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2019 ALCS Games 4 and 5: Tale of Two Nights

I’m writing this in the car on the way back to Massachusetts after the Yankees slayed the dragon known as Justin Verlander. It’s 2:30 in the morning, and this dark drive would be very different if they had lost the game.

We did this drive the night Joe Torre’s career as a Yankee ended, with Suzyn Waldman crying as she described how the whole coaching staff knew that elimination from the postseason would spell the end for Joe’s tenure.

But tonight the Yankees were not eliminated, even though they could have been.

How did we reach this point? The Yankees managed to win the division this year, despite having the most injured players in the majors, which meant for the first time in a while they didn’t have to play a loser-go-home Wild Card game. They got to rest up and face the Twins in the ALDS. Going into the ALDS, the two teams seemed rather similar and evenly matched. But it was apparently an illusion. The Yankees swept the Twins in three straight.

Meanwhile, the Houston Astros, who I feel are the strongest team in baseball, were pushed to a game five by the Tampa Bay Rays before they prevailed. Then in game one of the ALCS, the Yankees beat the hell out of Zack Greinke and the Astros. Were the Yankees really that much better than the Astros? Had they ascended to a new level?

No. Game 2 was a tightly played 11-inning duel started by Justin Verlander and James Paxton. Paxton was out of the game in the third, and the Yankees emptied the bullpen in the pursuit of the win, leading the game 2-1 for much of the time, but ultimately losing 3-2 on a walkoff homer by Carlos Correia–served up by demoted starter J.A. Happ.

It was a huge momentum shift. Instead of going back to Yankee Stadium, up 2-0 in the series and having knocked off a Verlander start, the Yankees settled for coming back with a 1-0 split, and looking to get their offense going again after the only scoring in game 2 came from two solo home runs.

It didn’t happen. They lost game three, 4-1, a game in which Luis Severino was nicked a couple of times but mostly held the Astros in check, the Yankees could not break through on Gerritt Cole. Cole did not have his best stuff, but somehow–like Verlander in Houston–he kept wriggling off the hook. Again and again the Yankees could not get the big hit they needed to break through.

Some hitters seemed like they really needed to break out: Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion in particular. But they didn’t.

The next day, for Game 4, both teams expected to have a “bullpen day,” to rest their regular starters. But for a few days we had been watching the weather reports, that were predicting heavy, soaking rains all day from a bomb cyclone. (Google “bombogenesis” if you want to know more about bomb cyclones.) Maybe you can’t predict baseball, but sometimes you really can predict the weather. It poured extremely hard from about 3pm to 11pm, washing out Wednesday’s game entirely, and setting the stage for a very windy Game 4.

I will come right out and say Game 4 was the worst game I’ve witnessed the Yankees play. The crowd was extremely pumped and vocal, and hoping that anxiety-prone Zack Greinke could be ambushed by the Yankees’ offense. Meanwhile, Masahiro Tanaka, who has stellar October numbers, would be on the hill for the Yankees, instilling everyone with confidence.

But things unraveled quickly. Two three-run homers would be more than enough, and meanwhile, once again the Yankees could not get the big hit. They let Greinke off the hook again and again.

And then the errors started. Four in total. The last time the Yankees made four errors in a postseason game was in 1976, when they were outclassed by the Kansas City Royals. The mood of the crowd plummeted as the night went on. At one point I tweeted “it’s very tough to be here right now.” That was after the worst thing of all: CC Sabathia came out of the bullpen to take a turn as a reliever (as he’d done successfully in game 1: as a LOOGY no less) and ended up with a partial dislocation of his shoulder. The crowd gave CC a standing ovation, but there were tears.

The final score, 8-3 Astros. They took a 3 games to 1 lead, having won three games in a row, to push the Yankees to the brink of elimination. The mood was absolutely funereal. After the game, which was over four hours long and had started at 8pm, we went to a 24-hour diner in Yonkers. A group of half a dozen cops who had been working the game came in a bit later and proceeded to break down the game inning by inning while standing in a circle by the counter, bristling with weapons and some of them still in bulletproof vests. They were not happy. No one was happy. Even Yankees fans on Twitter were thinking of deleting their accounts.

Today’s newspapers were all doom and gloom. The Astros looked so good and the Yankees so bad the night before that even Astros fans were telling us they felt sorry for us. We went out to the Stadium tonight not knowing if we were going to see the Astros celebrate on our field or if the Yankees could make us believe in them again.

It would mean beating Verlander for real this time, and relying on James Paxton, who hadn’t made it through three innings in game 2.

The top of the first picked up where the previous night left off, with Yankees making miscues in the field, and George Springer eking out an Astros run on a badly fielded infield hit, a wild pitch, and a passed ball. But Paxton escaped without giving up anything but that one, and ceded the mound to Verlander.

On Verlander’s second pitch, everything turned around. DJ LeMahieu (“It’s French for The Mahieu”) tagged a pitch into the right field stands to tie the game, 1-1. Astros manage AJ Hinch said it “woke up the building.” The crowd, which had been grumbly and bitter in the top of the inning, came to life. Aaron Judge followed with a hit. Gleyber Torres followed that with a double, putting men on second and third. Giancarlo Stanton–in the lineup for the first time since tweaking his quad muscle–then struck out. But Aaron Hicks turned around on a mediocre slider from Verlander and, luckily, it hit the foul pole instead of hooking into the stands. Four runs before the second out could be recorded.

They would make the four runs stand up, because James Paxton settled down and pitched the kind of game they’ve been waiting to get from him since signing him in the offseason. The crowd got louder as the game went on, with the loudest God Bless America I heard all year, culminating in a joyous singalong to Frank Sinatra.

The thing is, it almost all came apart. In the sixth inning, with two outs and a man on, manager Aaron Boone went out to the mound to talk to Paxton. Paxton said he wanted to stay in. On his very next pitch he completed the inning… but it was on a long drive to left that Brett Gardner caught with his back up against the wall. It just goes to show you have to have some breaks go your way. Both teams have had balls caught right at the wall now. Just a loud out.

If they’re going to survive, of course, they have to beat the Astros twice more, in Houston. Tomorrow both teams will have “bullpen days,” with Gerritt Cole and Luis Severino lined up to pitch game seven if it gets that far. There’s no predicting what will happen tomorrow but at least for tonight there is hope and jubilation.

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