NEW YORK — The old man, gone nine years now, would be proud. This was the night his heir became worthy. This was the night the Yankees awoke what the wrecking ball had stilled.
Yankee Stadium the younger, cursed from birth by dining clubs, a concrete moat with seats pushed too far from what people pay to see, at last overcame its deficiencies and became a bona fide player Tuesday night in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. As New York third baseman Todd Frazier said about playing at home, “I tell people it’s like we start the game up 1–0.”
Watching the Yankees, down 4–0 and nine outs from facing protagonist Dallas Keuchel in an elimination game, storm to victory with six runs before the Houston Astros could get even five outs was like watching an unstoppable force of nature. With every pitch the crowd grew louder, the at-bats for the Yankees grew fiercer, and air in the windpipes of the Astros grew tighter.
“There’s no doubt the crowd had an effect on the game,” Astros DH Carlos Beltran said. “This place is loud, same as it was in Houston.”
Yankee Stadium was loud? Such a compliment rarely has been heard from a monolith that often resembles a government bank building more than the gritty ballyard it replaced. But something has happened here in the past two months. The fans have come to fall in love with this team all over again. Maybe it’s because of the team’s homegrown young stars and the idea that this is the rarest kind of success you ever get with the Yankees: unexpected success.
But let there be no doubt now that homefield for New York is again a thrilling, even dangerous, hostile kind of advantage. During Game 4, a grounds crew member stationed in the Astros bullpen needed medical attention after being hit by a flying beer bottle.
Since Sept. 2, the Yankees are 18–3 in their giant cauldron, while out-homering the visiting fodder, 45–17.
What happened in a 12-batter span last night was throwback stuff. It was the most this place ever looked like the old one, the kind of place that made playoff baseball for visiting managers such as Bruce Bochy, Bob Brenly, Lou Piniella and Grady Little feel like they were bit players in a Gilligan’s Island script. No matter how good you felt or how big your lead—no matter how close that Coast Guard cutter came to shore—you knew how every episode was ending; you were not getting rescued. Inevitability reigned.
Back in 2001, Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling famously shrugged off such power of place by saying dismissively, “Mystique and Aura are dancers at a club.” The Yankees promptly stole three World Series wins from the Diamondbacks, including two pulled out after they were down to their last strike, prompting Arizona first baseman Mark Grace to say while packing his bags, “Let’s hurry up and get out of this damned place.”
Schilling’s dismissive comment led to a perfect rejoinder from one of the stadium’s faithful during those three wins. Somebody hung a sign from the upper deck, which would literally rock in the most chaotic of times, that said, “Mystique and Aura. Appearing Nightly.”
The new yard doesn’t sway and it’s too new to book stars like Mystique and Aura. But it is growing in its powers of persuasion. On the first day this park opened, for a game against Cleveland back in 2009, Indians infielder Mark DeRosa shook his head and said, “They lost something. In the old place if you were a visitor and things started to turn against you, you felt the noise and the people coming down on you like they were right on top of you. It was intimidating. This isn’t like that.”
Finally, the new place grew fangs. You could tell by how both the Yankees and Astros responded to the growing noise in a cascade of events that was as unstoppable and inevitable as a waterfall. New York hitters kept sharpening the edge of their ferocious at-bats. Houston, on the mound and in the field, withered, one nervous pitch and play after another. You could see their sweat all the way from the bleachers.
It began, of course, with the team’s center of gravity, Aaron Judge, with the Yankees down 4–0, demolishing a curveball from Lance McCullers for a titanic home run to centerfield. McCullers had been brilliant. For weeks, he said, he has “been telling anybody with ears” that he should be making regular turns in the rotation, though Houston slow-played him because of back soreness and arm fatigue.
Until that pitch the Yankees could not touch McCullers’ curveball. He had thrown 43 of them—54% of his pitches—without yielding a hit on one of his hooks. But one hanging curveball and manager A.J. Hinch couldn’t wait to get him out of the game in favor of Chris Devenski.
“He was throwing the ball great at the end of his outing,” Hinch said of McCullers, “and we got him out after the one pitch. We had the pocket for Devenski with the two lefthanded hitting guys.”
Nothing will make a manager look worse than when he goes to a bullpen that has few good options. See Maddon, Joe, NLCS Game 2. The problem with pulling McCullers and the hook that terrorized the Yankees was that he started the bullpen carousel early, without anyone who looked like they could stand up to the Yankee Stadium heat.
In the fateful 12-batter sequence, Hinch would use four pitchers—McCullers, Devenski, Joe Musgrove and Ken Giles. They would throw 35 pitches and get only two swings and misses, none on pitches out of the zone. The Yankees fished for only one pitch that was not in the zone.
“They were very patient at the plate,” Giles said. “They stayed off some good pitches. It wasn’t because we were unraveling as much as it was they were slowly driving us into the ground.”
The “pocket” for Devenski and his changeup collapsed. Hinch wanted him for the sequence of lefthanded Didi Gregorius, righthanded Gary Sanchez and lefthanded Greg Bird. That sequence went triple-sac fly-walk, upon which Hinch, seeing his bullpen plans blow up, pulled the shaken Devenski.
He summoned Musgrove, who gave him almost no length as well. The Astros crumbled in the eighth inning. Musgrove immediately put the tying runs on base by yielding singles to Frazier, who has been a pest this entire postseason, and forgotten soldier Chase Headley.
Headley should have been erased on principle alone after he fell down smack in the middle of the basepath between first and second base. But the Astros completely botched a rundown play on Headley. Shortstop Carlos Correa caught a relay throw from leftfielder Marwin Gonzalez and blindly wheeled and fired all the way to first.
“I heard ‘One! One!’” Correa said.
The wiser, more experienced play was to pull the ball down and run directly at Headley. The length of the throw allowed Headley to break toward second. First baseman Yuri Gurriel smartly charged the throw and relayed it to second, where second baseman Jose Altuve made a bonehead play. Altuve backed away from the base, so that when he caught it, he was too far away to apply a tag in time.
“Me, I’m 5’ 5”,” Altuve said. “Headley is six-something. He blocked me and I had to step back to catch the ball. If I didn’t do it, I don’t think I catch that ball.”
But by backing away, Altuve lost the sure out. The same team that executed an exquisite relay play to help win Game 2 at home could not have blown this one any worse than if it had been blindfolded. Maybe it was the power of the place again. The nuttiness of the play—the obviousness that the Yankees got away with something and the Astros sloppily enabled it—only emboldened a crowd that smelled blood in the water.
“The at-bat that got it going was the Headley at-bat,” said Astros centerfielder George Springer. “That’s when the place got loud and got behind them.”
Hinch now brought in his closer, Giles, much to the unsaid delight of the Yankees. New York saw him in Game 1, and took note of all the hanging sliders with which Giles got away. He was no better this time, and got away with less.
Brett Gardner knocked in one run with a groundout, and Judge smoked a 2–2 slider off the wall for a double to tie the game.
“He must have been looking for it,” Giles said.
When Gregorius poked a grounder toward the left side, Judge smartly stayed at second base as Correa moved for it. Inexplicably, Correa didn’t dive for the ball, a moment reminiscent of Cameron Maybin inexplicably pulling up on a catchable flyball in Game 3. Correa merely reached with a backhand and missed it. Judge crossed to third. Those 90 feet are too important for an infielder not to leave his feet to deny the advance and keep the go-ahead run off third base with fewer than two outs. But Correa’s passive play allowed Judge to move to third.
Sanchez batted next, and when Giles grooved a 2-0 fastball—the best pitch Sanchez has seen in a week—Sanchez blistered it into the rightfield gap for a double that sent home the two runs to put New York ahead.
Twelve batters, four pitchers, 35 pitches, just one New York swing on a pitch out of the strike zone. The Astros crumbled under the weight of the confident Yankees at-bats and the noise that engulfed them. They have played two jittery games here, and their bullpen options are inferior to what is at the disposal of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who received two shutdown innings from Chad Green.
The Yankees are 5–0 in their ballpark this postseason. On the year they are 51–20 at home when they hit a home run. They look and act unbeatable with forces seen and unseen behind them. At this rate, the superpowers of Keuchel, Houston’s Game 5 starter and the most effective pitcher against the Yankees in the history of the franchise, will be severely tested Wednesday night.
“Every home game has been special,” said Girardi, who once shook the old place to its creaky bones with his 1996 World Series triple off Greg Maddux. “I just feel like the fans are back. And I see things that I haven’t seen in a while and it reminds me a lot of when I was playing here. So it’s been fun to watch.”
The Astros were nine outs away from getting the ball to a Keuchel clincher with four runs to spare, then five outs with one run to spare. But it was too much for them to endure—the noise, the swelling inevitability, the speeding up of events … they wound up as so many teams do in the visiting clubhouse in the Bronx this time of year. They stood there in the artificial light trying the best they could to put on a brave face, to hide the shock of an opportunity lost, to say nothing of the nerves lost. Such are the times when clichés become a man’s pillow on which to rest. There’s always tomorrow. We’ll bounce back. We’ll be ready the next game.
The problem now for Houston is where the next game is being played. Houston is up against not only the Yankees, but also their ballpark’s newly found powers of place.