Hi all. Here’s how I see baseball before game 6 of the ALCS. Time after time this year I’ve written about low-scoring games that lasted through 7 innings, then exploded in all directions. Friday night’s game was the exception that proved the rule. All 5 runs in the Yankees’ 4–1 win were scored in the first inning.
When I used to go to the House that Ruth Built between 1988 and 1990, home games at night started at 7:30 PM. Considering I got off work at 4:45, that was a perfect starting time. One commuter train, and either one or two subways would have me there with time to spare as often as not. Last night’s game started an hour earlier than most postseason games at 7 PM Eastern. Trying to make the game even a half hour ealy guarantees the trains would be more crowded. Driving traffic to 161st Street and River Avenue in the Bronx has always been horrible, and even with the added parking spaces the new stadium is supposed to have, I can only imagine how many fans were pounding their dashboards in frustration as last night’s first inning ground slowly by. With the Astros ahead 3 games to 1, the Yankees had to win to avoid the ignominy of watching the foe celebrate on their turf as Boston did a year ago. At first, it looked like game 5 would be a rerun of game 4, a horror show the Yanks and their fans would sooner forget. The first ball hit in the top of the first could easily have been scored an error to second baseman Gleyber Torres, like the 4 errors on Thursday night, but it wasn’t. It went right under the glove of starter James Paxton and was then bobbled by Torres. Score it hit or error, the Astros’ leadoff man George Springer was on first base. Before long he was on second thanks to a passed ball from the increasingly erratic Gary Sanchez. Springer took third on a grounder and scored on a debatable wild pitch off Sanchez’ knee.
That’s when the Yankees woke up. In game 4, when they loaded the bases in the first inning, (and several times thereafter) they left the bases full. Last night was a different story. D.J. LeMahieu, the unexpected find this past winter lead off the home half of the first with a home run to tie the game and continue toying with the Astros’ pitching in a way his playmates only wish they could equal. 9 times out of 10, Justin Verlander would shake off a solo shot like you would swat away a gnat. Last night was the 10th time. Aaron Judge blistered a single to left, and Torres blooped another hit putting Judge on third. The rally almost died on the vine as Verlander got the next two men out. The unexpected hero was Aaron Hicks. There were questions about whether he should have been added to the roster after the Yankees beat the Twins in the Division Series. Hicks hadn’t played since early August. Then when Giancarlo Stanton pulled up lame again after game 1, Hicks became a player of necessity. With two out and two on in a first inning that seemed to last an hour and a half, Hicks slammed a 3-run home run off the foul pole (or fair pole if you like) to give the Yankees a 4–1 lead.
From there, at least from the perspective of Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone, an astonishing thing happened. A starting pitcher, one he removed from game 2 in the third inning manned up and pitched like a starting pitcher. The fans had seen him do it as he won 10 decisions in a row in the second half of the season. With nothing to do about his bad judgment in game 2, Boone kept Paxton out there. “The Big Maple” went 6 innings, longer than any Yankee starter, even Masahiro Tanaka during this postseason and didn’t give up a run after the Keystone Cops run in the first. Verlander matched his foe 0 for 0 and in fact lasted through the 7th inning. Both starters struck out 9 of their opponents. After the glacial first inning, the next 8 innings were played as if both teams were trying to catch airplanes after the game.
The series will wrap up in Houston either tonight or tomorrow night. What I’m about to say would never have happened as recently as 3 years ago. Both teams are planning a bull pen game in game 6 of a possible 7-game series. Let’s think about this. The Yankees are in this spot because their 16-game winner Domingo German couldn’t control his temper and landed on administrative leave just before the end of the regular season, in keeping with MLB’s domestic violence policy. The Astros have less of a reason to be in this spot. They could easily start Gerrit Cole who dominated the Yankees in game 3 on Tuesday night. At age 29, working on 3 days rest shouldn’t trouble him as it did the 36-year-old Verlander when he faced the Rays on 3 days’ rest. Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch knows the reward and risk are both large going without Cole in game 6. If his secondary pitchers, (Jose Urquidy, Brad Peacock, et al) manage to shut down the Yankees, Hinch would have both Cole and Verlander ready to pitch in Houston when the World Series opens there Tuesday and Wednesday nights. With the Nationals’ 1-2 punch of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg rested after sweeping the Cardinals in the NLCS, the Astros can’t be blamed for thinking they need to roll the dice and hope their two aces will be available. The Yankees can only hope to assault the Astros tonight, then send Luis Severino against Cole tomorrow night and pray. Whatever happens in Houston over the next two nights, the Yankees sent their fans home having exorcised the demons of games 3 and 4, two of the worst postseason performances in the memory of any Yankee fan.2