Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 12, 2017

Underdog Yankees Embrace Their Unusual Role

The New York Yankees are in the American League Championship Series. Love or loathe the boys from the Bronx, fans of the Great Game would all concur there have been plenty of years when that sentence would be regarded as a statement of the obvious rather than noteworthy. This will be the Yankees sixteenth appearance in the LCS, more than any other team in either league. With eleven wins in their fifteen previous trips, New York also has the highest LCS winning percentage of any major league franchise with more than two trips to the penultimate round of the postseason. None of those numbers are surprising, given the franchise’s forty World Series appearances and twenty-seven titles, numbers that dwarf the runners-up in both categories.

But this was not supposed to be one of those years. When the Yankees left training camp in Tampa for the short trip across the Howard Frankland Bridge to St. Petersburg and Tropicana Field to begin their regular season with three games against the Rays, the conventional wisdom was that while the team had the potential of youth, it was still a couple of seasons and some improved starting pitching away from contending. A finish a game or two on either side of .500 was the common forecast, good enough for perhaps third place in the AL East.

The collective judgment of the baseball media seemed, if anything, a bit optimistic when the Yankees dropped two of those three to Tampa Bay, and then the first two of their next series in Baltimore, to finish the first week of the longest season at 1-4. But then they ran off eight wins in a row, vaulting to the top of the division. By the middle of June New York was fifteen games over .500 and four games in front of Boston. But as spring gave way to summer the Yankees were unable to sustain their hot start, gradually losing their grip on first place and for a time seeming headed for that middling finish predicted by so many. Then just as any number of pundits were clearing their throats before issuing a collective “we told you so,” New York tore through September with a 20-9 record, staying in the division chase until the regular season’s next to last day and easily capturing the AL’s top Wild Card slot.

Given those early expectations, it was a finish that marked the season as a highly successful one. Had the Yankees gone quietly in the Wild Card play-in game, as they did in 2015, fans in the Bronx would have tempered any disappointment with thoughts of a job well done and looked hopefully to the future. But it is now apparent that the members of this team have other ideas. The Yankees have now won four elimination games, coming back in both the Wild Card contest and the Division Series just when their situation seemed most dire.

They trailed Minnesota 3-0 within the first twenty minutes of the Wild Card game, with starter Luis Severino able to record but a single out before being pulled. They trailed Cleveland two games to none in the best-of-five ALDS after manager Joe Girardi bumbled away Game Two with errors of both commission and omission. But this surprisingly resilient team, displaying a resolve that belies the youth and playoff inexperience of so much of its roster, picked up its ace in the Wild Card and its manager in the Division Series, rallying first to beat Minnesota 8-4, and then to take three straight against heavily favored Cleveland, the last in front of a partisan crowd at Progressive Field.

The young Yankees played crucial roles in those victories. Didi Gregorius evened the score with a three-run homer in the bottom of the 1st of the Wild Card game. The 27-year old shortstop added a pair of home runs in the deciding game of the Division Series, both off Corey Kluber, a favorite for the AL Cy Young Award. Gregorius has now come fully into his own, known from here on simply as the Yankees shortstop rather than Derek Jeter’s successor.

Greg Bird, New York’s 24-year old first baseman, scored the only run of ALDS Game Three with a 7th inning home run to right, one inning after 25-year old Aaron Judge made a leaping catch at the wall to rob Francisco Lindor of a homer that would have staked Cleveland to a 2-0 lead. While he was largely absent at the plate in the Division Series, Judge did provide an RBI double in Game Four after clubbing his first postseason home run against the Twins in the Wild Card game. Gary Sanchez, the 24-year old catcher, added a homer of his own in Game Four, while the 23-year old Severino rebounded from his Wild Card disaster with seven strong innings.

But in the end, on Wednesday night, when New York sent Cleveland and its fans home for the winter, it was three veterans who made the difference. CC Sabathia, David Robertson, and Brett Gardner are the only members of the current Yankees roster who also played on the 2009 team that won New York’s last title. After all the heroics of the kids, it was the performances by these three 30-somethings that vaulted the Yankees to their sixteenth LCS.

At age 37 and with a bulky brace on his right knee every time he takes the mound, Sabathia is at the end of his career. Potentially overmatched against Kluber, Sabathia held Cleveland at bay into the 5th inning. When the Cleveland ace was lifted in the top of the 4th, Sabathia had yet to allow a base runner. Of the thirteen outs he registered, nine were by strikeout.

When Sabathia tired in the 5th, allowing four straight singles and a pair of runs, Girardi signaled for the 32-year old Robertson. He needed just two pitches to escape the jam, inducing a double play grounder off the bat of Lindor. Robertson then shut down Cleveland’s bats through the 7th, giving New York 2 2/3 innings of stellar relief while allowing but a single base runner.

Then in the top of the 9th, with New York clinging to a one run lead and the heart of the Cleveland order ready to bat in the bottom of the frame, the 34-year old Gardner, the longest-tenured Yankee, came to the plate with two on and two out. Cleveland closer Cody Allen quickly got ahead in the count, a ball and two strikes. A curve in the dirt evened things up. Gardner fouled a 95 mile an hour fastball back, then checked his swing on another one that was out of the strike zone. With the count full and the runners going, the Yankees left fielder then fouled off five straight pitches, refusing to yield in an epic battle between moundsman and batter. Finally, on the twelfth pitch of the at-bat, Gardner lashed a single to right, easily scoring Aaron Hicks from second. When Austin Jackson’s throw from the outfield was wild, Todd Frazier scampered home as well, giving New York and closer Aroldis Chapman room to breathe at the last.

So, the New York Yankees are in the American League Championship Series. Whether they end their season with a parade up the Canyon of Heroes or are swept out of the ALCS by an outstanding Houston squad, this band of Yankees has already succeeded wildly beyond all expectations. Next year of course, things will be different. Having proven they can win, fans and the media will once again demand nothing less of these Yankees, as they have of so many previous editions. But for the moment this unheralded team, kids and veterans alike, are just basking in the moment, and playing like they have nothing to lose.

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