Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 2, 2019

Sudden Victory On Saturday Afternoon

Here’s a safe bet. As the crowd made its way into Yankee Stadium early Saturday afternoon, at least one of the announcers on the YES Network or WFAN, during their pregame television and radio coverage, declared the last day of August “a perfect day for baseball.” The sun was shining overhead, with just an occasional puffy cloud scudding by on a gentle and refreshing breeze, a pleasant combination of elements that surely someone with a microphone would find impossible to ignore. While it could have been anyone – Michael Kay or Paul O’Neill on the television broadcast, or Suzy Waldman on the radio – the smart money would have been on Waldman’s compatriot John Sterling, who during more than thirty years telling Yankee fans listening to the radio of every play by their heroes, has seldom passed on an opportunity to state the obvious.

In fairness to Sterling or any of the announcers who couldn’t resist the cliché, the weather at game time was about as ideal as a player or fan of the Great Game could wish. But while atmospheric conditions were sublime, the situation on the field surely had Yankee fans feeling less sanguine. For the fifth time this season New York, with a comfortable lead in the AL East, was about to play Oakland, a distant second to Houston in the league’s West division, but in a desperate three-way battle with Tampa Bay and Cleveland for the two Wild Card tickets to the postseason. Each of the first four contests, three on the west coast a week earlier and the opener of this series the previous evening had gone Oakland’s way, a distressing pattern for games against a potential playoff opponent.

The Yankees turned to Domingo German in hopes of ending this unwelcome streak. On a roster riddled with injuries that would have vanquished many clubs to a long season of disappointment, German has been just one of several happy surprises. In limited time at the major league level over the past two seasons, German posted a pedestrian ERA of 5.22 and a WAR just barely above replacement player level. Against that history, German’s impressive 2019 campaign, with 17 wins to date and an ERA+ well above league average is either a pleasant shock or the realization of talent heretofore seen only by the Yankees’ scouts.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have ample run support, but on Saturday German was asked to largely go it alone. Gary Sanchez homered into the left field seats to put New York on the board in the 2nd inning, but the Yankees’ potent offense was otherwise kept in check by A’s starter Homer Bailey. German’s only hiccup in an otherwise solid outing came in the top of the 4th, when he surrendered a two-run homer to Matt Olson that put Oakland on top. Sanchez knotted the score in the bottom of the next frame with his second homer of the game, which was also just the Yankees’ second hit.

The quiet Yankee bats meant that concern spread through the 44,000-plus in the Stadium’s three decks when the A’s plated their third run in the top of the 7th, off reliever Adam Ottavino. Appropriately superstitious fans saw this tally coming, since as Ottavino was warming up the message board in left center field displayed the impressive number of consecutive outings he had made without allowing a run.

The combination of the 3-2 Oakland lead and the A’s mastery of the home squad in previous games sent some fans to the exits after New York went down in order in the bottom of the 7th. With two gone in the last of the 8th, the Yankees were just four outs away from a fifth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Athletics when Aaron Judge, hitless in two prior at bats, stepped in against Joakim Soria. On the second pitch, a 94 mile per hour four-seam fastball, Judge changed the tenor of the game in typical Yankees fashion. His drive to right field landed in the second deck, and once again the score was tied.

Now the tension was palpable, with fans knowing that a New York score in the bottom of the 9th or any inning thereafter would end the game while also sensing that another Oakland tally in the top of a frame might be too much to overcome. In the 9th Aroldis Chapman walked two men with two outs, but after a quick chat with pitching coach Larry Rothschild he struck out Josh Phegley to end the threat. Sanchez was hit by a pitch with one out in the home half of the inning, but Brett Gardner lined into a double play, and it was time for free baseball – extra innings.

More casual fans departed even as both teams were going down quietly in the 10th, but the devoted who remained were prepared to stay for as long as necessary, which proved to be less than one more full inning. Oakland put its leadoff batter on in the top of the 11th, but the Yankees quickly turned a double play and then Chad Pinder hit a soft popup that second baseman Gleyber Torres snagged for the third out.

The batting order turned over one last time in the bottom of the 11th, with leadoff man DJ LeMahieu stepping in for his fifth at-bat of the day. Three of his four previous turns had ended in strikeouts, an unsettling performance by the hitter with the best batting average in the American League at .333. Having played in the thin air of Colorado for the past seven seasons, LeMahieu’s .299 average with the Rockies was dismissed by many pundits when the Yankees signed him as a free agent last winter. Even New York seemed to view him as primarily a versatile infielder capable of supplying solid defense at multiple positions. But among so many unexpected heroes of New York’s season, LeMahieu’s star has shone brightest. With the game now almost four hours old, he opted to waste no time amid the lengthening shadows of the summer afternoon. He swung at the first pitch from Lou Trivino and at the crack of the bat someone in the stands yelled, “There it is!”

There it was, indeed.  The ball sailed into the right field seats and LeMahieu rounded the bases even as his teammates gathered to greet him at home plate and the fans remaining in the stands screamed their approval. A walk-off win, the most dramatic and exhilarating kind of victory. It was, as someone surely must have said, a perfect day for baseball in the Bronx.

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