glove, waiting with open arms.  Perhaps a little too open in fact; Castro applied a high tag to Norris, who managed to get his foot around him and on the bag at the same moment.  From our right field foul pole vantage in the upper deck, it sure looked like he was out by a mile, but upon video review, we could see he beat the tag, so we waited for the inevitable reverse of the out-call.  But guess what: it didn’t happen.  The crowd erupted in glee as the umps held the bad call. Wowzers.  Okay, one for us.  Stupid umps.  Tiny escaped the inning with no more base-runners and no runs, and the kid was proving to be kinda badass.

The fifth is where the train came in to the station; Tampa right fielder Steven Souza Jr. (what, another one?) doubled to left (maybe Norris was onto something?), but Tiny struck out CF Kevin Kiermaier and the surprisingly ineffective Longoria; not without a long battle that ran up his pitch count. “This is his last inning,” I predicted to Joe. “He can’t get anything but a loss,” Joe mused. “The Yankees haven’t done anything all day, aside from Castro getting a hit.”  “Well,” I replied insistently, “all they have to do is get into Tampa’s bullpen and they can get back in it, Trust me, that’s all they need to do. ” Montgomery did in fact leave after that, having thrown about 89 pitches in 4-2/3rd innings, giving up 2 earned runs, walking two and striking out seven. Not bad, kid.  Next, another kid: Bryan Mitchell.  With a runner on second, Mitchell pitched to RickieWeeks, who dashed the ball to Castro at second, who somehow let the ball bounce away from him while Souza scored behind him, but then Weeks tried to go for two and, heh, he was thrown out without question.

In the bottom of that same inning, Chase Headley, who has taken upon himself to rebuild his stock as a viable third baseman, hit a hard single over the middle into center.  Big Bad Aaron Judge (aka Mark Gastineau from Joe’s vantage point and hopefully the comparisons stop right there) walked, pushing Chase to second.  Kyle Higashioka, who came up to spell Gary Sanchez while he recovers from a bicep strain, grounded lightly to third, and the play went to second to force out Judge. However, Girardi decided to challenge the call; from our vantage point it looked like he was out, but the video made it look closer than it was. In fact, the video so impressed the umps that they again reversed the call and Judge was safe.  Lesson: Judge, but don’t judge…?  Bases loaded.  Defensive specialist Pete Kozma, starting at shortstop against the lefty for whatever reason, battled a bit, but popped out to second.  Ellsbury, on the very first pitch, the very first pitch he saw… popped out in foul territory to third.  Boooo! My buddy Joe kept reminding me that the Yanks really needed to make something of this, or they weren’t gonna win.  Oh, Joe, just be patient.  The bullpens will make the difference in this game.  Hicks worked out a walk and Chase brought in the Yanks’ first run. The Tampa infield decided to hold a meeting and as I looked to the scoreboard to our right, I saw immediately that they had decided to do the inevitable.

YS 5

LIIIiiiife’s.. a wind parade!

“Oh look,” I said to Joe, “they’re bringing in Fat Bernie!” If Joe had anything in his mouth, he must have spit it out because he inexplicably collapsed in a fit of chuckles. “Don’t do that to me, Will,” he choked, “you know I wasn’t prepared for that. He even has the glasses, too!” Neither was I prepared for Fat Bernie, better known as Jumbo Diaz. As he jumbered out from the bullpen in center, I wondered if he was not in fact bigger than Aaron Judge.  He certainly lived up to his name. More importantly, he could throw some gas, which is exactly what Tampa Bay brought him in to do. As a matter of fact, he spilled some behind the catcher as the ball bounced underneath his glove and Judge ran a tight end route to home with another run.  Diaz continued to have issues as Holliday walked to again load the bases. But then Chris Human Out Machine Carter, with a pretty wide and rusty-looking swing, brought the rally to a halt with a ground-out.  Yet I turned to Joe and said, “I told you so.”

Bryan Mitchell held the Rays in the top of the sixth, and Jumbo Diaz continued to spill gas in the bottom. Castro beat out an infield single that was close (but no replay) and Headley followed with a sharp single.  It’s important to note that Chase Headley is actually making good contact and hitting the ball hard to various places, as he will have to be significant in order for the Yanks to have a shot at making it through April in good position, never mind being serious contenders by the All-Star Break.  Judge followed with a single that allowed Castro to bring in the tying run. Higashioka, who I think is a better hitter than this, bunted toward third, but he did not lay it down like a bunt is supposed ++ to be, but popped it toward third, which created another fielder’s choice situation and this time Judge was forced out at second (with no replay).  But by this time, the Rays had had enough and brought in Xavier Cedeño in relief of Diaz. Girardi countered with Brett Gardner for Kozma. Hmm, now we’ll get some runs in, I said. Where they stick him after that is beyond me, but we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

Brett is one tough cookie, that’s for sure,  He worked the count, getting 3-0 before letting the obligatory strike cross the plate, then fouling off another pitch.  3-2 with runners on first and third. one out. The pitch: a slow come-backer to the pitcher. Cedeño looked at around and then threw low to Weeks at first, but he couldn’t pick it cleanly and reached over the baseline to get the ball. *** WHAM!!! *** Two trains collided.  Joe and I heard the impact from the upper deck.  I watched the two fall away in opposite directions; two trees falling away from each other and into the river, struck by lightning as it were.  Weeks remained face down while Brett, with a spark of life left, struggled to reach over and touch the base, then seemingly passed out.  Both trainers bolted out of their dugouts and were the first to reach the prone bodies.  The crowd, who had cheered the play as it happened, fell hush with uncertainty.  Momentarily, Weeks climbed up and was ushered back to the Rays dugout, with applause from the crowd for his ability to walk away from the accident. Brett took longer.  he lay face-up on the grass as several people attended to him, the look decidedly not good. After what was a good minute, but felt a lot longer than that, Brett sat up.  The crowd cheered. A few more moments and he was up, walking back to the dugout, and presumably to the clubhouse.

YS 4

…hump bump bump, get bump…

You have to think… for a guy like Brett, who by most metrics is small for a major league outfielder at 5’10”, but is built like a tank if you get close enough to notice and gets injured often because he plays as hard as a tank, it’s hard to baseball.  Harder than you think.  But he keeps going.  That play alone illustrates why it’s a hard notion to give him away to some other team so easily.  Nothing about this cat is easy except his ability to be a good teammate. Maybe I’m getting a little soft in my getting-older age, but I was impressed, not by the knockdown, but the get up. Moreover, he got a run in.  Yanks with the lead, yay.  Shorty Ronald Torreyes, aka Brett’s Mini-Me, came in to run in his stead.  Jacoby Ellsbury sort of redeemed his earlier fail with a sharp single that brought in Fielder’s Choice Higashioka, and Hicks, having a productive game himself, grounded in another run to bring the tally to six for the Yanks.

Tyler Clippard, yeah he’s still here, he took over relief duties and shut down the Rays in the seventh by sandwiching a groundout between two strikeouts.  In the bottom, with Erasmo Ramirez in for the Rays, Chris Carter finally managed to swing and make decent contact, landing the ball softly in right.  For the designated all-or-nothing guy with a country swing, we were willing to take it.  After Castro popped out, Judge came back up.  “Please Aaron,”, I pleaded softly, “hit one up here and into my hands. Knock Joe’s hipster hat of his head…” Well, to Judge’s credit, he tried.  He looked for the right pitch and swung, hard, yet easy.  However, the ball sailed in the wrong direction.  Instead of right field down the line and well into the upper deck, he hit it fairly straight away to center field and over away from us, somewhere between Monument Park and the restaurant that have near it. Maybe somewhere behind those two.  Wherever it landed, it wasn’t in my hands and Joe still had his hat on. I was slightly annoyed, but I gave Judge credit for listening and trying to fulfill a humble birthday wish. Dude is huge; gave the Yanks a huge lead, 8-3.  “See, what did I tell you?” I reminded Joe.  That capped the scoring for the Yanks.

After enduring the groundskeepers’ “YMCA” routine and standing for Kate Smith during the seventh inning stretch, I asked Joe if he wanted to stay or try to beat the rush out the door. Joe looked around, seeing that the stadium was already half-empty at this point, so figured that getting out wouldn’t be an issue and decided we should stay to the end.  Good choice, because after Tommy Layne came on and gave a run back to Tampa Bay in the eighth (just for fun, I imagine), then Jonathan Holder couldn’t keep a couple of base runners off in the ninth, we got to see the fire. Remember the fire? That fire alluded to earlier in the recap? Yeah, that fire, aka Aroldis Chapman, aka Best Reliever in Baseball Right Now (among other things). And yeah, he brung it. What was left of the stadium crowd burst into flames, the scoreboard burst into flames, the sound system, the field, the Rays, everything burst into flames.  There was definitely a theme; the sun decided to pay attention and brought shine and heat for the occasion. Tall, dark and handsome ran like a man with a mission to the mound, warmed up (hah!) quickly and got to work. Flame on!  First pitch: woosh! 99! Second pitch: Zoom! 100! The pitch after that? Floof! 101! Chapman sets places on fire. If you’re still wondering why the Yanks paid stupid money to bring him back, stop.  It was for this, for the hundreds. After that first pitch, he only threw two other pitches less than 100: one at 83? that badly fooled Souza who popped out to first, and I don’t even remember the other one.  He struck out poor Kevin Kiermaier with a 101! is all I know, and that was that. Yankees win, Aaron Judge was the hero and the highlight.

YS 6

Leave your worries behind (Leave your worries behind) ’cause rain, shine, won’t mind, we’re ridin’ on the groove line tonight…!

My Takeaways:

– Aaron Judge will be a star for a good while if he maintains his health and a good work ethic.  Please don’t trade him for anything. A combi of him, Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez, with Didi and maybe eventually Gleyber Torres and Clint Fraizer  and the Yankees will have a monster team in a couple of years and for years to come (again, provided they all remain healthy and in good habits).

– Disappointed to not see Bird or Sanchez (or Betances for that matter) play, but ‘dems the breaks’. Perhaps we should revisit this in May or June…

– Revisit? Yankee Stadium 2.0 is certainly a remarkable edifice worthy of the team itself, but it’s different than the old stadium in quite a few ways.  It’s brighter and fresher, more open air and inviting.  But that’s just the thing: the old stadium was a factor. It was close and personal, dark and foreboding, yet familiar and exciting. In my youth, Yankee Stadium was some place you didn’t dare go alone to, but you were glad you went because you were part of something big, whether they were playing for something big or not. It didn’t necessarily have class, but it didn’t need it because it had spirit.  New Yankee Stadium is charming and sparkly, but sort-of in a billion-dollar college sports complex kind of way.  With stores and restaurants. It screams EXPENSIVE!! everywhere you walk.  And if you were like my buddy Joe and spent $20 on a leftover footlong and a tall cup of light beer, you don’t want to be reminded of how EXPENSIVE!! everything is because when you get hungry again, you don’t feel like spending any more money.  It adds up quicker than Chapman’s fastball.  Sure, it was pretty much the same in the old stadium, but the old stadium gave you a lot more to think about.  This is a paradise I can’t afford except when someone like Omar decides to give me a gift. How soon I revisit depends on how soon a friend wants to gift me with a ticket or two.  Where we sit doesn’t really matter if it’s a good game.

This will be an interesting year for the Yanks. Despite their best efforts to handicap the filed by taking on a Chris Carter or batting Gary Sanchez second, they’ve got the firepower to take them far.  But as I told Joe, it really depends on how they can (or IF they can) solidify the rotation with bonafide innings-eaters and an ace or two to take the stress off their surprisingly good bullpen.  You can’t run your bullpen into the ground before mid-season, which is what I fear might happen if they can’t get their starters past six innings more often than not.  So Jordan Montgomery still has some growing up to do, as good as his start was for the most part. They do have room to play with a handful of young considerables when needed, but hopefully nothing unfortunate occurs to force them to spend some of their considerable depth too soon if not at all. For now, I will say that they’re best bet is a wild card, but that won’t be easy.

YS 2

…and that’s the Triple-Truth… RUTH!!!

Feduciary (yawwwwn!)

Nick SwisherToo tired to put up a real post and not wanting to spoil the tribute post to a recently passed well-known and respected contemporary jazz singer/entertainer, I’m tossing this up for discussions on various things baseball and Yanks related. Among those things:

Nick Swisher retired. Well, at least he didn’t drag it out too long. But he was one of those guys who always seemed to let the kid inside come out and play. I’ll miss that.

Both Tyler Austin and Mason Williams have injuries that, although not career-threatening, will certainly alter their destinations after Spring Training (unless they have super powers).

Front office is sounding quite jerky yet again. I mean, you can be right and correct, but you can also control the impulse to gloat about it, and Randy Levine continues to make the team (and its fanbase by proxy) look like complete [insert favorite expletive here]s. Which, maybe they are, but we don’t seem to want anyone else to say it. What it means down the road is almost obvious though, and it would be really disheartening to lose great talent because the person or people in charge are loose-lipped sociopaths, which is certainly a New York sports-related specialty of late.

Okay, never mind with the vague grinding of axes, let’s get on with the show already!

Go Fish, Gin Rummy, Five Card Stud & Other Games The Yanks Apparently Aren’t Playing This Offseason

peanuts-5So far, there’s been relatively little of seriousness to discuss this off-season, which is par for the course these days around this portion of the year (unless you consider cashing in Brian McCann and his post-trade thoughts for a couple of futures worthy of going ballistic in the comments section). As I (meaning me) have suggested recently, it would be surprising if the Yanks made any tectonic-scale moves to bolster (replenish?) their starters in either the batting lineup or the pitching staff, but don’t be surprised if they swap out some guys for bullpen help or to shore up their bench. In fact, considering how well 2009 went regardless of our initial beliefs, anything’s still possible, so save that thought.

According to Mark Polishuk at MLB Trade Rumors (who apply their own accord on this to George A. King III), Yanks are in on our old pal Aroldis Chapman, though they are considerably wary of going five years with him. Similarly, but to a lesser extent, they are also interested in the hard-hitting Edwin Encarnacion, but are equally uninterested in a five-year deal with him. Both would represent considerably improvements in their area of expertise, though their need for Chapman outweighs their need for Encarnacion based on the presence of Gary Sanchez and (again) to a lesser extent the expectations placed on both Greg Bird and Aaron Judge. To this, we also add the possibility of the Yanks bringing back Carlos Beltran, though they might not get that chance either if they are trying to stay within their given budget parameters.

I would think that considerable attention should be paid to third base, where Chase Headley has been somewhat of a letdown and where the Yanks are considerably thin in their system having traded their former Trenton Thunder 3B Eric Jaigalo (their first pick overall in 2013 and by all accounts their closest-to-ready 3B prospect for the majors, even if he wasn’t really that close) and three others to bring in Chapman last off-season. Among their top ten prospects, none are slated to play third, which along with second has been a perennially overlooked issue with the Yanks of late. Maybe Cashman believes one of their infield prospects will take to the hot corner well enough to cover this seeming oversight, maybe he thinks Starlin Castro or Lil’ Ronnie Torreyes or a player to be discovered later will be good enough, or maybe he even thinks Headley can only go up from here. Perhaps, even, the Yanks can’t afford to go deep on any more starting infielders without trading for one that would ultimately upset the balance he’s creating with all of the prospects he’s stacking in the system at the moment (or because of, you know, the budget). Who really knows? As fans, all we can do is react and speculate, and I’m all out of Big League Chew

So here we are, waiting to see if Cashman can figure out a way to bring back the best closer currently playing in the majors (who you still might be a little wary of considering how he was used by manager Joe Torr–err, Maddon during the post-season) without breaking the bank or the system or future plans in the process, and also hope that while you know in the back of your mind there’s not much hope for contention in the coming year, they can at least make it interesting for far longer than they did this past season.

Ahem, take your time processing all that, it looks like it’s gonna be a long winter at any rate.

Good Bye, Alex

ARod

I was at a baseball card show in the winter of 1996, and I crossed paths with Alex Rodríguez. He had just spent a few hours signing autographs, and was wandering the floor of the convention hall, sifting through baseball history laid out on 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch pieces of cardboard.

I didn’t like him. He wasn’t a Yankee, but more importantly, he wasn’t Derek Jeter. In those early days of the late 90s, Jeter and A-Rod were intertwined (along with Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra) as the glamour shortstops of the day. You couldn’t read a feature article about one without seeing references and comparisons to the other, and they were often side by side on magazine covers ranging from Sports Illustrated to GQ. (Looking at one of those covers in April of 2000, my wife casually mentioned that A-Rod was better looking. What’s interesting is that I wasn’t bothered that she was saying this about another man, I was bothered that she had chosen him over Jeter.)

But it didn’t take me long to come around once he inevitably arrived in New York, so I’m sad to see him go. No story about Alex Rodríguez will ever be written without mention of his PED issues, both his admission to use in Texas and his season-long suspension in 2014, but those high profile scandals were only the most egregious missteps of a career fraught with controversy. Whether he was posing shirtless on the rocks in Central Park, commissioning a portrait of himself as a centaur, or dating Madonna, he was as bad at publicity as he was good at hitting a baseball.

But there was baseball drama as well — he scuffled with Jason Varitek, he slapped a ball out of Bronson Arroyo’s glove, and even yelled (“Ha!“) at two infielders who were trying to field a pop-up — and those childish antics couldn’t have endeared him to his bosses. What other elite player in the prime of his career would ever be slotted eighth in the lineup in a playoff elimination game? Only Alex. What other elite player would force his general manager to publicly tell him to “Shut the fuck up“? Only Alex.

He was the most talented player in baseball, and probably the most insecure. Four or five years ago, back when he was still one of the most feared hitters in the game, rather than posing after hitting a majestic home run, A-Rod would instead snap his head to the right and look immediately into his own dugout, preferring to watch the celebration of his teammates rather than the flight of the baseball. Even with hundreds of home runs on the back of his baseball card, he still needed the approval of his peers.

Somehow all of this made me love him. His tragic flaws could’ve been penned by Shakespeare, and just as Hamlet and Othello were doomed, A-Rod’s destiny was always written in the stars, and once again that destiny was intertwined with Jeter, now his teammate. When the Captain notched his 3,000th hit with a home run, the world stopped and grown men cried; when A-Rod matched that feat with a home run of his own a few years later, his teammates stood on the top step and applauded politely. When Jeter left the game he did so with a season-long parade; A-Rod’s announcement on Sunday morning put an end to what had been a month-long march into oblivion. Yes, Rodríguez was always a superstar, but he was never beloved.

But as you might expect from a player as complicated as this, there’s much more to A-Rod’s legacy. We’ve always heard about his ability as a teacher of the game, and on Sunday morning manager Joe Girardi credited Alex for elevating Robinson Canó from an average hitter to a superstar. We’ve seen A-Rod laughing with the younger players on the bench, and Girardi talked about that also, remembering the sound of their laughter echoing from the clubhouse down the hall to his office. And the general manager who publicly feuded with his all-star third baseman? When asked about A-Rod’s legacy as a Yankee, Brian Cashman didn’t mention any of the controversies. Instead he pulled an enormous championship ring from his finger and dramatically slapped it down on the podium. “That’s the ’09 ring. That doesn’t come along to this franchise’s trophy case without Alex’s contributions, significant contributions.” (A-Rod slashed .365/.500/.808 and hit six home runs during that postseason.)

This is the way it is with retirements. We gloss over or choose to forget the negatives and instead accentuate the positives. Not even in your line of work do people stand up and complain about the boss who made them stay late on a Friday night. But there was something genuine in the voices at the podium on Sunday. The tears that welled in Girardi’s eyes weren’t manufactured, and Cashman wasn’t exaggerating when he threw down that ring.

Somehow A-Rod had mended those relationships, and somehow he made me a fan as well, even though I know that doesn’t make sense. He cheated and lied, he squeezed every penny he could out of the Yankees, and he embarrassed the franchise on several occasions, but there was still something about him that allowed me to overlook all that. More accurately, I was able to accept all of that as well as his other weaknesses. He was human, and he gave proof of that humanity with each misstep. His personality flaws were on display for all to see, but he never shied from the spotlight.

It will likely take decades for baseball fans and historians to reconcile A-Rod’s momentous statistics with the reality of this Steroid Era, but right now I can say two things. I’m glad he was a Yankee, and I miss him already.

Cleveland Rush

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graphic credit: mashthebuttons.com

So it appears that the Cleveland Indians believe they have what it takes to knock the hustle on the reigning World Series champion Kansas City Royals by fulfilling the wish of most Yankee fans (around here, at least) and trading for their All Star closer Andrew Miller. Yep, Cleveland beat out all comers to go for the gold, as it were.  Cashman, to his credit this season, had managed to acquire the top relieving talent in the AL and has been seemingly wise in what has to be a real first for Yankeedom; bartering good MLB players for good prospects.  Seriously, how often has this even happened, never mind worked out well for the Yankees in their history? The closest I could come up with (or at least the most recent example) was when the Yanks traded starting pitcher Doc Medich for, among others, up-and-coming rookie Willie Randolph in December 1975. That seemed to work out pretty well, if I recall. However, the Yanks have had a strong tendency as well know to be on the opposite side of the spectrum when dealing with prospects; usually giving away prospects (whom a lot of times turn into All Star talent) in exchange for OPP or middling MLB players who either break few waves or write regrettable footnotes in Yankee history.  Is it not fair to think of Jose Rijo, Fred McGriff, Jay Buhner  and other Yankee prospects from the early 80s (well into G. Steinbrenner’s reign of terror as Yankees overlord owner)  ending up as perennial All-Stars and borderline HoFers on other teams because of an incessant need for overvalued or ill-suited veterans led by shell-shocked or bi-polar managers who entered and departed like the steamy vapors of Old Faithful. HOw many of us felt the burn in those times, good times…

But this: unprecedented in nature and in scale.  Instead of discarding a useful veteran or cashing in a bunch of great prospects for a two-month playoff push in the hopes that they can catch the same lightning that David Justice brought with him many moons ago, instead of shuttling off a headache or embarrassment for the tender mercies of their trade partner’s leftovers, the Yanks have practically admitted something obvious to the entirety of the Yankee universe: rebuilding is a viable option.

Rebuild.  What a strange, funny little word that has for so long struck terror in the hearts of fans and administration alike, but somehow has managed to bring us a sense of relief in that now this team has a definitive plan, a course of action that says to all who observe that yes, the team does recognize the signs and has decided to focus on what lies ahead.  There are too many holes to patch, too much money in the pit and much more time on our hands than we know what to do with. But Cashman, the de facto Leader of the New School, somehow got the okay to look forward and trade a couple of his cash cows for some magic beans. And let’s be real, this is what they really are for now… so who are these magic beans exactly?

Clint Frazier; No. 2 prospect in the Cleveland Indians organization, an outfielder and No. 5 pick overall in 2013 (nj.com)

Justus Sheffield: No. 3 prospect of the organization, LH Starter in A-Ball, but no, he is NOT related to Gary Sheffield (contrary to this and other reports, it has been asserted as a myth) (nj.com)

And for gits and shiggles, they threw in a couple more minor league cheeseheads, Triple-A reliever Ben Heller and Double-A reliever J.P. Feyereisen. (yeah you guessed it, nj.com)

What does it all mean? Well, Cleveland’s obviously going for it, and they think highly enough of Miller that they can afford to give up at least two prized prospects to get him.  Good for Miller, he’s a very stand-up guy who deserves a shot at a ring during his prime, but while deserve’s got nothing to do with it, pundits are now seeing Cleveland as a true contender (the Royals seemingly spit the bit early on with injuries to key players and sub-par replacements) who will likely be waiting at the gate while Toronto, Baltimore, Texas and Houston figure out their respective positions. Provided that Miller stays healthy the rest of the way and Terry Francona doesn’t suddenly lose his mojo in the clubhouse, the playoff push promises to be pretty interesting.  For the Yanks: The future is now for one Dellin Betances (provided he doesn’t get traded himself, which doesn’t seem likely at this point, but we are treading unfamiliar waters here). If he stays, he will now get the chance to lock down the closer position for years to come; a position that was inherently his from the moment he came up, but required (and may still require) some seasoning before he could fully embrace it.  He’s got about two months. For the rest of the team, it’s put up or shut up.  The White Flag has been raised, the retooling begins.  Time to analyze who has an actual future with this team in 2017 or even within the next couple of months.  Do they sit down a couple of under-performing players and bring up kids to test them out? Does the hype of these major trades invigorate provoke the rest into Super Saiyin mode and they go on a .750 tear the rest of the way and burst into the playoffs as the most dynamic team this side of hydrogen and oxygen? Or do they play with their shoelaces the rest of the way? Perhaps a little from column A, B and C?

At any rate, this has been likely the most interesting part of the season to date.  So long, A. Chapman, so long A. Miller; you’ve both been great here and we thank you for keeping most of us at least peripherally interested in what’s happening at that mall we call Yankee Stadium nowadays, but it’s time to go forth and make history for your new teams (both Cleveland and the Chicago Cubs having a good chance to make big history by winning it all). while Betances holds down the fort and waits for the new arrivals to mature along with him and bring forth an interesting and perhaps exciting new era of baseball in New York; the likes of which we haven’t seen since the mid 90s perhaps? If so, it will likely change the narrative we’ve had on one Brian Cashman and cement his place in baseball not only as a visionary executive, but a legendary survivor.  Too much, too soon? It’s okay, we just made a couple of big trades that we don’t ordinarily do, as if they finally listened to us and said, “Eh, why not?”

We can afford a little bit of euphoria for a minute. We shall see.

Sunday in the Park

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[Yesterday was no good, so let’s join our man Hank from two days ago instead.—AB]

Because it’s summer, and because it’s baseball, my son Henry and I hopped on a train from Anaheim to San Diego to catch the Yankees against the Padres in a Sunday afternoon matinee. The drive from L.A. to San Diego can be painless or soul-crushing depending on traffic, so I felt like I was already ahead when we settled into our luxuriously large seats on the top deck of Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner headed down the coast. It would be the most relaxing two-hour drive imaginable.

Folks on the East Coast probably take the train regularly or even daily, but in California it will always be a novelty, with the trip as much fun as the destination. The first family we saw on the train was a young Amish couple with an infant and two toddlers. They sat facing each other across a table with a deck of cards to pass the time. It was as if Amtrak had hired them to enhance the already quaint atmosphere. We were headed to San Diego, but we’d taken a detour through Lancaster County.

As the train rumbled down the California coast, sometimes only inches from the sand, we sped past children building castles, couples flying kites, and surfers riding waves, and my son asked the questions he usually asks. Who is my favorite Yankee now that Derek Jeter has retired? Who is the best player on the team? Who do I hope hits a home run today? Difficult questions all.

We walked off the train in downtown San Diego at 10:15, giving us just enough time to grab breakfast (chilaquiles and pancakes for me, chorizo and eggs for Henry) before heading to the ballpark. Petco Field is absolutely amazing. I had been there once before for a night game, but it simply must be seen during the day, when it sparkles like the jewel that it is. The stands weren’t yet open when we arrived at 11:30, but the grounds were already buzzing. Children played whiffle ball in a mini-Petco, families laid out picnic blankets on a large green overlooking the field, adorable dogs and cats sat waiting for adoption, and to complete the carnival atmosphere, a man on stilts walked through the crowd giving directions.

A bronze statue of Mr. Padre himself, Tony Gwynn, stood atop a hill overlooking it all, and as Henry and I made the short climb to pay tribute, I explained to him that Gwynn was not just the greatest Padre ever, he was probably the best pure hitter of a baseball I had ever seen.

When the attendant finally raised the gate and allowed the patrons into the park, we walked the concourse and headed to our seats — Row 21 behind the Yankees’ first base dugout. Always the rule follower, Henry wanted to find our seats and immediately sit down, but I guided him instead towards the field, pointing out players that he knew — Michael Pineda here, Masahiro Tanaka there. But then I saw someone that he didn’t know but who had been larger than life in my childhood — Reggie Jackson. He stood on the dirt in front of the dugout wearing a blue golf shirt and a white Yankee cap, having a conversation with an official while casually catching baseballs from fans, scrawling out his signature, and tossing them back.

“That’s Reggie Jackson, Henry. He’s one of the best players ever to play for the Yankees.”

“Can we get his autograph?”

I didn’t know. I had nothing but a scorebook for him to sign, and that didn’t make much sense, so we sprinted up the steps and looked for a souvenir stand with a baseball. We bought a San Diego All-Star Game commemorative ball for nine bucks, headed back, and found that the crowd had more than doubled in size. I stood behind two or three rows of people and noticed that Reggie was more involved in his conversation than he had been before. He was talking, only signing occasionally. It didn’t look hopeful.

“Will he sign it?”

“I don’t know. Keep your fingers crossed.”

“Hey, Reggie,” I called down to him. When he looked up, I held the ball in my hand and shook it, like a pitcher asking the umpire for another ball. He pointed directly at me, I threw him a strike, and he returned it with his autograph, just as Henry had hoped. (Not until typing that last sentence did I realize that I played catch with Reggie Jackson, which is pretty cool.)

“You da man, Reg! You da man!”

And he kept signing, working his way down the left field line for thirty minutes or so.

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The game was still an hour away, but we’d already gotten our money’s worth, especially considering my expectations were rather low. These have been troubling times for the Yankees, but I still watch. This team doesn’t deserve to be in the playoffs, and as we sat in the park where the All Star Game will be held, it was hard to find a Yankee who deserved a return trip next week.

But there will always be hope. The 28th World Series win is always on the horizon, it just seems like that horizon is farther away than most would like. Even so, as we settled into the stands we were surrounded by Yankee fans. To my left was an older gentleman from the Bronx wearing a Staten Island Yankees cap and spinning stories of players from fifty years ago. “Mickey Mantle, Moose Skowron, Tommy Tresh… The good ol’ days!”

Rookie Chad Green gave us a peek at the good ol’ days that might lie ahead as he dominated the Padre hitters with a fastball that sat in the low to mid 90s and a brand new cutter that produced eight strikeouts over six innings. (The Yankee rotation has been a train wreck all season long, so it was no surprise that Green was given Nathan Eovaldi’s slot the morning after this performance.)

Meanwhile the Yankee hitters were showing minor signs of life while allowing Padre starter Andrew Cashner to wriggle off the hook time and time again. Didi Gregorius (one of Henry’s favorites) delighted the Yankee crowd with a laser that slipped just inside the foul pole for a home run and a 2-1 lead in the fourth, and for the next three innings it looked like that was all the offense would be able to muster.

As Mark Teixeira walked to the plate to lead off the eighth inning, a chorus of grumbling rippled through the crowd. He had struck out three times already, and at no point in any of those at bats did he look remotely comfortable. It wasn’t just that he was swinging and missing, he was flailing and missing. My friend from the Bronx was disgusted.

“Here comes Teixeira to strike out again.”

I wasn’t as pessimistic as he, but I couldn’t argue. As if on cue, Teixeira swung at the second pitch and popped up a ball to short right field. We thought. It was a towering fly, but for some reason right fielder Matt Kemp kept drifting back and drifting back and… finally the ball settled into the seats for a home run. I stood with outstretched arms as if I had witnessed a miracle.

Joe Girardi sent Alex Rodríguez to pinch hit to lead off the ninth. (A quick word about the lack of the DH. This was my first time scoring a game in a National League park, and it makes for a messy scorebook. Just another reason to bring the DH to the senior circuit.)

But back to A-Rod. Love him or hate him, he’s the ultimate lightning rod. He hopped out of the dugout as soon as the Yankees came off the field, and the show began. Yankee fans recognized him right away and stood to get photos on cell phones and iPads, but it wasn’t until his name was announced that the Padre fans began their booing. More than at any point in the game, the park was alive, and each of his mighty swings drew a surge of electricity from the crowd until he finally grounded out harmlessly to first for the first out of the ninth.

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After Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner reached base with a walk and a single, it looked like the Yankees might be rallying, but my friend wasn’t hopeful. “Teixeira will probably ground into a double play.”

“Don’t worry, he’s hot now!” I was obviously joking, but the words had only just escaped my mouth before Teixeira pounded the first pitch he saw deep to right center for a three-run homer and a 6-1 lead. I could only doff my cap in respect as Big Tex rounded the bases celebrating his 401st career home run, those three helpless strikeouts a distant memory.

Coming into the game I had hoped to get an up close look at the Big Three. Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller had pitched the seventh and eighth, but now Aroldis Chapman wouldn’t be needed. Until he was. Anthony Swarzak yielded a two-run bomb to Alex Dickerson, and Chapman was in the game before the ball landed in the stands. After a fly ball to center, a strikeout, and a weak ground out to third, the game was done. Yankees 6, Padres 3.

Even in this dark season, there is still hope. Rookies still dazzle, sluggers still hit homers, relievers still hurl hundred mile per hour fastballs, heroes still sign autographs, and fathers still take sons to the ballpark. Baseball is still baseball.

As we walked from the park to the train reviewing all that happened, Henry asked what my favorite part had been.

“That’s easy. Spending the day with you.”

“Yeah, me too.”

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