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.

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