HOUSTON — Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres predicted before Game 1 of the American League Championship Series who would be the star of the game.
“I’m going to win the belt,” Torres told rightfielder Aaron Judge.
The belt is the championship boxing-styled “Player of the Game Belt” awarded after each New York victory to the star of the game. This being the Yankees, where no corner is cut nor any rhinestone be found acceptable, the belt features three gold plates with Yankees logos, Swarovski stones and a hand-tooled leather strap with basket-weaving filigree.
What, you expected Torres to nominate somebody else? This is Gleyber Torres, who won the belt in the clinching game of the American League Division Series, who at 22 years old is one of the best young clutch hitters in the past 50 years, and who plays the most pressure-packed games with a smile on his face, as if he knows the outcome the rest of us are agonizing about. He expects the kind of greatness from himself in big spots that makes others’ jaws drop.
“He loves the big moment,” pitcher Zack Britton said. “At 22 I was still trying to figure how to get guys out in Triple-A.”
Of course, Torres won the belt, and did so with one of the greatest postseason games of any young hitter. Torres sprayed three hits around the yard and knocked in five runs against three different pitchers as the Yankees overwhelmed Houston, 7-0. Torres and Andruw Jones (1996 World Series Game 1) are the only players to have three hits and five RBI in a postseason game before their 23rd birthday.
This presented the Yankees with something of a dilemma: the belt-winner of the previous win is supposed to present the belt to the latest winner, who then must make a short acceptance speech. At this rate, the Yankees might as well retire the belt with Torres.
The best part couldn’t wait for the postgame presentation. During a pitching change in the seventh inning, which Torres caused with a two-run, two-strike single, Judge put his arm around Torres and said in deep appreciation, “Man, do you know how special you are?”
Let’s take stock of what the kid has done. He has hit more home runs than any middle infielder in history through his first two seasons (62), he is a .364 hitter in nine postseason games, and his career .328 average with runners in scoring position is better than every other player at this age in the divisional era (since 1969) except Garry Templeton, Ronald Acuna Jr., Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench.
Somebody asked Torres if his success at this age surprised him. Given the kid’s confidence, this was the equivalent of the first-pitch fastball Zack Greinke threw Torres in the sixth inning, the one he popped into the Crawford boxes for a home run.
“I mean, not really,” he said. “During my career in the minor league I prepared really well myself for every situation last year. I take all the experience and now I just put all the experience in my game.”
This is a kid who hit 24 homers in 373 games in the minors. He’s been a far better player in the majors than even the Yankees expected when they obtained him in a 2016 trade with the Cubs for Aroldis Chapman. He has gained strength, but it seems to be more about playing up to the big stage.
Here’s another window into Torres: he is a career .263 with the bases empty, but .292 with runners on and .328 with runners in scoring position.
“I’ve always been that way,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid I loved batting with runners out there. Actually, there are times when there are no runners when I don’t have the same energy. It’s harder.”
Said Britton, “I think he’s comfortable in his surroundings. The environment here allows him to be comfortable and confident. I didn’t have that when I was coming up.”
The Yankees could not have won a game in more thorough fashion. “They played a great game,” Houston shortstop Carlos Correa said, “a near perfect game.”
The Yankees roughed up Greinke when they saw him a second time around, continuing to mark him as an untrustworthy postseason pitcher. They battered Ryan Pressly, who had been a Houston bullpen stalwart, and rookie Bryan Abreu, who manager A.J. Hinch thought might be a wild card boost with his slider. Each is now moved down in Hinch’s pecking order of relief options.
Giancarlo Stanton is having quality, long at-bats. The defense has been airtight, including an 87.8 mph missile Judge threw to first base off his back foot and after slipping to double up Alex Bregman. “That’s all?” Judge asked when told of the radar gun reading.
Manager Aaron Boone is pressing every right button. He started Masahiro Tanaka rather than James Paxton (largely on a huge trust factor) and now Tanaka has a 1.32 ERA in seven postseason starts. Only Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax and Eddie Plank have been better in the postseason with that much work.
He turned the game over to his bullpen when Tanaka cruised through six innings because he will never again be accused of leaving a starter in too long—not with that bullpen. He has never allowed any of his nine postseason starters to face more than 20 batters.
And Boone promoted Torres to the third spot in the batting order and moved Brett Gardner out of there because the Astros don’t have any lefthanded relievers, sparing Boone of splitting up like-sided hitters. And Torres keeps doing his Joe DiMaggio impersonation.
“I can’t wait to see the rest of his career,” outfielder Aaron Hicks said.
Among the many skills that make Torres a superstar is his ability to adjust his swing depending on count and pitch location. He slugs near or over .700 on all three levels of the strike zone—low, middle and high. He is the only player in the American League who hit 10 or more homers out of each of those three levels.
Game 1 exhibited all that hitting range. In the fourth he sunk into his thick legs to dig out of a first-pitch slider from Greinke for an RBI double. In the sixth he flattened his stroke to get on top of a Greinke fastball for a home run. And in the seventh, right after Houston pitching coach Brent Strom called timeout to strategize with Pressly on how to pitch Torres, he put together an exquisite six-pitch at-bat in which he spat on two fastballs just off the plate before flipping a nasty full-count, down-and-away curveball into centerfield for a bloop two-run single.
“His bat-to-ball skills are incredible,” Britton said. “The way he’s able to get to all kinds of pitches on different planes is impressive. As a pitcher, you know you have to executive every single pitch throughout an at-bat or you know he’s going to beat you. That’s where the bat-to-ball skill comes in. It’s crazy. You just don’t see it in such a young player. I saw it with Manny Machado, but that’s rare.”
One more ridiculous superlative: Torres is hitting .444 this postseason with two strikes. The rest of baseball: .147.
With the win New York turned the series upside down. Houston already faces a must-win in Game 2 with Justin Verlander taking the ball. Teams that lost the first two games at home in a best of seven series are 3-22 in those series. Greinke’s clunker means the Astros are under pressure to win the four games that Verlander and Gerrit Cole start.
In the short term, Houston has to find a way to contain Torres. Like all those stones on the championship belt, he is shining in so many ways. And the beauty of it is this is exactly how the young man expected October to play out.