Great ex­pec­ta­tions in the Bronx

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - GLOBE SPORTS - TYLER KEPNER CLEVE­LAND

The un­der­promis­ing Yan­kees have al­ready overde­liv­ered, and many see this Oc­to­ber as the start of some­thing big and long-last­ing

You get one chance, just one, for a sea­son like this in New York. Once a group wins, that be­comes the ex­pec­ta­tion. It is like a first kiss: Every­thing changes, and there is no go­ing back.

This was the Yan­kees’ bonus year, when no­body thought they would win very much – maybe not even the play­ers. How could we all see this com­ing? Their best start­ing pitcher was aw­ful last sea­son. Their lead­ing slug­ger hit .179. Their ri­vals looked stronger. This would be an­other sea­son to wait for far­away free agents and groom the kids.

“I thought we were go­ing to be bet­ter than peo­ple thought we were go­ing to be,” said out­fielder Brett Gard­ner, who also ac­knowl­edged his un­cer­tainty. “You don’t know what to ex­pect when a young guy comes up to the big leagues – if they’re ready or not, or how long it’s go­ing to take them to ad­just.”

The Yan­kees would be pa­tient, for a change, af­ter a win­ter of rel­a­tive dis­ci­pline. If one New York team would play for a berth in the World Se­ries, it would surely be the Mets. They had been there more re­cently, and they had so much pitch­ing.

Yet here are the Yan­kees, ready to face the Hous­ton Astros in the Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Se­ries af­ter storm­ing back to up­set the Cleve­land In­di­ans, three games to two, in a riv­et­ing di­vi­sion se­ries. The Mets have fallen apart. The Yan­kees have un­der­promised and overde­liv­ered. They are a pin­striped un­der­dog in the year of the so­lar eclipse.

Four more vic­to­ries and the Yan­kees would ad­vance to the World Se­ries for the first time since win­ning it eight years ago.

“The ’09 team, we were very con­fi­dent in spring train­ing; we felt like we knew we were go­ing to win,” re­liever David Robertson said. “This team, there’s a lot of guys that are re­al­iz­ing that they can win, that they’re that good.”

Robertson joined the Yan­kees in June, 2008, one day be­fore Gard­ner, who has an un­bro­ken decade of ser­vice. Those two, and starter CC Sa­bathia, are the only Yan­kees who also played for the 2009 cham­pi­ons. All fig­ured promi­nently in Wed­nes­day’s 5-2 clincher, Sa­bathia and Robertson work­ing the first seven in­nings, and Gard­ner break­ing the In­di­ans’ will in the ninth.

He came to bat with two on and two outs, the Yan­kees ahead by a run, and had to face Cody Allen, the In­di­ans’ star closer. Gard­ner had al­ready done plenty in Game 5, in­clud­ing a sin­gle ahead of Didi Gre­go­rius’s sec­ond home run. But he was ready to duel Allen, to knife the heart from the de­fend­ing AL champs.

The bat­ter be­hind Gard­ner, Aaron Judge, had looked as ane­mic in the first eight in­nings as he did in his brief trial late last sea­son, with four strike­outs. But Gard­ner was con­vinced that Judge’s pres­ence meant he would keep see­ing fast­balls, and he knew that if he sur­vived long enough, he could hit one.

“It’s an eter­nity,” said Gard­ner, who com­pli­mented Allen’s stuff. “I fouled off a re­ally good break­ing ball, maybe the sev­enth or eighth pitch, and af­ter that I fig­ured he would stay with the fast­ball be­cause I’ve got the big guy on deck be­hind me.”

On the 12th pitch, Gard­ner lashed a sin­gle to right. No team had ever struck out as many times as the Yan­kees did on Wed­nes­day (16) and still won a nine-in­ning post­sea­son game. But Gard­ner showed the value of putting the ball in play: Not only did Aaron Hicks score, but so did Todd Fra­zier, on an over­throw.

This time, fac­ing elim­i­na­tion in Cleve­land, Aroldis Chap­man held the three-run lead. He blew that ad­van­tage in Game 7 of the World Se­ries for the Chicago Cubs last Novem­ber, but re­cov­ered to earn the vic­tory in his last game for them.

Chap­man soon be­came the Yan­kees’ win­ter ex­trav­a­gance, sign­ing the rich­est deal on record for a closer – five years, $86-mil­lion (U.S.) – to re­turn to the club that had traded him to Chicago. He has been over­whelm­ing this post­sea­son, with 13 strike­outs in 62⁄3 score­less in­nings. He rec­og­nizes some traits in the Yan­kees that he saw in the Cubs last fall.

“There’s a cou­ple of things that are sim­i­lar; there are a lot of young play­ers here and peo­ple get along very well here in this club­house,” Chap­man said through an in­ter­preter, as catcher Gary Sanchez sprayed him with Cham­pagne. “And the same as last year with the Cubs, it was a fun club­house to be a part of. What I see here is every­body gets along, and every­body un­der­stands what kind of job they need to do.”

These days it is Robertson’s job to work mul­ti­ple in­nings in mid­dle re­lief, and he has thrived. When Dellin Be­tances strug­gled in Game 4, it was Tommy Kahnle’s job to earn his first save of the sea­son – and he did.

Robertson and Kahnle ar­rived with Fra­zier from the Chicago White Sox in a trade for prospects in July. So did starter Sonny Gray, from the Oak­land Ath­let­ics. All but Fra­zier are un­der team con­trol for next year. Gen­eral man­ager Brian Cash­man, who had ag­gres­sively built prospect in­ven­tory, was thrilled to give some away.

“You’re al­ways hop­ing you’re in a po­si­tion to do that,” Cash­man said. “You want your team to force you to do some­thing.”

When he did, a cham­pi­onship – not just a fun lit­tle sea­son of progress – sud­denly seemed re­al­is­tic. Des­ig­nated hit­ter Matt Hol­l­i­day, a veteran of three World Se­ries, un­der­stood the im­pact of those moves.

“When you add Kahnle and David Robertson to a bullpen that’s al­ready very strong,” Hol­l­i­day said, “that was when I thought, ‘We have a real chance to win the World Se­ries.’ ”

Af­ter the Min­nesota Twins chased Luis Sev­erino af­ter one out of the wild-card game, Chad Green led a ruth­less dis­play of bullpen force. The Yan­kees ex­pected much bet­ter of Sev­erino in that game – he was an all-star af­ter go­ing 0-8 as a starter last sea­son – but the re­liev­ers over­came his fail­ure. Then he dom­i­nated Cleve­land six days later.

For the In­di­ans on Wed­nes­day, it was a swift and bru­tal end­ing, an un­lucky 13th trip to the post­sea­son for a team that has not won a ti­tle since 1948. What if Judge were not 6 foot 7 inches, and had not caught Fran­cisco Lin­dor’s would-be homer in a 1-0 Game 3 loss? What if Corey Klu­ber had not worn down (“He’s fight­ing a lot,” man­ager Terry Fran­cona con­ceded) and twice pitched so poorly?

“I thought that they had an edge that couldn’t be de­feated,” Hall of Famer Reg­gie Jack­son, a Yan­kees spe­cial ad­viser, said of the In­di­ans. “I re­ally thought they would be so hard to beat, and I never thought this guy would pitch two bad games. I never thought he’d pitch twice like he did.”

Yet Jack­son knows how quickly scripts can flip in Oc­to­ber. In the 1972 ALCS, with Oak­land, Jack­son tore his ham­string to end his sea­son. An un­her­alded team­mate, Gene Te­nace, played his role to per­fec­tion in the World Se­ries, slam­ming four home runs to lead the A’s to the first of three con­sec­u­tive ti­tles.

A gen­er­a­tion later, the Yan­kees matched that feat with a home­grown core of Bernie Wil­liams, Derek Jeter, Mar­i­ano Rivera, Andy Pet­titte and Jorge Posada. In 1995, those play­ers were all in Seat­tle for a de­ci­sive fifth game of an­other di­vi­sion se­ries. The Yan­kees lost, but they built off that de­feat to start a dy­nasty.

The new home­grown stars – Judge, Sanchez, Sev­erino, Greg Bird – faced the same out­come on Wed­nes­day. Had it hap­pened, no ra­tio­nal fan could have switched off the TV and called the sea­son a fail­ure. Just mak­ing it this far would have been an achieve­ment.

But the Yan­kees won, and it feels like the start of some­thing.

“We hope so, but sports can change things,” Cash­man said. “In­juries, there’s a lot of things. That’s why you’ve got to grasp the moment when it comes around.”

He men­tioned the bat­tered Mets and his favourite NFL fran­chise, the win­less New York Gi­ants. Nei­ther team ex­pected to flop.

“There’s no guar­an­tee,” Cash­man said. “I mean, we do be­lieve we’re build­ing on some­thing. But we’re not go­ing to sit here and as­sume that the next three to five years are go­ing to be per­fect. We’ve got to re­in­force it every which way we can, be­cause storm clouds are al­ways brew­ing. That’s the prob­lem with sports – you can never guar­an­tee any­thing.”

The prob­lem with sports is also the beauty of it. This was not sup­posed to be the Yan­kees’ year, yet here they are, all grown up in a hurry. They might as well keep win­ning.

“That’s what I’ve told these guys: ‘This is what it’s all about, this is the rea­son we play,’” Gard­ner said. “We’re not ready to go home yet.”

GREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES

The New York Yan­kees cel­e­brate in the locker room af­ter their 5-2 ALDS-clinch­ing win over the In­di­ans at Pro­gres­sive Field in Cleve­land on Wed­nes­day evening.

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