Three Thoughts on Yankees' Astro-Nomical ALCS Game 4 Comeback

Facing a 4-0 deficit and a 3-1 series disadvantage, the Yankees mounted an improbably come-from-behind victory thanks to clutch hitting and expert managing.
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After a wild Game 4, and a blown four-run lead, the Yankees and Astros are tied 2-2 in the ALCS. Masahiro Tanaka and Dallas Keuchel duel again Wednesday afternoon; a few quick thoughts before then on the Bombers’ 6-4 victory Tuesday night in the Bronx:

AN ASTRO-NOMICAL MELTDOWN! I figured, during the sixth inning, that the story of Tuesday night’s game would be how one team’s bullpen engineered a loss. But I thought that team would be the Yankees, because shutdown setup man David Robertson allowed three men (two inherited) to score on a Yulieski Gurriel double that provided the first three runs of Game 4. 

And then, in the seventh, A.J. Hinch handed the game to his bullpen. Chernobyl ensued. 

Chris Devenski allowed a triple, a sac fly, and a walk. He retired one man. Joe Musgrove finished the inning without incident; Houston still had a 4-2 lead. But to start the eighth Musgrove allowed back-to-back singles, which resulted in men on second and third because of a Jose Altuve positioning miscue. Closer Ken Giles came in and got Brett Gardner to ground out. Then Aaron Judge ripped a double to the left-field wall, scoring the tying run. Didi Gregorius then singled, moving Judge to third. Gary Sanchez capped things with a two-run double to center. The Yankees would leave the bases loaded in the eighth, and still they had a 6-4 lead. Aroldis Chapman slammed the door in the ninth.

There was an argument floating around before the series that the Astros’ bullpen, while not quite Yankee-level, wouldn’t likely doom them. After all, they would be sending their surplus of capable starters to the pen to reinforce a unit that had been about average, run-prevention-wise, during the season (a 4.27 ERA, 16th in baseball). What do we make of that argument now? 

In initially low-scoring games, when starters can’t simply pass the ball off to the closer, the bullpen’s relative shortcomings matter a great deal. In Games 1, 2, and 4, the Astros allowed eight runs to the Yankees. In those games, starters pitched 22 innings and allowed two runs. The relievers pitched four innings and allowed the other six.

On Wednesday, expect Hinch to call upon Dallas Keuchel to pitch until his arm falls off, and maybe a little more after that. He doesn’t have a better option.


OK, MCCULLERS, WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? The pitching story of this game should have been Houston starter Lance McCullers Jr. The last time he went six innings or more was June 8. The last time he held an opponent to one run or less was the start after that one, on June 24. McCullers, nagged by injuries including “arm fatigue” and back problems, made eight more starts the rest of the season. He had an 8.03 ERA; hitters tattooed him, with a .329/.412/.475 batting line; the Astros went 1-7 in those outings. When he was called upon for three innings of mopup relief in Game 3 of the ALDS against Boston, he allowed five men to reach base, three of whom scored. 

His ALCS task would be more daunting; the Yankees had the AL’s best non-Astros scoring offense, and he would be starting the game in front of a bullpen in which manager A.J. Hinch possessed approximately zero faith. (After Game 4, you can’t really wonder why.) And again he’d be pitching on the road, where he possesses a career ERA twice his home split.

So naturally McCullers threw six-plus innings of one-run ball. He leaned heavily on his curveball—his is a killer; haven’t you heard?—summoning it for 43 of his 81 pitches, inducing a wealth of weak contact. He struck out only three, but starting the seventh he had allowed only two singles and two walks. (That said, the seventh-inning Aaron Judge homer that chased McCullers came on a first-pitch curveball. Judge had been struck out on a curve earlier Tuesday night. He got on his knees and prayed he, uh, wouldn’t get fooled again.)

That McCullers looked again like the All-Star he was at midseason is good news for Houston; the team will have no great jitters sending him to the mound in the World Series should they finish off the Yankees. But finishing off the Yankees is a tougher order than it looked in the sixth inning of Game 4.

THE GIRARDI TOUCH: It didn’t wind up mattering all that much on Tuesday night—the Yankees’ fortunes went from desperate to flush in a blur—but Yankee manager Joe Girardi deserves some credit for one late-game move. 

In the eighth, against Musgrove, he pinch-hit Chase Headley for catcher Austin Romine, which resulted in Gary Sanchez moving back to catcher and the Yankees losing the designated hitter spot. Some managers would be too timid to risk their DH or leave the team without a backup catcher; others might worry about putting Sanchez back in the field late in a game because he bollixed a relay throw late in Game 2, which cost the Yankees the game. Girardi wasn’t and he didn’t. And against all odds, Headley—who had been 1 for 18 in the postseason—delivered a crucial hit. Nothing quite so nice as a solid process leading to a winning outcome, is there?