Tag: 2019 ALCS Page 1 of 6

Requiem for the Next Man Up

The motto of a team from the past. (Steven Tydings)

The Yankees lost a chance to reach a World Series they could have won. Goodness, that’s still hurts to write.

Matt already summed it up in one word yesterday: Almost. The Yankees almost danced on a razor’s edge and sneaked past the best team in baseball using DJ LeMahieu, guile and their bullpen. But they didn’t and that’s why I’m writing a post mortem for the Yankees’ season instead of talking about how well the team matches up with the Nationals.

Plenty went wrong in that ALCS. We, unfortunately, will cover that from front to back in the coming days and weeks. (We’ll also have everything else, too, from season reviews to free agency previews to wild, off-the-rails features that we thought up while bored this summer. Get excited.)

But the Yankees came up short in a season where they could have done so at just about every turn. From the open of Spring Training on, they were shorthanded. A back injury here, a Tommy John recovery there and a mysterious shoulder ailment stretching to September.

Still, there was the Next Man Up. No one player fully embodied that spirit as it was truly a collective in the Bronx. Mike Tauchman, Gio Urshela and Cameron Maybin came out of nowhere for career-redefining seasons. DJ LeMahieu turned into more than just a superutility player. Mike Ford took just about every pitcher deep for a month straight.

It’s going to be remarkable 10 days from now and 10 years from now that the 2019 Bombers recovered from significant injuries to Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, Miguel Andújar, Luis Severino, Edwin Encarnación, Luke Voit, Didi Gregorius and Gary Sánchez, just to name a few, and still won the American League East running away. That’s an all-time accomplishment, clinched into the record books with their franchise-best home run total and franchise-worst injured list totals.

Remember when Nestor Cortes Jr. and a wad of gum held together a rotation spot for months on end? That doesn’t happen for a normal, run-of-the-mill team. Only a team with tremendous depth to fill in for its already strong depth and a dash of the spectacular could accomplish something like the 2019 Yankees did, and that shouldn’t be forgotten at the end of it all.

Holding up the Next Man Up were five arms that remained steadier than the rest, the five men at the back of the bullpen. Though Chad Green had a lackluster April, the five horsemen were nails from there on out. There was no need for a Next Man in the bullpen…

… Until there was a need at the worst moment. Five became four and four became exhausted. The offense cratered in a way all-together foreign to the rest of the season’s body of work. It was, and I quote, not what you want.

Still, the Next Man Up came back around. After months of the Yankees patching center field for Aaron Hicks, Hicks relieved his struggling pals with the biggest hit of the season to that point, injecting the team with new life. When mistakes added up to the team being two outs from defeat, LeMahieu wiped the slate clean with a nearly-unforgettable blast.

Yet there’s nothing to wipe away that hanging slider. That’s permanent. It’s going to be etched in the fanbase’s collective psyche like 2001, 2004 and just after midnight on Oct. 13, 2012. Baseball once again hoodwinked and schemed to make us believe fully that this was it — this was our year — and erased doubt until the Astros walked off with the pennant. That sting of failure, deserved or not, hangs over everything for now.

It’s gonna be an offseason of deep stares into the mirror, sighs and perhaps a tearful goodbye to a fan favorite or two. On this site, season reviews will turn into season previews and we’ll once again believe a little too strongly in the catharsis of Opening Day.

But before anyone can move on, it’s time to appreciate what the Yankees’ had, even if it came up short. The Next Man Up doesn’t get a ring, but that doesn’t deprive him of accomplishment and a grip on our memories, one win over the Orioles, comeback against the Rays and Maybin hug at a time.

DJ LeMahieu joins Alfonso Soriano in forgotten homer history

I yelped.

The Yankees had been dead for about an hour, give or take a double play, and now was just the formality, the part where Roberto Osuna put the finishing touches on the ALCS.

DJ LeMahieu wasn’t playing that game. Fighting off pitch after pitch, he worked the count and got a pitch to drive. The result? The most important home run of his career, a game-tying two-run shot to knot ALCS Game 6 with the Yankees down to their final two outs.

Let’s rewatch it for old time’s sake:

Like many of you, I jumped up and down. Did that really happen, I thought. With new life for the Bombers, your mind instantly turns to what could be, a chance to actually topple the juggernaut Astros in their own building.

Here’s the thing: LeMahieu’s spot in history was robbed mere minutes later by Jose Altuve’s series-ending blast. Instead of a moment for the pantheon of Yankees’ history, LeMahieu instead will have to settle for a footnote to another team’s signature highlight.

It was just about the perfect homer, too. Not an elegant, no-doubt blast like Altuve. Instead, it was a ball teetering in your mind between whether it would stay in play in Houston’s diminutive right field.

LeMahieu’s reaction was muted, but the iconic photo would have been George Springer sprawled out over the fence while trying to steal the ball, coming juuuuust short of the crowd-hushing home run.

So close.

Yet the Yankees didn’t take the lead, merely tied it, and that left the door open for Altuve to finish things in style. That’s not LeMahieu’s fault; He was the Yankees’ most consistent hitter all regular season and into the postseason as well. The prototypical leadoff hitter.

Even in the positive moments we’ll remember from this postseason, LeMahieu gets overshadowed. His first home run in ALDS Game 1 came sandwiched between Gleyber Torres’ go-ahead double and Brett Gardner’s second-deck tater. LeMahieu’s solo shot to tie ALCS Game 5 was forgotten four batters later when Aaron Hicks hit one to the literal sticks.

LeMahieu has company in possessing an earth-shattering blast turned trivia question. Alfonso Soriano came through with two of the most clutch hits in Yankees history during the 2001 World Series. Soriano hit a walk-off single to end the Yankees Classic Game 5 and homered off Curt Schilling to put the Bombers ahead in Game 7.

Soriano’s place in history was all but assured — Roger Clemens had World Series MVP on lock, but the homer would live on — until fate, an errant throw and a bloop single conspired to erase that home run and give the D-backs the series.

After a replacement level 2001, Soriano broke out in 2002 as he nearly joined the 40-40 club and took over as one of the Yankees’ best hitters. LeMahieu doesn’t need to break out because 2019 was his moment, likely the peak season for the tight-lipped infielder who anchored the Bombers’ lineup.

LeMahieu’s season won’t be forgotten any time soon. The under-the-radar signing made himself indispensable and a borderline MVP candidate in the Bronx. He was clutch from the start with his impressive numbers with the bases loaded, as well as two walk-off hits during the season, and his unwavering focus steadied him for a strong October.

That being said, despite hitting one of the most dramatic home runs possible, LeMahieu’s standout moment was all for naught. Its memory will remain enclosed in the pain of watching Altuve blast an Aroldis Chapman slider into smithereens and thus can’t have the spotlight to itself. Baseball has room for only one victor and to that team goes both the spoils and the moments staked into history.

CC Sabathia gave the Yankees everything he had

CC Sabathia gave it his all.

The Yankees’ heart and soul, the man who has thrown more than 2,000 innings for the team in the last 11 years, came back for a ring. Sabathia knew the end was nigh. His knee has been barking about a replacement and wouldn’t shut up. There were no more revivals after 2019.

And that appeared to reach an inglorious end in Game 4. In the most heartbreaking injury of a season filled with them, Sabathia threw a 1-1 pitch to Aledmys Diaz in the eighth inning Thursday night and was removed from the game following a warmup pitch. As Aaron Boone said after the game, it was his shoulder that forced his exit, not the ailing knee in a cruel twist of irony.

Rare is the player who gets to go out on his own terms, yet Sabathia is about as close as they come. He got to pitch a final season in New York, play in the cap he’ll likely don in the Hall of Fame and pursue a second World Series title on a team with realistic hopes.

This season, however, hardly went to script. The veteran lefty started the year on the injured list thanks to regular knee maintenance and the knee roared back to give Sabathia 10-out-of-10 pain on too many occasions. When he was able to pitch, somehow grinding his way through 107 1/3 regular season innings.

Even with the joy of baseball, not to mention the monetary compensenation that comes with it, Sabathia had to have been tested thoughout this season. In 2015, he discovered a knee brace that made him able to pitch with his degenerative knee condition, but there was still that condition, a constant presence in his life for too long. His ability to persevere while remaining an undeniable positive in the clubhouse displays why he’s worthy of admiration.

It’s also what makes Thursday night’s exit so difficult. Sabathia coming off distraught after a ball in a loss. His shoulder issues cropped up earlier in the season and nearly derailed his postseason, but if he were to exit with injury in his final appearance, one would have assumed it’d be the knee giving out once more.

CC’s pain walking off the mound was also the fan’s and his teammates’ pain. The crowd gave him an ovation through the tears, but the rest of the game was a slog with errors and uncharacteristic play, with a team devastated by the exit of its leader. It’s not an excuse, but it’s hard to imagine trying to play a high-stakes game from a significant deficit while shoving thoughts of Sabathia’s emotional exit from their mind.

When you really think about it, when you look beyond what appears to be his final pitches, you can see that Sabathia did get to exit on his terms. He got to pitch in the postseason one last time. Not in the World Series, but pitching against the Astros in the ALCS is as close as you get.

When I think of CC’s end on the field, I’ll think of him coming in as a LOOGY against Michael Brantley in the 10th inning of Game 2, getting the only man he faced and walking off to smiles and laughter across the infield. That was his opportunity to contribute in a high leverage spot, and he did.

When I think of CC’s end on the field, I’ll remember him shutting down the Rays in June, think of him cursing up a storm on R2C2, of him shutting out the White Sox in his season debut.

I’ll think of Sabathia’s countless postseason moments. His World Series title, his first start at the Stadium, his 2012 and 2017 ALDS performances. There’s so much more to Sabathia than his final game.

It’s worth going back to his initial press conference in New York after signing for seven years in the Bronx. That first contract came with an opt out after Year 3 in case he and his wife didn’t take to New York. But Sabathia also related a story of his first experiences after signing.

“Me and my wife were out house hunting yesterday and we were looking for a place and we were walking through a house and the guy says, ‘What team do you play for?'” Sabathia said. “I said the Yankees and it kind of gave me a chill. It gives me a chill right now just saying that, putting on this hat and being here.”

Those same chills he experienced are the same as the ones everyone got watching him do his thing. Watching him shut down the Red Sox or Orioles. Watching him tell the Rays what’s up (in so many words).

Later in that same introductory press conference, Sabathia was asked questions about why New York and whether he could handle the scrutiny there rather than go out west, where he grew up and where the media wouldn’t be nearly as tough.

His answer says it all.

“Coming here and being in the city and seeing the way people receive me, I definitely think I made the right choice.”

You did, CC. Thanks for everything.

Tanaka Time, and what the Yankees need in Game 4

2017 Game 5 was magical. (MLB Gifs)

With a rainout pinning the Yankees’ hopes to winning three games in four days against the Astros, one might think they’ll have to veer off-script. Find a new way to win.

Though coming two years apart, the Bombers’ past two postseason wins against the Astros provide a blueprint for what they need in order to win Game 4 and subsequent games in the series.

It all starts and ends with Masahiro Tanaka. Despite a lackluster regular season in which he had to contend with a disappearing splitter from his repertoire, the veteran right-hander turned his year around at the exact right time, just as he did in 2017 and ’18.

You’ve surely seen the stats by now. Tanaka the only pitcher in MLB history to allow two or fewer runs in each of his first seven postseason starts, surpassing a mark set by Sandy Koufax. His postseason ERA is in the top four all-time.

The Yankees are now a far cry from where they were going into the postseason, when Aaron Boone said James Paxton might be the only starter they use traditionally. Now, Tanaka and Paxton have to take full starts with the bullpen up against it in a four-games-in-four-days stretch.

Luckily, we’ve seen how Tanaka can handle this offense. He did it twice in the regular season, albeit with few swings and misses and the aforementioned lackluster splitter, but he dominated Game 1 of the ALCS. Go back two years, and he shut out a similar offense for seven innings in the Bronx. If he can somehow repeat the performance from earlier this series, Boone would have to let him go further into the game.

But Boone can’t let him go deep regardless of his performance. If Tanaka’s not on his A-game, then Boone has to pull him earlier and deal with the bullpen-related consequences later. Game 4 is that much of a must-win.

Still, the Yankees need length and quality length at that from Tanaka. A three-inning start could still lead to a win, but the bullpen game looming in Game 6 becomes dicey at best.

“We’re going to have to get some innings out of our starters, there’s no question about it,” Boone said Wednesday. “So hopefully — obviously Masa is coming off a real good start in Game 1 where he was able to give us six innings. So between him and Paxton these next two days, they’re going to need to give us some innings if we’re going to be successful.

“But again, you’re kind of — we’ve got to go out and win a game. So I’ll be aggressive in that sense but we do have to get some bulk innings out of some people, there’s no question.”

Beyond the pitching, the offense needs to wake up. Three runs in two games somehow worked for the Astros to earn a split in Game 1 and 2 in Houston, but it’s been and will be untenable for the Yankees. This has never been a team that strives to win 2-1 games, even with the baseball itself potentially producing fewer home runs.

What the team could really use is a good ole fashioned blowout, something the Astros aren’t likely to allow. A blowout means a chance to rest your top relievers and save them for the essential innings in games to come.

But the offense needs to score anyway. Giancarlo Stanton’s return would give the Yankees’ a tremendous boost, and the extra off day makes that a more realistic possibility. The team needs more depth in its lineup than Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres working good at-bats, though that’s a strong base.

With or without Stanton, the team will need more from the other six players who started in Game 3 other than the aforementioned trio. Aaron Hicks worked strong at-bats after two months off, but the team could use more proper aggression from Edwin Encarnacion and a slump-busted Gary Sanchez, just to name an option or two.

Down 2-1 to Houston, the Yankees are in an unenviable spot. They still have a chance to wrest control of this series, even without an off-day, and it starts with Tanaka and Game 4.

ALCS Game 4 postponed

As expected, tonight’s Game 4 has been postponed. The incoming storm will bring plenty of rain tonight and there was simply no way this game would have been played.

Game 4 will be played tomorrow at 8:08pm. Friday is no longer an off day; Game 5 will be played at 7:08pm at Yankee Stadium. That means no travel day between Game 5 in the Bronx and Game 6 in Houston.

If you had tickets to today’s originally scheduled game, they’re valid for tomorrow (Thursday). And if you had tickets for what was supposed to be Game 5 tomorrow, those are now good for Friday night.

This helps the Yankees a bit as they can avoid JA Happ until Saturday, though they probably would go with a bullpen game if the series was in the Astros favor, 3-2. However, it also means four straight games without a day off, which could be tough on a team so bullpen-reliant. Houston also benefits because they can stave off their bullpen game until Saturday as well, though they could face the same relief issues the Yankees do.

Tomorrow, Masahiro Tanaka and Zack Greinke can start on full rest. Friday, James Paxton and Justin Verlander can go full tilt as well. Houston could hold off on Verlander until Game 6 if they’d like, too. The Yankees almost certainly will wait as long as possible to go the Happ/bullpen route.

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