The Yankees faced elimination in the do-or-die Game 5 of the ALDS and staved it off for a second straight game. The Yankees beat the Guardians 5-1 and are headed to the ALCS.
1. After Aaron Boone mismanaged the Yankees to the brink of elimination in Game 3, I wrote:
I do think the Yankees will win Game 4 and force a Game 5, but I don’t know how they will win Game 5 without an available starter and with their bullpen already fatigued after just three games.
The Yankees did win Game 4 and the weather took care of my worrying about an available starter for Game 5. Sure, it absolutely sucked to go to the Stadium on Monday night, only to sit there until 9:20 p.m. and then go home having not seen a baseball game, but in the end it worked out.
2. The rainout took away the Guardians’ advantage of having a completely rested elite bullpen with the Yankees’ bullpen in shambles, and more importantly, it allowed the Yankees to replace Jameson Taillon with Nestor Cortes on three days rest. Taillon’s inability to put hitters away Phil Hughes-style would have likely ended badly for the Yankees with the Guardians’ contact ability. (That is, unless Aaron Civale was also going to give up a three-run home run in the first inning if the game had been played on Monday night. I still can’t believe Terry Francona thought that decision gave his team the best chance to win Game 5. I’m glad he did.)
3. Cortes was awesome. He only needed 61 pitches to get through five innings, and it would have been even less if not for the Yankees’ clusterfuck in left field that resulted in yet another bloop single for the Guardians and led to the only run they would score in the game. I would have sent Cortes back out for the sixth inning to face the Guardians’ 2-3-4 hitters for a third time, though it worked out with Jonathan Loaisiga, Clay Holmes and Wandy Peralta combing to pitch four scoreless innings. Those three were outstanding in the series, despite insane batted ball luck for the Guardians with their never-ending parade of bloop and infield singles. Boone pushed the right buttons in Game 5 (even if they were some of the easiest buttons ever to push), and with an ALCS appearance, it’s now a guarantee he will be back for 2023, and Brian Cashman as well.
4. The key to winning Game 5 was always to get an early lead. I was nervous when Steven Kwan led the game off with a single, thinking he would steal second, move to third on an out and score on another out. If the Guardians jumped out to an early lead, Francona may have skipped Civale all together and gone straight to the elite relievers. Those elite relievers pitched seven innings and allowed one run in those seven innings. If the Guardians had scored in the top of the first, like I feared they would, the entire game would have been different.
They didn’t, but the Yankees did. Gleyber Torres drew a leadoff walk and after Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch with one out, Giancarlo Stanton crushed a 2-0 pitch, sending a line-drive missile over the right-field wall for an early 3-0 lead.
5. Nearly the entire Yankees lineup finished the five-game series with ugly overall numbers. The two outliers were Rizzo and Harrison Bader. However, everyone had their moment, even if their numbers suggest otherwise.
Torres finished the series with a .396 OPS, but had the leadoff single in Game 4 and the leadoff walk in Game 5. Judge had four hits in the series, but two of them were home runs. Stanton hit .125, but provided two first-inning home runs. Donaldson only had five hits (all singles), but did draw four walks and picked up a base hit before Bader’s big home run in Game 4. Oswaldo Cabrera hit .105 with a .421 OPS, but hit a double and two-run home run in Game 3, and Jose Trevino had the go-ahead sacrifice fly in Game 1.
The Yankees can’t have that kind of collection of ugly numbers across the board in the ALCS. They did in 2019 (aside from Torres and DJ LeMahieu) and it eliminated them.
6. On paper, there is no reason to think the Yankees can win the ALCS. The Astros have a better lineup, a better rotation, a better bullpen and a better manager. On top of all that, the Astros haven’t played since Saturday, are well rested and have their rotation set up exactly how they want. The Yankees have just played four games in the last five days, had the pressure or elimination in the last two of those games, only have a 24-hour layoff between the last pitch of Game 5 of the ALDS and Game 1 of the ALCS and are being forced to use Jameson Taillon in the series opener against Justin Verlander.
Now some of that is the Yankees’ own doing. They could have swept the Guardians (like the Astros did the Mariners), and have had the same amount of time off as the Astros if they hadn’t blown two-run leads in Games 2 and 3. They could have their rotation set up with Cole against Verlander, Cortes in Game 2 and Luis Severino in Game 3. Their bullpen could be well rested, having not needed to pitch six additional on-the-brink-of-elimination innings.
There isn’t one facet of the game or schedule that the Yankees have an advantage with. They are an underdog to the Astros in the ALCS for the third time in six seasons.
7. There is this common idea the Yankees “just need to win one in Houston” to have a chance in the series. I don’t think that’s true. In 2019, they did just that, winning Game 1 easily before blowing Game 2, and they wound up losing in six. In 2017, they lost the first two games in Houston, won all three at home, and lost in seven, after scoring just three runs total in the four road games. There is no right path to winning the ALCS, but the Yankees are going to need to finally solve the Astros’ pitching if they plan on reaching the World Series for the second time in 19 years. And to do so, they are going to need to sacrifice defense for offense.
It was one thing to get by the Guardians with the lineups the Yankees ran out there in the five games. That won’t work against the Astros. The Astros are going to play with one automatic out in their lineup in Martin Maldonado and the Yankees need to match that. No more than one automatic out in their lineup. (Jose Trevino, cough, cough.) This means either Giancarlo Stanton or Matt Carpenter needs to play left field with the other serving as the designated hitter.
There’s no need to worry about defense or balls in the gap in Houston’s left field. Either a batted ball will fall in front of the left fielder or it will be a home run. Anything else will be a catchable fly ball or a ball off the wall, which nothing can be done about. It’s why Yordan Alvarez plays left field for the Astros. Carpenter and Stanton can handle that. They have to handle it.
8. Things would be much different if the Yankees had Carpenter at full strength and DJ LeMahieu, Andrew Benintendi and Michael King healthy, and if Frankie Montas were healthy and pitching like the guy the Yankees thought they traded for. The Yankees with those players? That team I would feel confident in beating the Astros in the ALCS. This roster? It’s going to be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. The Yankees are going to need their stars to play like such, and they are likely going to need some unlikely sources to provide magical moments. Something like Taillon pitching seven shutout innings in Game 1 against Verlander, or Bader continuing to hit like Judge and Stanton.
9. I don’t expect the Yankees with their injuries, first-round bullpen usage and schedule to beat the Astros. The Astros were the better team in the regular season (especially against the Yankees having never trailed them in their seven head-to-head games) and they are set up to be the better team in the postseason. The Yankees needed to win the 1-seed in the American League to beat the Astros in a potential ALCS matchup. They failed to do that. Then they needed to sweep the Guardians to have a chance to beat the Astros in a potential ALCS matchup. They failed to do that. Then they needed to beat the Guardians in four games to have a prayer to beat the Astros in the ALCS. Now? Now they’re coming off a five-game series that went the distance and are landing in Houston on the same day they will be asked to beat the soon-to-be-named AL Cy Young winner who has owned the Yankees in the postseason in five different seasons and with two different teams.
10. The Yankees aren’t expected to win this series, and that’s exactly why I think they can. These Yankees have always been most successful when success isn’t expected. The 2017 Yankees weren’t supposed to be a playoff team, and they came within one win of the World Series. After coming within one win of the World Series and adding Giancarlo Stanton, the 2018 Yankees were expected to get back to the World Series and instead were embarrassed in the ALDS. The 2019 Yankees were expected to build off the previous two seasons and reach the World Series and they instead lost three of the last four games of the ALCS. The 2020 Yankees had the league’s top payroll and were eliminated in the ALDS by the team with the league’s lowest payroll. The 2021 Yankees were the odds-on favorite to win the American League, and they instead had to play in the wild-card game, which they lost. Ever since this Yankees core started playing with expectations (and a new manager) back in 2018, they have failed miserably, never getting as close to the World Series as the 2017 expectation-less team did.
This version of these Yankees were supposed to finish behind the Blue Jays in the division. They finished seven games ahead of the Blue Jays, winning the division. When they lost Game 3 of the ALDS, they were supposed to be upset by the Guardians. Now they’re going to play a team and organization that owned them in the regular season and has owned them in the postseason. These Yankees and this core finally reaching the World Series and finally getting past the Astros to do so would be a perfect bookend to way this core started back in 2017.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!