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The 2017 AL Wild Card Game

It was very freeing, somehow, to go into a winner-take-all postseason game with low expectations. Or maybe no expectations would be a better way to put it? We were expecting a rebuilding year. We weren’t expecting Aaron Judge. We weren’t expecting Brett Gardner to have a career high in home runs. We got excited about the young kids last year, but we didn’t expect them to run away with the AL East.

Although that’s what they did at the start of the season–run away with it. They built up such a lead that when they came back to earth and played under-.500 ball for much of the middle of the year, they nevertheless kept the Red Sox in striking distance. The possibility of a one-game tiebreaker loomed all the way through Saturday, when the Sox finally won one of the two remaining games of the season in order to clinch.

There were a lot of things we didn’t expect. Judge is (literally) the biggest one. At this point I have to consider him a lock for the Rookie of the Year, and he’s got a chance to be AL MVP, too. Winning the Home Run derby handily didn’t hurt, either. Broke Mark McGwire’s rookie home run record, too. Things like that count for a lot in the “traditionally” minded voters. His 8+ WAR for the year counts for a lot with the less traditionally minded.

But often we’ve seen a hot young superstar stumble in the postseason. Case in point: this year the Yankees most consistent and best starter has been Luis Severino. Severino stumbled out of the gate last night, looked tentative and scared at times, and although his control wasn’t as awful as his final line might show–home plate ump Alfonso Marquez is a “hitters umpire” and calls very few strikes–he was lifted after getting only one out and giving up two home runs. Severino did not appear ready for prime time.

Judge did. So did Didi Gregorious, who has been the textbook definition of “loose” down the stretch this year. Didi has fun. He and co-conspirator/backup infielder/team mascot Ronald Torreyes have been keeping things fun all year long–Google for numerous photos of Didi picking the diminutive Torreyes up to high five Judge after a Judgian home run…. and then the resulting shenanigans when either Didi or Torreyes (yes, Torreyes) hit one. Speaking of home run records, Didi now owns the record for most homers in a season by a Yankees shortstop.

Did I mention Derek Jeter officially took the reins of the Miami Marlins yesterday? Just a few hours before the Yankees played the wildcard game. As if there could be any doubt that the torch has passed.

It was Didi who wasn’t fazed by the fact that Severino was knocked out of the game with a 3-0 lead after only recording one out. In the Yankees’ half of the inning, he came up with Gardner and Judge on and one out, and hit one out. Tie game, and the crowd, which had been growing more and more agitated at Alfonso Marquez’s small strike zone (although grudgingly happy about it going as much against Twins starter Ervin Santana as it had Severino), went predictably nuts.

Well, maybe not so predictably. There have been the occasional postseason games I’ve been to where once the grumbling in the crowd started, it never really stopped.

I wasn’t expecting a win, but I was expecting a strong offensive output by the Yankees given that Marquez was behind the plate and Ervin Santana has awful numbers at Yankee Stadium. There were many times this year that the Yankees exploded for 6, 7, 8, 10 or more runs…and still lost the game. After Didi’s homer, Gardner hit one in the second to put the Yankees up 4-3, and then Judge himself blasted a two-run shot in the fourth. Three guys who had noteworthy home run performances during the season hit them when expected. You don’t necessarily expect that in the postseason.

The most unexpected thing, though, was the bullpen getting 26 outs and only giving up one more run. Chad Green struck out two in the first to restore order and then struck out two more in the second to keep the momentum on the Yankees’ side. When he tired in the third and loaded the bases, David Robertson came in needing a double play or two strikeouts. He got the ground ball but a run came in as the batter, Byron Buxton, was safe. (Buxton would leave the game shortly thereafter with tightness in his back, possibly brought about by a leap against the wall to rob Todd Frazier of an extra-base hit in the first.)

D-Rob struck out the next man to snuff the threat, though, and then pitched a new career high in length of outing (unless you look back to Double A when there was one day he pitched three and TWO thirds of an inning, one out more than here). Robertson, as you might remember, is one of three guys who were on the 2009 World Series winning team who are still around. The other two are CC Sabathia and Brett Gardner. He was traded away, but was reacquired this year when the team’s strong first half made them buyers instead of sellers at the trading deadline.

Robertson was also responsible for one of the more painful moments of levity in Yankees postseason history. As he was starting to tire and was trying to record one last out, he uncorked a pitch that hit Gary Sanchez, as one headline put it: “right in the beans.” Robertson doubled over, grabbing his own beans in empathy. Tommy “The Wrath of” Kahnle was summoned to get them out of the inning and then we could laugh about it, much like the time Luis Sojo tripped over his shoelaces and hit the infield like a sack of soggy diamond-dry.

Kahnle was far more brilliant than expected, and then Aroldis Chapman was as brilliant as hoped, but not completely expected given his various bouts of injury ans struggles this year. (And Dellin Betances is still having those struggles, and did not pitch in the game.) Chapman struck out the side (around a single from Joe Mauer), with each out pitch faster than the last, all over 100mph, the finale one 103.7mph.

It was the most unified crowd I’ve heard at Yankee Stadium in a long time. People were very ready to root for these guys, heartily and lustily. We were determined to have a good time and celebrate the achievements whether they won or not. But they won.

And now we’ll have to face Cleveland. Again we’ll have low expectations, given that Cleveland–the AL champs–came into the Stadium late in the season and swept the Yankees. But it’ll be really great if what worked during the season can continue to work in October.

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