"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice
Category: Hank Waddles

Yankees vs. Everyone

At this point, I don’t even like looking at the scoreboard. It got easier when the division slipped out of reach and I could just root for the Rays to beat everybody, but the rest is kind of muddy. Do I want the Red Sox to push the Blue Jays further back in the wildcard race, or do I want Boston to lose so the Yankees might be able to host the wildcard game? And what to make of the Oakland-Seattle series? Would it be better for one team to sweep the other, or would a split be better? It’s just too much.

Such is the nature of a pennant race, especially one augmented (or bastardized, depending on your point of view) with so many extra spots. I remember seasons when there was nothing more boring than September baseball, as the Yankees and I basked in the glory of a double-digit division lead and looked at the playoffs as a birth right rather than a pipe dream.

Ah, but times have changed. It’s natural to look at each one of these games as life and death, to curse our luck and load a dropped foul ball with the weight of an entire season, but we all know the truth. There is no greater measuring stick in all of sports than the 162-game Major League Baseball season. When each of those games has been tallied, you are, as another New York coach once famously said, what your record says you are. These Yankees won’t look back at a dropped popup, a six-run ninth inning, or any of various trips to the injured list. You can’t pinpoint anything in this haystack full of needles; the pinpoints are everywhere.

The irony of baseball’s playoff expansion is that while it may have created more excitement in some corners of the country, it’s diluted it in others. Out in California, many are making the argument that the Giants and the Dodgers are the two best teams in baseball. Were it not for the wildcard, this would be a playoff race for the ages, but both teams are already making postseason plans. (The Dodgers, sadly, having built one of the best starting rotations in recent memory, a stable of pitchers that will make them the favorites in any postseason series, face the possibility of elimination in a wildcard game without any of their superior depth coming into play. Will it be exciting? Certainly. Is it what baseball is meant to be? Absolutely not.) Oh, and because baseball refuses to fix inequitable brackets, the Giants’ (or Dodgers’) reward for having the best record in the National League will be what baseball feels should be the weakest playoff entry, the wildcard team. In this case that means the two best teams in the sport will face off in a first round five-game series. To quote another New York manager, “It’s not what you want.”

But the wildcard allows us to dream. As inept as the Yankees have looked recently and at various times throughout the season, they can still win the World Series, and that’s the downside of the wildcard. In theory, you could put the Baltimore Orioles into the playoffs and watch them win 12 of 20 October games and host a championship trophy in the end. If there is any sport that should not have expanded playoffs, it’s baseball, but here we are.

And so dream, I will. If the Yankees can finish up business against Texas and then win six or seven of their last nine against Boston, Toronto, and Tampa Bay, there will be at least one more game. At this point that’s all I want. One more game.

And Down the Stretch They Come…

If there’s been one constant in the Yankee Universe over the past 100 years, it has been postseason baseball. There have been a few droughts — 1965 to 1975, 1982 to 1994 — but no franchise in the history of sports has enjoyed such consistent excellence. The Pinstripes have only missed the playoffs four times in the last 26 years, and while the 2009 World Series triumph might seem like a distant memory, we’ve been spoiled.

And so when things were at their darkest back in June and the Yankees were looking up at several teams in the standings, it wasn’t just October baseball that seemed unlikely. It didn’t feel like the Yankees would be playing meaningful games in September. We acted like spoiled children do everywhere. We screamed. We cried. We lashed out. We assured our non-Yankee-fan friends that all was lost, that this was the worst and most confounding Yankee team we’d ever seen. (They were confounding.) We wanted general manager Brian Cashman to sell at the deadline even though the roster had virtually no sellable pieces. We were insufferable.

But then the calendar rolled over into July, and the Yankees were much better. When August arrived they were even better than that, and in the first week of September the team now sits firmly in control of its own destiny. With the offense looking healthier each day (Gleyber Torres was activated on Friday) and the Baltimore Sacrificial Lambs coming to town for a three-game weekend series, all signs are pointing towards October baseball. Again.

Now if the Rays could only lose once or twice…

If the Season Ended Today…

When I woke up on Tuesday morning it occurred to me that the first game of the double header between the Yankees and the Red Sox would be arguably the most important game of the Yankees’ season.

Sure, the Yankees’ recent resurgence had paired nicely with Boston’s regression to the mean, trimming several games off of a lead that had seemed insurmountable when the Bombers limped out of Boston last month, but this one game seemed crucial to New York’s hopes. It isn’t just that the Yankees had lost their first seven games to the Red Sox this season and 10 of 13, it’s that they were embarrassingly bad in many of those losses. So even though the Yanks had gone 15-5 since that Fenway series while the Sox were 8-20, a loss on Tuesday afternoon would have erased all of that and sent a powerful message to players in both dugouts. Same old Yankees, same old Red Sox.

And so when Boston loaded the bases with none out in the top of the softball-seventh, the Yankees’ 5-3 lead looked about as solid as a Times Square umbrella. Not only were the Yankees going to lose, they were going to lose in 2021 fashion, promising you victory before ripping your heart out and holding it aloft, beating but still dying.

But Jonathan Loaisiga, the most consistent member of the battered bullpen, cleaned up his own mess, retiring Travis Shaw on a line drive and striking out Kiké Hernández and Hunter Refroe to close things out, the last strike coming on a 100-mph heater that overmatched Renfroe and tipped the balance of power in the game’s most storied rivalry. Last month the jeering chants from the Fenway faithful carried an eerie ring of truth, but Loaisiga’s primal scream from the mound following that final strikeout sounded an awful lot like 1978.

The night cap was much less dramatic — solo homers by Luke Voit and Giancarlo Stanton gave the Yankees all they needed for a 2-0 win behind the historically precocious Luí Gil — and even the ending was uneventful. Chad Green’s three-up-three-down save was delightfully boring.

Yes, the Tampa Bay Rays are still five games clear of the Yankees, and yes, there are still 42 games left to play, but I no longer look at those 42 games with dread.

The last time the Yankees played a double header was on the Fourth of July. After they opened with a horrific loss to the Mets, I honestly hoped that Aaron Boone would be fired in between games. Only a young George Steinbrenner would’ve been bold enough for something like that, and it turned out to be a good thing that his son Hal is not as rash. No matter what happens with the Rays or the White Sox or the Astros, Boone is almost assuredly the American League Manager of the Year. There were times this season (last week even) when the players on the injured list could form a better team than the one on the field, but Boone has somehow not only kept his group afloat through one devastating loss after another, he’s had them playing their best baseball after most observers had written them off.

An entire starting rotation and a closer on the injured list? No problem. We’ll call up a kid from AAA (Luís Gil) and watch him become the first pitcher in more than a century to start his career with fifteen or more innings pitched over three scoreless starts. Not a lot of home run power? No problem. We’ll just become a running team. Since the All Star break, no team in baseball has stolen more bases than the Yankees.

When things were darkest, I found myself wishing for a firing, but even then I knew that the sky was not falling because of any decisions Aaron Boone was making or not making. I wanted a change simply for the sake of change, simply to send a message, but instead Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner chose to send another message — “We believe in this team.” On Tuesday afternoon and Tuesday night, their faith was repaid.

When Aaron Judge was scratched from a lineup during the days before the trading deadline, Yankee Twitter immediately lit up with worries that the centerpiece of the team was being traded. Many voices wanted the Yankees to buy sellers at the deadline, not buyers. Less than a month later, those concerns are forgotten.

If the season ended today, the Yankees would be in the playoffs.

New World Order


I like to imagine that somewhere out there are Yankee fans who were off the grid for a few months. They jumped on the internet the first chance they got, and lots of things were the same in Yankeetown.

The first thing they’d notice is that the team is still scuffling, teasing fans into thinking about a World Series one day, ripping their hearts out the next. They’d check on Aaron Judge and be relieved that he’s healthy and still one of the best players in the league. They’d see that Aroldis Chapman has a boatload of saves and has been lights out recently, no concerns there. (Don’t bother telling them; they’d never believe you.)

But then they’d look more closely, and nothing would make sense. Anthony Rizzo playing first base and carrying the Yankee offense? Joey Gallo in the outfield and providing another left-handed bat in the lineup? Rougned Odor at third instead of second? Jameson Taillon was American League Pitcher of the Month in July?

GIANCARLO STANTON WITH A GLOVE ON HIS HAND??? This is obviously the most preposterous development of the past season. After spending two years as a full-time DH, removing any lineup flexibility that would’ve allowed occasional half days for Judge or Gary Sánchez, Stanton is suddenly a versatile corner outfielder, looking adequate in left field one night and right field the next. (The irony of all this is that recently he’s been hitting like a utility infielder, continuing the Yankees’ season-long theme of “two steps forward, two steps back.” Nice for salsa dancing, not for baseball.)

If one those out-of-touch Yankee fans had sat down next to you on the couch for the series opener against the hapless Baltimore Orioles on Monday night, you’d likely have turned to your guest and said, “This is what I’m saying.”

The ballpark was buzzing, the Bleacher Creatures were in full throat, the lineup was delightfully staggered, and the worst team in the American League had generously tied a sacrificial lamb to the mound. You just knew that Rizzo or Gallo or both would launch bombs into the bleachers. You just knew that the momentum from the weekend’s South Beach sweep and the energy of the Bronx would push the Bombers to a big win. You just knew the season had turned.

Didn’t you?

But then Andrew Heaney, the newest Yankee starter, gave up four solo home runs. And then Jorge López and his 6.19 ERA carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning. And then Aaron Boone played the infield back with a runner on third in the eighth even though he was already down by five because probably even he knew how ridiculous the game had become.

It was one of those games, and if the outcome felt familiar it’s because the 2021 Yankees haven’t won a game in which they trailed by four runs or more at any point. Comeback Kids they aren’t.

Oh, and then Boone opened his postgame presser by casually mentioning that Gerrit Cole would miss his Tuesday start because he had tested positive for Covid. (Don’t worry; we’ve got Heaney.)

But. Still.

Somehow I’m still excited about this team. Somehow I’m still looking forward to seeing Corey Kluber and Luís Severino on the mound later this month. Somehow I’m still excited about a playoff run in September and big games in October.

Somehow I still believe. Do you?

Bad News Bombers?

What if — now hear me out — what if it’s possible?

It demands either optimism or delusion to think positively about a team that’s in fourth place in the division and fifth place in the wildcard race, but here we are. This modest stretch of success, taking two of three first from the Astros and then from the Red Sox, feels significant, but we’ll have to wait a bit until we know whether we’ve finally found the oasis or been taken in by a mirage.

But what if it’s real?

The lineup posted for Sunday night’s Red Sox game certainly didn’t give much reason for optimism. While the top four (D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sánchez, Gleyber Torres) might’ve made sense back in April, the next five were simply preposterous. Four of the players were guys I hadn’t heard of back in April; three of them I hadn’t heard of two weeks ago.

We were promised an outfield of Clint Frazier, Aaron Hicks, and Aaron Judge, but for various reasons (mysterious dizziness, wrist surgery, and Covid-19, from left to right) Aaron Boone is left with Ryan LaMarre, Greg Allen, and Trey Amburgey. Seriously.

While it’s tempting to be critical of management for not jumping on Joc Pedersen when the Cubs unloaded him to the Atlanta Braves, here’s the counterpoint — no team in my memory has seen such a devastating stretch of injuries and extenuating circumstances impact a single position group like this. Looking at it from an organizational standpoint, the Yankees are currently working with their fifth outfielder (Brett Gardner), a converted utility infielder (Tyler Wade), and the starting outfield of the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Rail Riders. (LaMarre, Allen, and Amberguey).

But here’s the thing. Not only did the Yankees take the series against Boston with a decisive 9-1 win, they looked good on Sunday night. They were having fun.

The names you know were 2 for 15 (a single for LeMahieu and a hope-inducing homer for Torres), but the interlopers carried the day. LaMarre and the stylish Rougned Odor had two-run homers, and LaMarre and Allen each had a stolen base. (I’d look up the last time a Yankee had a home run and a stolen base in the same game, but I fear the answer might be Rickey Henderson, which would make be too sad to finish this post.)

While fans might the lament the lack of star power in the lineup, part of the appeal of what we saw over the weekend came from the joy of the players wearing the uniform, the clear appreciation of these unexpected opportunities.

LaMarre, a thirty-two-year-old journeyman who is hardly a kid, took a tumble that was serious enough to draw his manager all the way out to right field to check on him, but the outfielder stayed in the game. “I told Boonie that I’m not coming out of the game,” he explained. “You don’t get too many chances to wear pinstripes, so I want to take advantage of every inning that I get out there.”

It isn’t reasonable to expect these Bad News Bombers to make a realistic playoff push, but if they can at least keep up the illusion for another week or so until Aaron Judge, Gio Urshella, and maybe Luke Voit can rejoin the team, the playoffs will be a possibility.

Seriously.

A Swiftly Tilting Universe

When Gary Sánchez jumped on an 0-2 fastball from Houston’s Blake Taylor in the top of the 8th inning, he did more than just give the Yankees an insurmountable 7-2 lead. Before he had even finished the follow through on a swing so pure that it must’ve been hard for any observer to imagine his two-year slump, it felt as if we were witnessing a massive recalibration of Yankees Universe.

With just six more outs the Bombers would complete not just a 5-1 road trip heading into the All-Star break, but a decisive three-game sweep of the team that has clearly surpassed the Red Sox as the principal villains on the Yankee schedule.

Nestor Cortes, who always looks to me like he’s just gotten off his shift at Ray’s Pizza (Original Ray’s, not Famous Rays), started the opener and came an out shy of qualifying for the win but still lowered his ERA to a city-best 1.05 as the Yankees set the tone with a 4-0 win.

Cortes was impressive, but on Saturday evening Gerrit Cole was phenomenal. After yielding nine runs in eight and a third innings over two mediocre starts, the whispers were no longer whispers. Cole had struggled since baseball’s crackdown on illegal substances, and suddenly the most important member of the Yankee pitching staff — in 2021 and for the next five years — was no longer a known quantity.

Given those circumstances along with the current desperation of his team, his complete game shutout in the middle game of the series was his most important and most impressive outing in pinstripes. When Cole struck out Robel García with his 112th pitch to close out the eighth inning with a slim 1-0 lead, anyone who’s been watching baseball for the past decade logically assumed his night was complete, even it wasn’t statistically complete. So when Cole climbed back out of the dugout for the ninth inning to act as his own closer, it was as if we were all stepping back in time.

Perhaps we weren’t headed all the way to the days of Tom Seaver, who hit double-digits in complete games in each of his first eleven seasons, or Bob Gibson, who had fifty-six complete games over 1968 and ’69, but it felt a lot like Jack Morris’s World-Series-clinching ten-inning shutout of the Atlanta Braves in 1991. (I understand that a performance like that in Game 7 of the World Series puts Morris on another level, but if we focus just on the pitching, this is a good comparison.) While Morris pitched all ten of his innings that October night without any runs on the board for either team, Cole worked his masterpiece with the benefit of just a single run, courtesy of an Aaron Judge homer (more on this later).

Like Morris three decades ago, Cole impressed just as much with his determination as with his brilliant stuff. After a lead-off single to José Altuve forced Cole to work the the rest of the ninth inning with the game-winning run standing in the batter’s box, the once and future Yankee ace took hold of the moment and refused to let it go. A ten-pitch battle with Michael Brantley ended with a harmless fly ball to center field for the first out, and then Yuli Gurriél went down on three quick strikes. What followed is the stuff of legend.

When Cole had last faced the Yankees back in May, Yordan Álvarez had touched him twice for two long home runs, so it was no surprise that Aaron Boone popped out of the dugout as the Houston slugger made his way to the plate to face a hurler who had already thrown 126 pitches. Pulling Cole would’ve been the easiest decision of Boone’s night, and it would’ve been that rare move that could never have been second guessed. After all, this is 2021, not 1951.

But Gerrit Cole was not ready to go quietly into that good-night. Surrounded by an infield ready to pat him on the back, Cole greeted his manager with defiance rather than deference, his head bobbing to punctuate words that didn’t need to be heard to be understood. When asked afterwards what he had said, Cole admitted that, “I said the f-word a lot, and I kind of just blacked out. I don’t really remember what I told him, to be honest.”

Whatever he said, he won his case, then threw three fastballs past Álvarez at 97, 99, and 99 miles per hour, the last pitch accompanied by a primal scream that echoed from Houston to the Bronx and back again. In a month that had seen two of the worst regular season losses in recent memory, Cole had spun a superlative on the other end of the spectrum, giving goosebumps and optimism to Yankee fans everywhere.

The Yankees hung on to that momentum into the third game, plating single runs in the third, fourth, fifth, and seventh behind an impressive effort from starting pitcher Jamieson Taillon, so when the Kracken launched that three-run homer in the top of the eighth, I celebrated.

After a long first half of mediocrity and several different losses that felt like rock bottom, I truly believed the team had found itself, and perhaps even forged a new identity. Saturday’s game had ended with the signature moment of Cole’s defiance and determination, but there was a moment during Judge’s home run trot that seemed, at the time, to carry more longterm weight than anything happening on the pitcher’s mound.

As Judge rounded third, he took a quick peek into the Yankee dugout before clutching his jersey with two hands and pulling it tight, clearly mimicking Altúve’s celebration after his ALCS-clinching homer in 2019, an action that led to rampant speculation about cheating that was more high-tech than just the banging of a trash can.

It was a decidedly un-Yankee-like moment for the de facto captain of this team, an on-field jab at an opponent that we never would’ve seen from Jeter or Mattingly or Randolph or even Munson, but it seemed like exactly what this team needed. When asked about it afterwards, Judge smiled mischievously and talked about how chilly it is in Houston in July. He was just reminding the guys, he said, to stay warm.

Joe DiMaggio was probably spinning in his grave, but the modern day Yankees welcomed the opportunity to join the rest of baseball in 2021. When Sánchez returned to the dugout after his blast, his teammates had somehow found a parka, and he wore it draped over his shoulders (stay warm!) as he paced up and down, accepting congratulations.

It was a happy time. The Yankees would surely close out this game and head into the much needed break in the best possible way. Only a week earlier I had texted friends saying, “The Yankees aren’t going to make the playoffs, but for real this time.” But thanks to this series — thanks to Judge, thanks to Cole, thanks to the Kracken — all of that Sturm und Drang had washed away. The Yankees were back.

But you know what happened next.

The stunning part of this latest ninth-inning collapse wasn’t so much that it happened — we’ve grown used to this now — but how quickly things fell apart, how quickly the universe tilted back into disarray. And unlike previous games, it was hard to question any of the manager’s decisions.

Domingo Germán had looked great in two innings of relief of Taillon, and with a five-run lead and Jonathan Loaisiga on the Covid list and Aroldis Chapman on the what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you list, it made sense to roll with Germán through the ninth.

And you know easily things could have broken differently? Gurriél led off the inning with a single, but it was a ball that dribbled down the third base line before dying in the grass for a base hit. Two pitches later Kyle Tucker hit a rocket off the wall in left for a double, and Green was done.

The unhittable Chad Green came in at 4:39 local time, and things combusted quickly.

4:40 — Double by McCormick, 7-4 Yankees.
4:42 — Double by Toro, 7-5 Yankees.
4:44 — Single by Castro.
4:46 — Line out by Maldonado, one out.
4:49 — Home run by Altúve, 8-7 Astros.

Ryan Roucco described it perfectly: “A crushing gut punch here in the ninth.”

LoCastro might have had a shot at McCormick’s double, Judge had come about two inches short of catching Toro’s double, and Torres really seemed to have skillfully dropped Maldonado’s lineout, setting up what should’ve been an easy double play. Had just one of those butterflies flapped its wings, the Houston rally might not have happened.

But it did happen. As Altúve stepped on home plate to complete the comeback, the smallest man in the ballpark disappeared beneath a horde of celebrating teammates. He was shirtless when he emerged, giving the Astros not just a win but the final word in the conversation Judge had started the night before.

So where do we go from here? If there’s one thing we know, it’s this — no team in baseball has the experience that this team does in rebounding from devastating losses. The only difference now is that they’ll have to rebound with a roster decimated by Covid and against the Boston Red Sox.

We. Shall. See.

Houston, We Have a Problem

If the Yankees were 54-32 and comfortably cruising towards the playoffs rather than 44-42 and desperately clinging to dwindling hopes, this weekend’s series with the Houston Astros would be filled with drama and secondary storylines. We’d be gnashing our teeth heading into a three-game set with a team that isn’t just the class of the American League but a true Yankee nemesis filled with villains up and down the lineup.

But as things are, the Yankees can’t afford to worry about which team is in the opposing dugout. Whether it’s the Astros or the Orioles, the Yankees need wins and lots of them. They’ve put themselves in a position where they’re essentially already in the playoffs, but instead of a five-game series they’re engaged in an eleven-week crucible that demands they win five of every eight games at a minimum. They’ll either eliminate themselves early and limp to the finish line, or they’ll arrive in October battle scarred and forged into a team no one will want to play.

Can this team pull off such a feat? That’s the true value of a series like this. The Yankees can’t afford to think about revenge. Should Aroldis Chapman wind up facing José Altuve with a one-run lead in the ninth inning (gulp!), it won’t make sense to think back to how the Yankee season ended in 2019. Winning two or three games this weekend obviously won’t change the outcomes of either 2017 or 2019, nor will it guarantee anything this season. If the Yankees manage to win twice this weekend, it will simply mean that they’ll need to win just 48 games the rest of the way instead of 50. First-half mediocrity brings nothing but second-half pragmatism.

The good news? It’s possible. Sure, Thursday saw the Yankees fall into old habits as they made a rookie pitcher look like Sandy Koufax and failed to close the deal on a potential series sweep, but there are positive developments that give reason for optimism. Luke Voit had seven hits in eight at bats during the first two games of the Seattle series, Gary Sánchez is a serious offensive threat again, and were it not for the most anti-climactic MVP race I can remember, Aaron Judge would be a strong candidate for the award.

So buckle up, everybody. We’re about to learn something.

Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend

I think I’ve decided that this is it. This is the team we have.

In the three weeks since I last opined in this space, the team has changed and changed back again, teasing us into optimism with flashes of quality play but then falling back into their old ways, cruelly reminding us that we should’ve known better.

Aaron Judge continues to have a fine season. He’s been the one truly consistent Yankee in the lineup, but in a season which needs 2017 Judge, his consistency has been hardly noticeable. Giancarlo Stanton will have a week here or there during which it’s hard to imagine why anyone would ever pitch to him, but then he’ll spend the next week flailing at sliders six inches off the plate. Gleyber Torres has seemed so lost that I’ve caught myself wondering if a week or two in Scranton might do him some good.

Oh, but there’s been good news. Although D.J. LeMaheiu spent the first sixty games hitting a hundred points less than he did in last year’s sixty-game season, he’s been showing some signs of life recently, hitting closer to .300 in June. And if I had told you a month ago that Gary Sánchez would be the team’s best hitter at this point, would you ever have believed me? The Kracken has been slashing at .300/.372/.686 this month, featuring six doubles and seven homers; he had three doubles and six homers in April and May combined.

So as we heard several times this weekend from the YES broadcast crew, it’s been two steps forward and two steps back for the Yankees for a while now. That’s works fine for salsa dancing, but when you’re trying to make up ground in the suddenly-deep-again American League East, not so much.

All of this made this weekend’s series with the Red Sox even more critical than such games usually are. Winning two of three or — dare to dream — a sweep would have erased an awful lot of the frustration of the past few months, but when the Yankees dropped close ones on Friday (5-3) and Saturday (4-2), Sunday suddenly felt like a must-win game. Thankfully, Gerrit Cole was on the mound.

But if you’re reading this, you know what happened. Making his first Fenway start in pinstripes, Cole did not deliver. His first pitch was rocketed over the Green Monster by Kiké Hernández, Alex Verdugo doubled a few pitches after that, and two batters later Rafael Devers launched an 0-2 pitch 470 feet into the seats. There were still eight innings to go, but the game was over.

And you know the strangest part of the whole afternoon? I sat there and watched the whole thing. When Aaron Judge hit a two-run homer in the sixth to cut the lead to 6-2, I found myself getting hopeful. When the Yankees loaded the bases with one out in the seventh and LeMahieu and Judge due up, I started thinking about what a big win this could be.

But when my optimism was repaid with a 9-2 loss and I was forced to look back over an abysmal nine innings, I finally allowed myself to answer the question I posed in this space three weeks ago.

Yes. This is the team we have.

I’ve never really subscribed to the theory that teams built around power can’t win in the postseason, so the structure of this team never bothered me. After all, if you have the major league leaders in batting (LeMahieu) and home runs (Luke Voit), and then you add Judge, Stanton, and Sánchez, you’re obviously going to score a lot of runs. Yet only two teams in the American League, the Tigers and Orioles, have scored fewer runs than the Bronx Bombers, and if you watched the three Fenway games, it isn’t hard to see why.

The Red Sox outscored the Yankees 18-7, but the hit and walk totals were much closer — 38-35. The Yankees had plenty of opportunities to score runs, but they weren’t able to. We’ve been told that runs batted in is a meaningless stat in this era of statistical enlightenment, but here’s something that is enlightening. Aaron Judge leads the Yankees with 42 RBIs. Heading into Sunday’s game his then forty RBIs ranked 54th in baseball. I have neither the time nor the inclination to research this, but I’d guess it’s been decades since the Yankees’ leading RBI man ranked that low. (For comparison’s sake, Rafael Devers and Vladimir Guerrero, Jr., are tied for the lead with 68.)

If we were to rewind the season back to April and play it again, I’m not sure what would happen. If we were to simulate the season a few thousand times, exactly how many times would we see a team this talented look so similar to the Orioles or the Tigers or the Royals? (For the record, the number crunchers over at fivethirtyeight.com haven’t lost faith in our Yankees. Their statistical models see the Bombers as the fifth best team in baseball, but the same model also projects them to 87-75 and gives them only a 36% chance to make the playoffs, which feels about right.)

But we aren’t living in a simulation, and we can’t turn back the clock. Today the Yankees lost in embarrassing fashion, their sixth straight loss to the Red Sox, and they sit in fourth place at 40-37, six and a half games behind Boston. It doesn’t get much more real than that.

The Truth Hits Everybody

The Yankees trailed the Red Sox by a run heading into the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday night, but there was initially no reason to believe that they had, as Michael Kay is fond of saying, a rally in their bones. Things looked worse after D.J. LeMahieu grounded out meekly to second to open the inning, but then Aaron Judge walked and Gleyber Torres drove him home with a rocketed double down the line, and suddenly the game was tied at four. There was hope.

Gio Urshella whiffed for the second out, but after the Red Sox issued an intentional pass to Gary Sánchez, Rougned Odor came to the plate with a chance to end the game with a base hit. Torres managed to increase the pressure by stealing third base during the at bat, and when Boston closer Matt Barnes wasn’t able to bend a full-count curveball into the strike zone, Odor flipped his bat down onto the plate and turned towards first, delivering what should’ve been a bases loaded opportunity for Clint Frazier.

But home plate umpire Gabe Morales called the pitch a strike and the inning was over.

To be clear, this wasn’t a ball on the edge of the plate that could’ve gone either way. Barnes’s curveball had started wide and had never sniffed the strike zone, a fact clear to both the naked eye and the robotic. It was widely reported that the ball had been 4.55 inches off the plate. Had Odor swung and missed he’d have been chastised for chasing ball four.

Frustrations from a week of futility spilled over immediately as the Yankee dugout erupted. If ever there was a time for a manager to get himself ejected this was the moment, but somehow Aaron Boone remained calm as all those around him lost their heads, most notably third base coach Phil Nevin. That called third strike had not only thwarted a potential game-winning rally, it had offered proof of what was already clear to see. Xander Bogaerts’s two-run double in the top of the tenth stands as the game winner, but that’s like saying Oedipus wasn’t truly ruined until he gouged out his eyes. The fates had conspired against these Yankees.

But if you’ve paying attention, you know that’s a foolish way of looking at things. If the Yankees had become the juggernauts the world expected they’d be and were enjoying a seven-game division lead, they could be excused for dwelling on the misfortune of an umpire’s mistake. It would be understandable that they’d tie the outcome of a game to the temporary myopia of Gabe Morales. But you and I know the truth.

This Yankee offense is historically bad, and it no longer matters whether it’s a team-wide slump, an injury-induced malaise, or something as simple as a coin landing heads 54 times in a row.

Here’s Exhibit A — the historical production of the expected lineup, with the slash lines (AVG/OBA/SLG) from each hitter’s best season, his average season, and (aside from Judge) the trainwreck of 2021. Take a look if you dare.

Player Best Average 2021
Sánchez   ’17: 278/345/531   234/321/493   210/331/384
Voit   ’20: 277/338/610   269/360/514   182/280/250
LeMahieu   ’20: 364/421/590   302/356/425   253/335/321
Urshella   ’19: 314/355/534   272/321/430   269/314/420
Torres   ’19: 278/337/535   271/342/475   272/351/364
Frazier   ’20: 267/394/511   241/325/440   185/305/318
Hicks   ’18: 248/366/467   233/330/399   194/294/333
Judge   ’17: 284/422/627   275/391/556   295/398/540
Stanton   ’17: 281/376/631   267/358/543   252/326/465

It wouldn’t have been reasonable to expect or even hope for all nine players to stay healthy and produce like the far left column in 2021 (that team would win 125-130 games), but I’m sure Brian Cashman and Aaron Boone were counting on the middle column or better. As it turns out, they haven’t gotten close to that. Take a closer look…

  • Not a single player is anywhere close to his career best. In fact, here’s the average differential: -48/-47/-182.
  • Five different players (Sánchez, Voit, LeMahieu, Torres, and Frazier) are slugging more than one hundred points south of their career averages.
  • Two of those players, Luke Voit and D.J. LeMaheiu, somehow have slugging percentages that are lower than their on base percentages.
  • Of the 27 comparable statistics (nine players x BA/OBP/SLG), only two players are exceeding one of the slash numbers from their career best season: Gleyber Torres’s on base percentage (.351|.337) and Aaron Judge’s batting average (.295|.284).

And so even if you want to blame Sunday night’s loss on an umpire’s interpretation of a single pitch thrown in the bottom of the ninth inning, the much larger concern is that during a seven-game homestand against the Rays and the Red Sox, the Yankees went 2-5 while scoring just 22 runs. But really, even that is a minor concern. Here are some things the Bronx Bombers should really be worried about:

  • Only four teams in baseball have scored fewer runs than the Yankees.
  • Only five teams have a lower slugging percentage.
  • No team has hit fewer doubles.
  • No team has hit into more double plays.
  • No team has made more outs on the bases.
  • No team has seen more runners thrown out at the plate.
  • No team has taken fewer extra bases.

Since April we’ve been hearing that these things will turn around, that players will begin to hit like what we see on the backs of their baseball cards, but we’re sixty games into the season. In the old days managers were often criticized for sitting on their hands and waiting for a three-run homer, but this team is waiting for so much more than that.

What if it never happens?

When Up Is Down, and Down Is Up

A couple of hours before first pitch every game day, my phone dutifully buzzes to announce the Yankees’ starting lineup. Back during spring training, even when I wasn’t watching the games, I would still take a look at the batting order and marvel. More than once I caught myself saying, “Man, this offense is going to be really good.”

For the past twenty-five years, the Yankees have always been really good, and most years they’ve fielded one of the top two or three offenses in the sport. You know, Bronx Bombers and all.

But this year seemed like it might be different. I found myself wondering about preposterous possibilities. Sure, D.J. LeMaheiu had led the league in batting average and on-base percentage in 2020, but what might happen if Aaron Judge’s name was on the lineup card behind him 150 times? What if Aaron Hicks and Giancarlo Stanton stayed healthy? What if Gary Sánchez hit even .250 with 25 home runs? What if Clint Frazier built on the quiet success of last season and blossomed into a star?

All baseball fans are overly optimistic in March, but none of those hypotheticals seemed unreasonable back then. None of those things even seemed unlikely.

Well, we know what happened. The Yankee bats waited a few weeks to fly north after spring training, and the result was nothing anyone could’ve expected. On most nights through April and into the first weekend of May, manager Aaron Boone submitted a lineup card with three or four hitters batting below .200 because he simply had no better choices. A recent string of games against some of the weaker pitching staffs in the league has restored some confidence and allowed the Yankees to even their record at 14-14, but there are still concerns up and down the lineup.

We’re three days into May and Gleyber Torres hasn’t hit a home run. Aaron Hicks is hitting far less than his weight, Clint Frazier is no doubt wondering if he might be headed back to Scranton, and while there is a Yankee catcher with an OPS over a thousand, his name is Kyle Higashioka, not Gary Sanchez.

Perhaps inexplicably, I remain a Sanchez supporter, but after teasing us with home runs in the first two games of the season, Sanchez has managed just eight hits and a single RBI over the 17 games since that promising start. The player often referred to as the best pure hitter in the organization now has an OPS (.619) that is lower than Higashioka’s slugging percentage (.706). Every single Yankee season preview devoted a paragraph or two to the Mystery of the Kraken, and most observers marveled that a player as gifted as Sanchez could see his skills completely evaporate during what should’ve been the prime of his career. The Yankees are 6-12 in games when Sanchez starts behind the plate, and 8-2 when he doesn’t. At this point, Higashioka is the best catcher in pinstripes, and everyone knows it.

Oh, but there’s good news, and it abounds from the mound.

Everything begins with Gerit Cole, and even though anyone reading this already knows that he’s been the best pitcher in the American League this season, he’s probably been even better than most people realize.

Cole’s “worst” game was the season opener, in which he pitched a pedestrian five and a third innings, allowing two runs while striking out eight and walking two. It wasn’t a bad outing by any stretch, but his five starts since then have been ridiculous. In 32.1 innings he’s yielded just 19 hits and 4 earned runs, but that isn’t the amazing part. He’s posted 54 strikeouts while walking just one batter; over his last three starts those numbers are 33 and 0.

We’re only five weeks into the season, but we’re clearly watching something historic. The most dominant season by a Yankee starting pitcher in my lifetime was Ron Guidry in 1978. (I was nine years old that October when I created a Ron Guidry costume for Halloween; none of our neighbors in Naperville, Illinois, had any idea what I was doing.)

Should Cole approach Guidry’s legendary season — 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 248 Ks — he would cement himself in Yankee lore forever, but the Cole-Guidry comparison is about more than just numbers. When Cole is pitching at home and finds himself in a two-strike count with two outs in an inning, the Stadium crowd will rise to its feet in anticipation, bridging four decades with a tradition that stretches back to June 17, 1978, the day when Guidry struck out 18 California Angels. Unlike any Yankee starting pitcher since that season, including Clemens and Sabathia and Cone and Pettitte and Mussina, Cole is a flamethrower who seems to have the ability to overwhelm any hitter any time he wants. If you haven’t already begun to plan your week around his starts or schedule your DVR to record his games, it’s time to start.

If there’s been a pitcher more dominant than Cole this season, albeit in smaller doses, it’s been closer Aroldis Chapman. Last year we were constantly reminded that Chapman had lost velocity, but that’s no longer a concern. His fastball is regularly topping out in triple digits, and he’s added a sinker that also hits the century mark. If none of that seems fair as you read from behind the safety of your computer screen, just imagine standing in the batter’s box. Chapman has faced 35 hitters in his ten appearances, and struck out 24 of them. He hasn’t allowed a single runner to get past second base. There are certainly those fans who will withhold judgment until they see him duplicate this in October, but Chapman has shown enough to allow me to move past his playoff disappointments.

Built largely around the dominance of Cole and Chapman, it’s been the Yankees’ pitching, not the hitting, that has kept the team afloat and finally allowed them to climb all the way back to an even 14-14. The staff leads the American League in strikeouts, ERA, and strikeout to walk ratio. The top three arms in the bullpen — Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Chapman — have combined for a preposterous stat line: 43 IP/56Ks/8BBs and an ERA of 0.83. The starting rotation behind Cole has also been rounding into form, with Corey Kluber, Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon, and Domingo German all posting excellent outings this week, highlighted by Kluber’s eight shutout innings on Sunday, a dazzling performance that gave him his first Yankee win and the 100th win of his career.

I doubt that things will continue exactly as they are. We’ll begin to see more from the offense (Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton have shown encouraging signs), and it’s possible that Gerit Cole might walk a batter at some point, but if we forget the record for a moment, there’s a lot to be happy about after these first twenty-eight games. In fact, I’d argue that if April had gone as expected, with the offense outslugging the opponents on most nights to cover for mediocre pitching performances, we’d all be more worried than we are right now.

Not Your Father’s Rivalry

For the last few years of the last century and the first few years of this one, the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox was as fierce as it had ever been. The Yankees of Jeter and Bernie and Mariano and Posada were on the rise, winning the World Series four times in five years, and the Red Sox were arguably the second-best team in baseball over that stretch.

Whether in the Bronx or Fenway, regular season games carried the intensity of any World Series game played in that era, and any fan from either side of the rivalry whose memory stretches back that far can rattle of an impressive list of dramatic moments — Derek Jeter stumbling out of the stands with blood dripping from his face, Jason Varitek and Alex Rodríguez scrapping at home plate, Pedro Martínez sending Jeter and Alfonso Soriano to the hospital, Mike Mussina losing a perfect game with two strikes and two outs in the ninth inning.

When Major League Baseball switched to an unbalanced schedule in 2001, suddenly the two rivals were matching up 18 or 19 times a season, and each three- or four-game series would drain days off my life. The games would routinely push the four-hour mark, but there were moments within each game that seemed to bend time. Manny Ramírez and David Ortíz used to hit third and fourth, and while their consecutive at bats might only have lasted three of four minutes, the tension — the absolute fear — made watching their plate appearances feel like a punishment dreamed up by Dante.

The Red Sox were a great team, but they were filled with villains. I could never really hate Manny, but I had plenty of venom for other Boston players. We all did. While standing at a Stadium souvenir stand once, a guy turned to me and said, “Fuckin’ Youkilis…” He apologized for his language when he noticed I was holding my three-year-old daughter, but I shook him off. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. “She needs to know.”

All of this escalated more than a little bit when the teams met in the American League Championship Series. I’ve been lucky enough to watch the Yankees play in the World Series ten times, but nothing in their seven wins or three losses — not even 2001 — compares to what happened in the ’03 and ’04 playoffs.

Pedro Martínez reached new depths in 2003 when he plunked Karím García and then tossed 73-year-old Don Zimmer to the ground in Game 3, setting up the drama of Game 7, when he coughed up a three-run lead in the eighth. (Seventeen years later, the highlight clip still gives me goosebumps.) It might seem like blasphemy, but when Aaron Boone hit his walk-off homer three innings later, I knew that the World Series would neither compare nor matter.

In 2004, of course, the Red Sox got their revenge. Before that year’s ALCS, I thought the 2001 World Series would live on as my ultimate Yankee tragedy, but standing by as the Sox climbed out of their 0-3 hole was like watching that bloop single from Luís González four nights in a row. Like having your Promethean heart ripped out by the vultures day after day after day after day.

So here’s my point. THAT was a rivalry. And now we’ve got… the Tampa Bay Rays?

There are so many reasons why I should care about the Rays the way I cared about the Red Sox twenty years ago — the way I care about the Red Sox right now — but I just can’t muster the interest, let alone the hatred.

It should be enough that the Rays maneuvered their way to a division championship last season, but that flag will always have an asterisk on it. It should be enough that Kevin Cash is even more irritating than Alex Cora, but when he threatened to have his stable of relievers throw at Yankee heads, he seemed to be reading from a rejected WWE script. It should be enough that the Rays ended the Yankees’ season last October with a dramatic walk-off blast, but I don’t even remember the name of the kid who hit it.

I’m not being intentionally condescending. There are a lot of things that I like about Tampa Bay. The openers, the incessant shifting, the four outfielders — I love all of those innovations, and I respect what they’ve done without any of the thermonuclear advantages of the Yankees and Red Sox and Dodgers.

But I don’t care about them. So when the Yankees bowed down to them on Friday and Saturday, there was no stomach churning bile, no grinding of teeth into dust, but there were concerns.

We’re only nine games into the season, but we already know a few things. First and foremost, Gerrit Cole is a freak of nature. I know that Roger Clemens was 20-3 and won the Cy Young in 2003, but it’s hard for me to believe that he was any better then than Cole is now. Other pitchers are also throwing well — eight different relievers still have perfect ERAs, led by Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga, and Michael King’s one scoreless six-inning appearance was enough to make me want to see him in the starting rotation.

We’re only 1/18 of the way through the season, but it’s still surprising that the biggest Yankee concerns are not on the mound but in the batter’s box. There have been some bright spots — D.J. LeMahieu is riding an eight-game hitting streak and Gary Sánchez is off to a refreshingly nice start, regardless of what the New York Post’s racist emeritus has to say — but there are far more question marks.

Will Aaron Hicks live up to the potential we saw in 2018? Will Gleyber Torres remind us why people think he’ll win an MVP one day? And as good as Aaron Judge has been thus far, will he play 150 games — or even 125?

There aren’t any answers here, nor even any predictions, and I can’t say that I’m bothered by all the uncertainty. Yes, the Yankees are 4-5, but they’ve got 153 more games to figure all this out. The only problem I see right now is this — the Red Sox are 6-3.

The Morning Paper

[Author’s note: The following was originally written in April of 2019.]

I read a newspaper today. I found myself staying in a hotel in Washington, DC, along with eighty of my middle school students on an East Coast trip that started in Boston, continued in New York, and finished in the nation’s capitol. When I walked downstairs and turned towards the breakfast buffet, there they were, quaintly laid out on a counter like relics in the museums we’d been visiting all week.

I grabbed a copy of the Washington Post, not necessarily for the news, but for the same reason you might pick up your grandmother’s rotary phone and give it a quick spin. There should be a word that means “amused nostalgia.”

But then something interesting happened. It turned out the Sports section was sitting just where I’d left it ten years ago, three sections from the front, and everything else was just as I remembered. (And by the way, if we’re going to add words to the lexicon, we should also replace outdated similes; from here on out, instead of “just like riding a bike,” let’s agree on a different phrase: “just like reading a newspaper.”)

I’m certain that none of my fourteen-year-old traveling companions could navigate a newspaper, nor would they understand its idiosyncrasies. Headlines make perfect sense in the unlimited space of the internet, where a complete sentence or even two can sprawl luxuriously across the top of an article, but “Nats get boost from Robles in No. 2 spot” drew my eye immediately and reminded me of headlines from a past when static dimensions of pages and columns once gave us headlines like “Spike Inks Pact” or John Updike’s famously poetic “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It was an art in and of itself.

So after I read the first eight paragraphs about Victor Robles and his productive night from the second spot in the lineup, a kind note at the bottom of the column pointed towards the rest of the article: See NATIONALS on D5. As I dutifully turned the pages, I passed familiar features common to most Sports sections: a digest with highlights from around the sports world, a table of television and radio listings, and a notes column about the hometown Washington Nationals.

But before I could read more about Robles, I was transfixed by a full page of baseball boxscores. Once upon a time this was the highlight of my day. I’d find the Yankee game and carefully scan each line of the agate type for clues about how the game had gone — who had gotten the hits, stolen the bases, and scored the runs. It was a daily ritual during baseball season that began when I was eight or nine and didn’t end until the internet stole it away.

In this current era I’ve become a much more focused fan. I know far more about Judge and Stanton than I ever did about Mattingly and Winfield, but as the internet and satellite television have narrowed my focus, it’s as if the rest of baseball has fallen away.

Again, this morning’s Sports section reminded me of all this. A dozen box scores stood stacked across six columns, each telling a story of a different game, and the league leaders were posted on either side. Perhaps appropriately, there were none of the modern metrics like WAR or even OPS, but instead the statistics from my childhood: batting average, home runs, and RBIs for the hitters; ERA, saves, and strikeouts for the pitchers. Some of the names made sense — Christian Yelich and Khris Davis, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander — but who could’ve known there’s an Alexander in Chicago hitting over .400 or a Yates in San Diego leading the league in saves? None of that would’ve gotten past me as a child, but today it’s news. Tomorrow it’ll be trivia.

I can’t imagine that I’ll ever subscribe to a daily newspaper again, and that’s a shame. For all I’ve gained, something has been lost. Sure, it’s nice to have instant access to the information I want (the Yankee score wasn’t even in the paper: NY Yankees at LA Angels, late), but it was nice this morning to get all the information I didn’t know I needed.

When I put down the paper, I knew more than when I had picked it up, and I was also left with something else my iPhone will never give me — ink-stained fingertips.

In Memory of Henry Aaron

From the time I was old enough to hold a bat, my heroes were always baseball players, and Hank Aaron was the first. I was only four years old in April of 1974 when he hit his historic home run to pass Babe Ruth, so if that moment was spoken of in my home, I don’t remember it, but it wasn’t long before my mother put a slim paperback book in my hands, The Home Run Kings: Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron. It was the first of many books I’d read about Aaron, and it would deepen my love of the game while kindling a love of reading, two passions that have never left me.

When I saw the news of Aaron’s passing this morning at the age of eighty-six, I thought about that first book and what Aaron has meant to me. 

It begins, obviously, with his name. When I was a boy, there were only two people I knew who shared my first name. My father, who stood in a frame alongside my mother in a picture from their wedding day, and Hank Aaron. That was it.

One biography led to another, and soon the stories and statistics began to fill my head as if they were my own memories. I learned that he had been born in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama, and had taught himself how to play, the same as I had. (I even took more than a few swings cross-handed, with my left hand above my right the way he had before someone set him straight.) I worried for him when I read about his leaving home at the age of 18 with nothing but two dollars and two sandwiches for the train ride to Indianapolis where he’d play in the Negro Leagues for a time with the Indianapolis Clowns.

Before long he was in the major leagues with the Milwaukee Braves, and he quickly developed into one of the best players in baseball. Aaron’s game matched his personality. He was quiet off the field, and quietly great between the lines. We know him now solely as a home run hitter, but he was brilliant in all phases of the game. If steadiness can be dazzling, that was Aaron. He built his mountain of home runs with workman-like consistency, never once hitting as many as fifty home runs in a single season but only twice falling short of thirty from 1957 to 1973. He kept his head down, both figuratively and literally, as he hit all those long balls. Aaron once said that he had never seen a single one of his 755 home runs land, choosing instead to put his head down and circle the bases. That story may or may not be true, but it fits the man and player he was.

Aaron’s greatest accomplishment, his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s career home run record in 1973 and ‘74, was one of the darkest times of his life. Ruth was more than just a baseball player, he was a myth, and there were those in the American South (the Braves had relocated to Atlanta in 1966) who couldn’t stomach the idea of a Black man eclipsing a white icon. The hate mail was horrific, and the death threats were frequent. Just six years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, those death threats were taken seriously. When you watch the clip of Aaron’s historic 715th home run and you see the crowd of fans spilling out of the stands and onto the field, it’s easy to see it as just a celebration; Aaron later admitted that he feared for his life in what should have been the crowning moment of his career.

His stature in the game is secure. He is one of the five greatest hitters ever to play in the major leagues (Ruth, Williams, Mays, and Bonds are the others, end of discussion), but his legacy was ironically solidified when Barry Bonds pushed past him with his 756th home run in 2007. Everyone knew what was going on, and everyone knew that Bonds’s record was tainted, but after Bonds circled the bases that night, there was Aaron on the video scoreboard, praising the new home run king for his “skill, longevity, and determination.” And there was more: “My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase down their dreams.” 

I hit only one home run in a baseball career that ended at age fourteen, but Aaron still inspired me to chase down my dreams. I never saw him play a single game, but he was still my hero.

My dad and I met him at a baseball card show when I was fifteen. He was probably the same age then as I am today, and he sat at a table before a long line of memorabilia hounds. Sometimes the signers at these events would chat a bit with their fans, but Aaron was keeping his head down as usual, signing one item after another, baseballs, bats, and photos. No conversation.

But when my turn came and I set down a glossy 8×10 for him to sign, my dad couldn’t help himself.

“His name is Hank,” he said. “Just like you.”

My hero paused, then looked up at me with a smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

August and Everything After

It begins with the innocent hope of April and awkward adolescence of May, then winds through the first days of summer in June and the All-Star Game in July before ending with the frantic race of September and historic rush of October. Missing in that list, of course, is August, a tiring slog through heat and thunderstorms and nagging injuries. August is when most teams come to terms with their diminishing postseason possibilities, but the dog days of August are difficult even for the front runners.

A series like we’ve got in Los Angeles this weekend, three games between the two best teams in baseball, organizations which each boast more history than the other twenty-eight teams combined, could not have come at a better time. The Yankees travelled to Chavez Ravine to match up against the Dodgers, reminding older fans of grainy newsreel footage, sending analysts into paroxysms of excitement as they breathlessly projected this October’s World Series, and — more importantly — giving me a chance to take my son to a game.

You’ve probably heard of Los Angeles traffic, but what you probably don’t know is that Dodger Stadium traffic can be even worse, so my son and I decided to make a day of it, avoiding both types of traffic by leaving the house at 8:30, having breakfast at a favorite Mexican place just blocks from the stadium (La Abeja), and pulling up to the park before the gates opened.

Our plan worked to perfection. The freeway was wide open, the enchiladas verdes were even better than I remembered, and ours was the first car to arrive at the parking lot gates. Aside from missing traffic, we were hoping to get there in time for batting practice, so it was a bit of a disappointment when we arrived in the left field pavilion and found the field as empty as the stands. Some long toss here, some stretching there, but no baseballs flying into the seats. I had brought my glove to the ballpark for the first time in 35 years, imagining a barrage of batting practice home runs, but now we were left with two hours to fill by guzzling soda and browsing the gift shop.

One of the best things about watching the Yankees in an opposing ballpark is the camaraderie among the fans. Each time you pass a fellow Yankee supporter, there’s a nod of acknowledgment at the very least, often a fist bump, and maybe even a conversation. One man wearing a Jeter jersey to match mine paused as he passed our seats and said, “Did you watch last night? Didi was serving breakfast out there! Grand slam for everyone!”

Such was the mood as Tony Gonsolin took the mound for the Dodgers. After the Yankees had beat up on the best pitcher in the National League the night before, pounding the previously untouchable Hyun-Jin Ryu in a 10-2 victory, surely the merry-go-round would keep turning against the rookie, right?

Sadly, no. D.J. LeMahieu led off the game with a walk, but the next nine Yankees went down meekly and briskly, reminding me that the Bombers are almost always defused by rookies they’ve never seen before.

Meanwhile CC Sabathia was toeing the rubber for the Yanks, making the 557th start of his Hall of Fame career and the last one I’ll see in person. I was eager to get one more chance to cheer for him, but I also worried that there might not be much to cheer about. It was a pleasant surprise, then, when he struck out two in the first and two more in the second. When he came out for the third, I leaned over and mentioned to my son that the third inning would be important. The Dodger lineup was about to turn over, and we’ve all seen how opposing batters go from Punch and Judy to Mantle and Maris as they get second and third looks at Sabathia. I was worried, and soon my worries would prove to be legitimate.

The rally started, ironically enough, with the pitcher. Gonsolin, who admitted afterwards to having been a Yankee fan as a kid, banged a ground ball off of Sabathia and reached base with a single when the ball caromed into no man’s land. Sabathia responded by striking out A.J. Pollock, but the next batter, Justin Turner, rocketed a homer to left center, and suddenly CC was leaking. He walked the next batter, Will Smith (West Philadelphia, born and raised), before Cody Bellinger followed with another single to push Smith to third and then stole second base to tighten the screws a bit more with men on second and third and just one out.

But Sabathia would retire the next batter on a short fly out to Aaron Judge, and he’d collect the third out by whiffing Max Muncy. (And by the way, if you had six strikeouts in the first three innings for Sabathia, you win the pool.)

I’ve only watched a handful of games from beyond the outfield, and I’d forgotten how skewed the perspective can be. A Yankee fan to my right, falling victim to this warped reality, had exploded from his seat back in the first inning, prematurely celebrating what he had thought would be an Aaron Judge home run that quickly turned into a short foul pop behind first base.

So when Judge led off the fourth inning with what looked to be a drive to the outfield, I was cautiously optimistic as I rose to my feet. My eyes shifted back and forth between the ball, which continued to arc majestically, and center fielder Pollock, who turned and broke hard towards dead center field, until the outcome became clear. The ball continued soaring, Pollock started coasting, and Yankee fans around the park began celebrating. (Side note: I’ve now seen Judge homer in three different parks.)

Sabathia wouldn’t come out for the fifth inning, and while allowing two runs in a four-inning start isn’t normally anything to rave about, this was still a nice outing from CC. He was never bothered by the Dodgers except for that rocky third inning, and his seven strikeouts across those four innings came at the expense of Dodger hitters who were often off balance. For a team desperate for consistency from the rotation, Sabathia’s abbreviated start actually provides some hope.

With the Dodger lead now cut in half at 2-1, both bullpens went to work. For the Yankees, it was newcomer Cory Gearrin getting a couple of outs to start the fifth before yielding to Chad Green, who was dominant, striking out four in two innings of work. Adam Ottavino got the last out of the seventh, and then Zach Britton worked a quick-and-painless eighth.

The Dodgers’ bullpen, the only weakness these National League bullies have, was just as good. Joe Kelly and Pedro Baez navigated the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings without incident, and then it all came down to the ninth inning and Kenley Jansen, the All-Star closer who’s been struggling recently, against the middle of the Yankees’ lineup.

I watch well over a hundred games a year on television, but I only get out to a ballpark two or three times a season, and it’s remarkable how different the experience is. Sitting in the stands, sometimes you have no idea what’s going on, but there are countless little things that are revealed, ranging from player personalities to subtle nuances of strategy. Dodger left fielder Kiké Hernández is a fan favorite in L.A., and it took just a few innings for me to see why. In the top of the fourth, a fan in front of me called down to him, “How many outs, Kiké?” Without missing a beat or turning his eyes from the action, Kiké slowly — coolly — raised his right hand and extended his index and pinky fingers to let us know their were two outs, much to the delight of our entire section, Dodger and Yankee fans alike.

We also noticed the intricacies of the Dodgers’ infield defense. There was shifting galore, but what struck me early on was how the Dodgers were hedging their bet against lefties. They wouldn’t move their third baseman until the batter picked up a strike, figuring he wouldn’t risk bunting in that situation. My son and I had talked about it when Mike Tauchman was batting earlier in the game. After strike one, Justin Turner left his spot at third and jogged all the way over to where the second baseman would normally be. The speedy Tauchman then tried to drop a bunt. It rolled foul, but we’d see the ploy again in the ninth inning.

Didi Gregorius led off the ninth. While Didi’s certainly a threat to go deep at any time off any pitcher, in this situation he was clearly looking to set the table. After strike one, Turner vacated third as he had been doing all afternoon, and Didi promptly tried to take advantage. He obviously wasn’t trying to sacrifice, he was looking for more. He attacked the bunt, firing the ball down the left field line, but just foul. Undeterred even with two strikes, he tried it again on the next pitch, but this bunt was almost identical, and he had struck out.

I had no problem at all with Didi’s play at the time, and I still like it in hindsight. No Dodger defender was within a hundred feet of third base, and had Didi been able to place either bunt just a foot or two to the right, he’d have coasted into second base with a double. Also, what Tauchman and Gregorius did in those two at bats won’t go unnoticed around the league. Neither bunt yielded immediate results, but Yankee hitters might see less aggressive shifting down the stretch.

But back to the game. After Didi’s out, Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner singled to put runners on first and second. Suddenly the Yankee fans had hope and the Dodger fans were grumbling — loudly — about Jansen.

And then things got crazy.

Gio Urshela hit a weak grounder towards short stop, but Turner ranged across from third to cut it off. I didn’t think they’d be able to turn two, but then I wondered if they’d even be able to get Gardner at second. Gritner and the ball arrived at roughly the same time, but Gritner was called out as his slide toppled second baseman Max Muncy. From our point of view out in the pavilion, we had little to no idea what was going on. Five or six Dodgers were checking on Muncy, but what I noticed was that Gardner hadn’t left the bag.

A challenge, it seemed, was afoot. But who was challenging what? The stadium replay showed Gardner sliding into Muncy, and fans of each side saw what they wanted to see. I leaned across to a Dodger fan and honestly said, “I won’t be surprised if they call Gardner safe, but I also won’t be surprised if they call him for obstruction and give the Dodgers the double play to end the game.” It was that close.

The umpires ruled Gardner safe, keeping the bases loaded with only one out, and I thought the Yankees had dodged disaster. What I didn’t realize at the time — and I don’t think anyone in my section realized it — was that the Dodgers had actually dodged disaster. Not until I got home from the game and started sifting through video highlights did I see that Gleyber Torres had actually scored on the play. When he saw Muncy rolling around on the ground — with the ball in his glove — Torres had galloped for home with the tying run. The umpires, though, ruled that Jansen had called for time before Torres took off, and Torres was sent back to third. (How did we all miss this? An unintended consequence of the god-awful Players’ Weekend black and white jerseys is that the black Yankee uniforms often rendered the players invisible from a distance.)

It was no surprise that after the game both Torres and Aaron Boone said the umpires had erred in stopping the action in the middle of a play, and Muncy added to the controversy by admitting to some exaggeration. “He still got me good, it still hurt, so it wasn’t entirely fake. But there might have been a little acting class in there.” Neither Major League Baseball nor FIFA has commented on this.

We knew nothing of that backstory at the time, but that didn’t detract from the drama of the moment. After lying dormant since the fourth inning, the Yankees suddenly had the bases loaded with only one out. The August sun had sapped the energy from a crowd that had been subdued for much of the afternoon, but now the stadium was electric as we stood and cheered with every pitch.

First it was Mike Tauchman, and as he dug into the batter’s box, goosebumps sprinkled down my neck as my son lifted his hands to his mouth and called out, “Let’s-G0-Yan-kees!” I had done something right, apparently, and in that moment, with the crowd buzzing and hope surging, I realized we had gotten our money’s worth. A base hit from Tauchman — I imagined a single slashed to left field — would be gravy.

Tauchman struck out, but that brought the scariest hitter in the lineup up to the plate. As Gary Sánchez stepped into the box, there was suddenly poetry spinning around in my head.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Gary, mighty Gary, was advancing to the bat.

The lines are 130 years old, but Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s words describe Saturday’s scene perfectly. Thayer’s Casey watched two strikes go by, but our Gary was aggressive. He took a huge swing at the first fastball from Jansen, and he appeared to have it timed perfectly, as the foul ball rifled directly behind home plate.

He fouled off the next pitch as well, then took a ball high and outside, bringing up a 1-2 count. I wondered if the two-strike count might encourage Sánchez to stay back and shoot a single through the wide open right side of the infield, or if he’d sell out and look to launch a grand slam into our section, the ball settling into my hands. But it wasn’t to be.

The sneer is gone from Gary’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now as Jansen holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Gary’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Gotham — mighty Gary has struck out.


This Is Baseball

It’s been said that time begins on Opening Day, but it’s more accurate to say that Opening Day marks the passing of time. Today begins the forty-ninth baseball season since I was born, and if there’s one thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older it’s that the calendar pages flip much faster than they used to. Everything speeds up. The children who used to fit nicely in your arms are readying for college, the grey in your hair has won the battle against the color of your youth, and when an old friend starts a story with “Remember that time…” he could be talking about something that happened three decades ago.

And so it is with baseball. When I was a boy my entire life centered around the game, whether I was playing in the street, watching my heroes on television, poring over box scores in the back of the sports section, or reading about ghosts named Ruth, DiMaggio, Aaron, and Clemente.

The winter was dark, even after we moved to California, because the game was gone. There was no stretch of time longer than November through March, a five-month void that loomed before me each year like a trans-Atlantic crossing. I knew we’d eventually get there, but I could never see the shore.

But somewhere along the line those months started clicking by without notice, probably because my relationship with the game changed. Baseball still has my heart, but there’s competition now. Adults have jobs and mortgages and families. Other interests. While I could still tell you Ron Guidry’s 1978 ERA off the top of my head, I don’t remember how many home runs Aaron Judge hit last season. I can list the World Series winners for most of the twentieth century, but I have no idea who won five years ago.

Things change.

But baseball doesn’t. Two years ago my son and I took a train to San Diego to watch the Yankees play the Padres, and we were rewarded with a win and an autographed ball from Reggie Jackson. Last season we drove down the road to Anaheim to watch the Aaron Judge Show, and naturally he roped a home run into the centerfield seats. My son will never be the baseball fan that I was and still am, but I know he’ll remember these moments after I’m gone, and maybe one day he’ll bring his child to a ballpark and tell those stories.

My son and I won’t be able to watch the Yankees together this afternoon – he’ll be at his school and I’ll be at mine – but we’ll text about it. He’ll ask me who won, and he’ll ask who hit home runs. As the season unfolds he’ll notice the new faces who show up, and he’ll ask me about Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar. We’ll pick a game to see them when they come to town, and he’ll wonder about which t-shirt to wear, Tanaka or Judge. We’ll sit in the stands sharing kettle corn, and I’ll tell him stories about players long dead and games long forgotten. Mainly, though, we’ll be together.

This is baseball.

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.

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