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.