HOUSTON — Twenty minutes after José Altuve hit the walk-off home run that sent the Astros to the World Series and the Yankees back to the Bronx, Minute Maid Park continued to roar. The field echoed with cheers as Altuve accepted the ALCS MVP trophy. The concourses reverberated as orange-clad fans congratulated one another and floated into the night. The parking lots buzzed.
The only quiet place in the ballpark could be found in the bowels below the third-base dugout, where the Yankees gathered in their clubhouse, silent but for the sounds of hands clapping shoulders as they said their goodbyes.
Eyes red, reliever Zack Britton contemplated what had just slipped away. The Astros’ 6–4 win had seemed almost unfathomable just 35 minutes earlier, after New York first baseman DJ LeMahieu lined a cutter into the rightfield bleachers to tie the game in the top of the ninth inning. That was it, the Yankees were sure. Momentum was on their side. They would force a Game 7.
Then came the bottom of the ninth. Closer Aroldis Chapman got two outs. He walked George Springer on five pitches. He ran the count to 2–1 on Altuve. He hung a slider.
“You don’t know how often you’re gonna get this chance,” Britton said. “This team was built to get the ball to the back end, and we get it there and we don’t get the job done. It’s frustrating, because that was kind of the message we’ve had since spring training: Our offense was going to score enough to get the ball to the back end, and then we were gonna do our job. We did for the majority of the season, but this was bigger than the regular season. This was our shot at a World”—he paused, choked up, took a breath—“World Series.”
That is the problem with which the Yankees must spend the offseason reckoning. They did not lose because they did not follow their plan. They lost because they did.
New York’s pitching strategy was built around its impenetrable bullpen. GM Brian Cashman spent more than $150 million assembling it: Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Britton, Chapman, plus a rotating cast of young flamethrowers. In June, as tabloids clamored for another starting pitcher to fortify the rotation, Cashman traded for DH Edwin Encarnación. At the trade deadline he passed on Marcus Stroman (who went to the Mets), Trevor Bauer (Reds), Tanner Roark (A’s), Aaron Sanchez (Astros) and Zack Greinke (Astros). Cashman said that prices were too high, but he insisted he felt his roster was strong enough.
All season, manager Aaron Boone carefully tracked his relievers’ workload. He encouraged them to be candid when they felt they needed a break. He tried not to warm them up and then sit them down—what baseball players colorfully call dry-humping. He never pitched them three days in a row. The goal, always, was to get to this point: season on the line, ball in the hands of those elite relievers.
They all pitched on Saturday, a scheduled bullpen game because the Yankees did not have a good enough fourth starter. Green opened and allowed a three-run home run in his only inning. Kahnle allowed a run in his frame. Ottavino and Britton got through an inning each unscathed. Chapman blew the game.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Chapman said.
Maybe against another team this might have been unbelievable. But you can’t play this way against the Astros, the best team in the game at spotting patterns.
“The more times you face guys as relievers, you get overexposed,” Britton said. “That’s what I always say, that’s why we’re relievers and not starters. You can overexpose guys. It’s inevitable.”
The series lasted 55 innings. Yankees starting pitchers accounted for 23 2/3. Boone tended ask his relievers to face the same hitters in every appearance. A good matchup in Game 1 is a good matchup in Game 6, after all. But the risk is that hitters adjust. And they did: Kahnle saw the way the Astros began to get to the inside fastball. Green noticed that they seemed to predict his pitch sequencing. Britton watched as they tried to hit everything he threw to rightfield.
Green, for example, pitched four times in the ALCS. He saw Yuli Gurriel each time. Gurriel lined out twice and popped out once. On Sunday, he homered into the leftfield Crawford boxes.
“As a reliever, you only have so many ways you can pitch,” said Green.
This is the second time in three years that the Astros have ousted the Yankees. In 2017, the ALCS between them went seven games; Houston won that World Series. The gap between the teams is small. But it is real. What can New York do to close it?
“Continue to fight and work,” Boone said. “I feel like we are on equal footing with them.”
His players disagree. They all see the starter-shaped hole on the roster.
“Bullpenning is—the Nationals are in the World Series, and look at their rotation,” said Britton. “These guys are in the World Series. I think starters are still the way to go. If you have a great bullpen, that helps, but having four or five guys in the rotation who can give you innings, I think, is still the formula to win.”
He was dejected. This was his second career ALCS loss, and the first one—with the Orioles, to the Royals in 2014—still haunts him. He knows how fleeting these moments are. Still, as he circled the room, he tried to encourage his teammates. He told them to remember the good parts of the season. They had won 103 games. They had a lot of reasons to be proud. He wanted them to hold their heads high.
He made it through the rest of the staff. Then he sat down in front of his locker, and he lowered his head.