When the 10th pitch of DJ LeMahieu’s legendary ninth-inning at-bat landed just past George Springer’s outstretched glove in right field for a game-tying, two-run home run, the Yankees had their moment. After thinking about the possibility of winning three straight against he Astros and coming back down 3-1 in the series, I knew the Yankees were going to need a moment along the way, a special moment like a ninth-inning, game-tying home run. LeMahieu had provided that moment and I could truly envision Game 7 of the ALCS for the first time.
Game 4 left me feeling like the season was over. A sloppy and embarrasisng loss had put the Ynakees on the brink of elimination and they would face the threat of their season ending for the remainder of the series .They would need to win three games in three days against the best team in the league, win games started by both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, win twice in Houston and what seemed like the hardest obstacle of them all: they would need their offense to wake up. The offense woke up in Game 5, even if it was only for an inning, providing a three-run lead the pitching staff wouldn’t relinquish, they finally beat Verlander in the postseason for the first time in franchise history, and now they would just need to beat the Astros’ less-than-stellar bullpen in a battle of bullpens to see Cole on Sunday night.
The Yankees willingly built their 2019 postseason formula for success with the idea they would ask for 12 outs from their starting pitcher in each postseason game and then go to their super bullpen for the remaining 15. It was the same strategy which failed in the 2018, mainly because Aaron Boone didn’t read the instruction manual for it. In theory, it’s a sound strategy given the stats for starting pitching seeing a lineup for the third time in a game and the overwhelming success of the Yankees’ bullpen. But in actuality, trying to win nearly every night for a month using the same relievers over and over leads to both overuse and overexposure. That was clearly the case with Chad Green.
In Green’s first four postseason appearances, he was dominant, throwing 71 high-stress pitches over 12 days. He retired 14 of the 16 batters he faced in 4 2/3 scoreless innings to help the Yankees sweep the ALDS and steal home-field advantage from the Astros in the ALCS. But after pitching 2 2/3 perfect innings against the Astros in Games 2 and 3, Green returned to the mound in Game 4, and the combination of overuse and overexposure led to him allowing a three-run home run to break open the game and the series for the Astros.
Two nights later, the Yankees were asking Green to pitch for the fifth time in six games in the series and they were asking him to open Game 6 and face the top of the Astros’ order: Springer, Jose Altuve, Michael Brantley, and if anyone got on Alex Bregman, and if two people got on Yuli Gurriel. Green’s dashboard gas warning was showing “5 Miles Until Empty” but the Yankees had no other choice. He had been the team’s go-to opener all season and without a trustworthy fourth starter, he was the only reliever with experience as an opener on the roster.
Green struck out Springer on four pitches and looked the way he had in the postseason prior to Game 4. But then Altuve doubled and Bregman drew a one-out walk, and you could sense Green laboring on the mound. He was badly missing his spots, finding himself in long counts and had needed 20 pitches to record one out in the inning. Gurriel went to the plate knowing Green would try to rediscover the strike zone after the Brantley walk, and if Green threw a fastball anywhere near the plate, Gurriel was swinging.
Green’s first-pitch fastball to Gurriel sailed in toward Gurriel’s hands and before it could make it all the way inside, Gurriel opened up and crushed a three-run home to left field. Green had officially run out of gas, and the Astros had a three-run lead at home, something they had 50 times during the season and never lost once.
I expected runs in Game 6. The Astros had seen the Yankees’ bullpen too much in the series not to score against it, and it didn’t matter if the Yankees had seen the Astros’ bullpen or not, it wasn’t very good. The Yankees weren’t facing a three-run deficit against Verlander or Cole, they were facing a three-run deficit against Brad Peacock, Josh James, Ryan Pressly and Jose Urquidy. It wouldn’t take a miracle for the Yankees to come back, it would just take the offense being itself, something it hadn’t been all series.
The Yankees’ offense never truly woke up in Game 6 after it had slept through the first five games. Aside from LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres, not a single other Yankee consistently produced in the series. Judge had one moment: his Game 2 home run off Verlander, but that was his only extra-base hit of the entire postseason. Hicks had his three-run home run in Game 5, but that was it, not that I was expecting much from someone who hadn’t played since August 3. Edwin Encarnacion went 1-for-18 with 11 strikeouts and was the worst hitter on a team full of bad hitters. Brett Gardner provided three singles over six games, lowering his career postseason batting line to .196/.260/.252. Gary Sanchez had a three-run home run in Game 4 and an RBI single in Game 6, but that was it as he led the team with 12 strikeouts. Didi Gregorius looked like he was finally about to go on one of his hot streaks (oh wait, the Yankees don’t believe in hot streaks) in Game 6, but by then it was too late after he had been an automatic out for the last week. Gio Urshela had three hits (including a home run and the important ninth-inning single) and reached base four times in Game 6 and his average only climbed to .238 and his on-base percentage to .304 to show had bad he had been over the previous four games. Giancarlo Stanton … there’s nothing to say about Stanton.
The Yankees outscored the Astros in the series, but that was only because of their 7-0 win in Game 1. After that, the Yankees scored 14 runs in five games. They had 44 hits and 22 walks in the six games, but left 45 runners on. It was the same type of offensive performance we saw from them in their previous three ALCS appearances over the last decade, and like those series, they lost this one as well.
It’s one thing to watch the outs come off the board with your team trailing in an elimination game. The finality of the baseball season, one that started back on March 29 in this case, begins to set in and you come to accept the fact that the season is over and it won’t end with a championship. It’s another thing to have your emotions toyed with for two straight nights right up until the last pitch of the series. I had come to accept the season was over by the time the ninth inning began in Game 6, but there was still a small part of me that thought the Yankees could tie this game, eventually win it and force a Game 7. They might still lose the series with Cole going against Luis Severino and an overworked bullpen, but at least it would give Yankees fans one more day of baseball.
LeMahieu’s home run completely turned my night around as I jumped higher in the air than Springer had trying to catch it. The season had been saved. There would be a Game 7. Well, if the Yankees scored one more run in the inning there would be a Game 7. I told my wife Brittni the Yankees had to take the lead in the ninth. With the top of the order coming up in the bottom of the ninth, there was a good chance this would be the Yankees’ last chance to take a lead in the game. The Yankees didn’t score in the ninth and they didn’t get another chance to.
After Aroldis Chapman got the first two outs of the ninth, he began to worry about what he was doing rather have Springer and Altuve worry about what he was doing. He was the one on the mound with the ball in control of the situation. But he fell behind Springer and walked him, and the second he fell behind Altuve 2-0, he was in trouble. Only an extra-base hit would beat the Yankees with Springer on first, but with Altuve at the plate, it felt like he would only get an extra-base hit. Altuve sat slider and Chapman gave him one and now for the rest of time I will see replays Altuve’s pennant-winning, walk-off home run.
The better team won the series and it wasn’t even close. The Astros got much more length out of their starting pitching, their bullpen, while inferior on paper was better on the field, and even though their hitting was as close to as bad as the Yankees’, it came through enough to win the series in six games.
It was always going to be hard to win the pennant and reach the World Series against this Astros team. It was going to be impossible to with a two-batter lineup, inconsistent starting pitching and a fatigued bullpen. It’s amazing the series even went six games.
The 103 regular-season wins are meaningless now. Two 100-win seasons in a row, both ended with postseason elimination after the offense performed its annual October disappearing act. The Yankees can’t think they can bring the same team and pitching strategy back next year and think they will get a different result.
The first real season of this current championship window was wasted. Unfortunately, the Astros’ window is coinciding with the Yankees’, and unless the Yankees make drastic changes to improve their roster, the 2017 ALCS and 2019 ALCS won’t be the last ALCS ending with the Astros beating the Yankees.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!