Ahead of schedule, Yanks set to open ALCS
Tanaka gets call against Astros tonight
CLEVELAND – 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 New York 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. Masahiro Tanaka will start Game One tonight against the Astros while Dallas Keuchel goes for Houston (8 p.m., FS1).
The Mets have fallen apart. The Yankees have under-promised and overdelivered. They are a pinstriped underdog in the year of the solar eclipse.
With four more victories, the Yankees would advance to the World Series for the first time since winning it eight years ago.
David 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 Five, including a single ahead of Didi Gregorius’ 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 nineinning 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 errant throw.
This time, facing elimination in Cleveland, Aroldis Chapman held the three-run lead. He blew that advantage in Game Seven 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 ever for a closer (five years, $86 million) to return to the club that had traded him to Chicago.