- The supposed-rebuilding Yankees treated the AL Wild Card Game as routine as their dugout antics.
NEW YORK — The celebration lasted barely 10 minutes. Back in April—when wunderkind catcher Gary Sánchez went down with a strained right biceps, when a giant prospect named Aaron Judge was slugging .200, when Opening Day starter Masahiro Tanaka had an 11.74 ERA, when publications such as this one were picking them to finish 83–79—it would have been hard to believe that the Yankees would be here, winning the AL Wild Card Game. It would have been harder to believe that they’re not terribly excited about it.
Sure, they doused each other in Champagne after Sánchez squeezed the final out of their 8–4 win over the Twins. They tossed back Miller Lites. But the overwhelming feeling in a clubhouse that hadn’t won a playoff series since 2012 was one of sobriety.
“We’re not done,” leftfielder Brett Gardner and DH Chase Headley and rightfielder Judge each said in the moments after the win. The plastic sheeting protecting their lockers came down 20 minutes after the last pitch. Most everyone was showered and dressed half an hour after that. The conversation had already turned to the Indians, who await in Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday.
That’s the Yankees, right? All business, no facial hair, allergic to interesting quotes, the Patriots of Major League Baseball. Even this team, the most likable group of Bronx Bombers in perhaps two decades, limits its intrigue to the thumbs-downs and fake dugout press conferences with which it celebrates big hits. “Pride. Passion. Pinstripes,” the TV commercials repeat joylessly. Yankee Stadium nearly shook with MVP chants after Judge hit a fourth-inning rocket into the leftfield stands for his first October home run after 52 of them in the regular season; Judge says he did not hear them.
Asked before the game what would constitute a successful season for a team no one expected to make it even this far, manager Joe Girardi eschewed the platitudes we have come to expect about development and trust in process.
“Well, I think that's for everyone else to determine,” he said. “When you lose in a playoff game and you don't advance to the next round, it's very difficult for me.
“So my opinion might be different than someone else's. I put the uniform on to win the World Series. That's why I put the uniform on, and that's my goal. Some people might look at it different. Have we had some players that have had some great years and done some great things? Absolutely, and the growth has been tremendous in our young players.
“But you put all this work in to win, and there's only one team that's going to be happy.”
That’s a lot of pressure to put on such an inexperienced roster—I put the uniform on to win the World Series—and it’s not hard to imagine the weight of it overwhelming them. After all, 11 of the 25 players in uniform tonight are playing under the lights for the first time.
But that’s not exactly true. The Yankees were in a pennant race all year; it took the Red Sox until Game 161 to wrest the division away. One hundred twelve of New York’s games were available on national TV.
“In New York, you get used to [the cameras],” says Headley, “Or you move on real quick.”
In some way these teams entered the night in similar positions. Both were at least a year ahead of schedule—the Yankees’ prospects were not expected to make an impact before about 2018; Minnesota is the first team in history to make the playoffs a year after losing at least 100 games. Both are stocked with young, athletic hitters and a pitching staff that still awaits the arrival of the cavalry. Both have savvy front offices and bright futures. But as the Twins marveled at the media crush the postseason brings, the Yankees barely noticed. Tonight was not just Minnesota’s first national broadcast of the season: It was actually just their 151st televised game. Yes, the Twins played a dozen games this season that their fans had to follow on the radio. For them, this experience was awe-inspiring. For the Yankees, it was Tuesday.
Even when Minnesota knocked New York starter Luis Severino out of the game after one out, the heart rates in the Yankees’ dugout stayed steady. What was he thinking after that first inning, someone asked Judge. He shrugged. “Three-oh? We’ve got some work to do.” They tied the game a few minutes later, then never seemed out of it again. Of course their first three hitters combined to go 4–8. Of course the bullpen strung together 8 2/3 innings of one-run ball, highlighted by the longest outing—eight outs—of righty David Robertson’s career. This is how it was supposed to play out. The Yankees finished six games ahead of the Twins, tied for the largest gap between first and second wild-card teams since this playoff format began in 2012. New York was the better team, and it played like it. That’s the Yankees.
Before the game the Twins spoke in hypotheticals—“hopefully,” they said over and over. They talked about enjoying the experience and how proud they were to have come this far. “We’ll see what happens,” second baseman Brian Dozier said 30 hours before first pitch. The Yankees were considerably less impressed. “I do plan on winning the game,” Gardner said.
And in the end, that was the difference. The Twins wanted to win on Tuesday. The Yankees expected to.