Hope never dies in a slugfest.
When the Yankees immediately marched back to tie last week’s wild card game with three runs in the first inning off Ervin Santana, I breathed a sigh of relief. I knew that even if New York’s pitching continued to falter, they’d never be out of it. The bats were live that night, and no deficit felt too large to overcome. Hope reigned.
The flip-side of course, is that there are few feelings more helpless than watching your team get dominated offensively. You have to score to win, and great pitching can make you feel like that’s an impossibility. Watching batter after batter flail feebly at letter-high heat and tumbling curves can be torturous. Every opposing baserunner feels like doom. Every run they score feels like Everest.
Entering Saturday, the Yankees had faced Justin Verlander three times* in the playoffs. The first of those was way back in 2006, when Verlander was a 23-year-old on the verge of being named American League Rookie of the Year and making his first career October start. They wouldn’t see him again until he had evolved into peak-Verlander, the version that posted back-to-back 8-WARP seasons and captured an MVP and Cy Young award simultaneously.
He didn’t always dominate. He wasn’t particularly sharp in 2006 for instance, posting a 5.1/7/3/3/4/5 pitching line, but his Tigers picked up a pivotal 4-3 anyway. He posted a 8/6/4/4/3/11 line in 2011, and the Yankees fell 5-4. A year later, he took a three-hit, one-run gem into the ninth inning and helped Detroit to a 2-1 win in the third game of the ALCS. The Yankees lost all three games by a single run. They also lost all three series.
It had been a long, tumultuous five years for both parties, but Verlander and the Yankees found themselves squaring off again on Saturday, in Game 2 of the ALCS. Verlander wore new colors, and the Yankees wore new faces. Nothing about their October history portended anything about this game, but sometimes baseball is like poetry; in the case of Yankee fans, the kind of poetry that might make you pull your hair out and shout at your television.
It was apparent very early that Verlander had Hall of Fame-stuff. Four of the first six outs he recorded came via strikeout. He would wind up with 13. The Yankees didn’t muster a hit until there were two outs in the third inning — Brett Gardner ripped a ball down the right field line, but was thrown out trying to stretch it into a triple. New York would manage just four more hits for the rest of the day. Patience didn’t work either. Verlander issued just one walk, and the Astros threw pitch count to the wind, letting their ace’s climb to 124 in what turned out to be complete game, 2-1 victory — the fourth one-run October heartbreaker for the team against Verlander, and one that puts the Yankees in a two-games-to-none hole in the series.
The Yankees improbably matched Verlander through eight innings, if not in dominance then at least in results. Starter Luis Severino tossed four innings of one-run ball before being pulled out of the game after tweaking his throwing shoulder in the fourth inning. His lone blip came earlier in that very inning, when Carlos Correa shot a deep line drive into right field that just barely snuck over both the outstretched glove of Aaron Judge and the wall for a solo home run. Severino retired the next two batters to end the frame, but would not come back out for the fifth. After the game, he said he felt fine and manager Joe Girardi confirmed that the move was made as a precaution.
With two outs in the top of the fifth, the Yankees finally poked a hole in Verlander’s masterpiece after back-to-back doubles by Aaron Hicks and Todd Frazier knotted the score at one. Frazier’s hit was a bit of an oddity, as the ball became lodged in the wall in left-center field and was ruled a ground-rule double.
That’s where the score stayed for the next four innings, as Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson held the mighty Astros lineup to just a hit and a walk through the eighth. Verlander continued to make Yankee fans squirm, as he buckled down to allow just two baserunners, neither of whom got beyond first base, for the balance of the game.
As it did in the last series for New York, Game 2 came to an abrupt end. With Aroldis Chapman on in the bottom of the ninth, Jose Altuve ripped a first-pitch single to reach base with one out. After working a full count, Correa then punched a 99 mph fastball into the right-center field gap. Judge cut the ball off and fired it into Didi Gregorius at second base at the same time that Altuve, who was not running on the pitch, shockingly sped around third. Gregorius fired a throw to the plate that seemingly had Altuve beat by 20 feet, but caught catcher Gary Sanchez in-between hops. Altuve slid into home safely as the ball dribbled away from Sanchez’s glove, walking it off for the Astros and sending the home crowd into a frenzy.
A lot will be made about the play and about Sanchez’s defense as the teams travel to New York, but — like Game 1 and Dallas Keuchel — the story of Saturday begins and ends with Verlander. Through the first two games of the series, Houston pitching has made the Yankee lineup look utterly hapless, issuing 27 strikeouts while surrendering just two runs.
If you’re a Yankee fan looking for some optimism though, consider where we were one week ago. After a brutal Game 2 defeat that similarly put the team down two games to none (that in an even more dire best-of-five format), all anyone was talking about was whether a managerial blunder might cost Girardi the locker room and his job. The Yankees then proceeded to win three consecutive elimination games to upset the best team in the American League.
Things may feel equally bleak now, but it should surprise no one if the Yankees find success against Charlie Morton in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Monday, or against (presumably) Brad Peacock or Lance McCullers the following night. Things have turned on a dime before, and might still again. Or maybe this improbably fun run really is nearing the end of the line.
Either way, the one thing I’ve learned from watching this team is to stop doubting them and just enjoy the ride.
*Verlander had technically made four postseason starts against the Yankees from 2006-2012, but one of them was a one-inning outing that was suspended due to rain.
Lead photo: Troy Taormina / USA Today Sports