So I’m not gonna lie…I’m still sore about the Yankees’ loss in game 7 of the 2017 ALCS to the Astros.
I know, I know…we’re supposed to be happy with the progress this team of youngsters made this year and marvel at the fact that this was to be the first “rebuilding year” of possibly many, only it turned out that this team of kids with a few veterans sprinkled in caught lightning in a bottle, were competitive all year long, made it into the wildcard game and actually won to advance on to the American League Divisional Series.
And they did it in true Yankee style…proving that they’re a team that plays the full 9 innings, that an early deficit can be overcome and that at Yankee Stadium, on a night in October, anything is still possible. Oh the ghosts were out and plenty of Yankees postseason magic was in the air in the Bronx, which really got me to thinking that this might be the year they get #28!
Until it wasn’t. So let’s go back and look at some of the amazing memories from this past season, shall we? And then we’ll come back to how it all ended.
So going back to last year and the promotion of catching prospect Gary Sanchez to the majors, immediately everyone was taken by this guy and his great bat. Sanchez was hitting home runs at an alarming rate to end the season, plus with a few trades of veterans, the Yankees were able to stock up their farm system with some really great prospects. Relief pitcher Andrew Miller was traded to the Cleveland Indians, first baseman, Mark Teixeira & third baseman, Alex Rodriguez retired, and starting pitcher Ivan Nova was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Outfielder, Carlos Beltran was traded to the Texas Rangers and closer, Aroldis Chapman was traded to the eventual World Champion Chicago Cubs, who had defeated Andrew Miller and the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. During the offseason, catcher Brian McCann was traded to the Houston Astros while Aroldis Chapman was picked back up when he became a free agent following the World Series. So Yankees General Manager, Brian Cashman really struck gold by trading Chapman to Chicago for prospects and then reached a deal with Chapman once he became available again a few months later to have him back now as well as the prospects gained in the trade. Also signed during the offseason was outfielder Matt Holiday.
Spring training was a bevy of new, young faces as this was to be the first year of a rebuilding process. With a number of top prospects now inhabiting the Yankees farm system, the future looked quite bright for the franchise and competition at a number of positions made spring training very interesting.
To start the season, the starting pitching was far from spectacular as the Yanks started off the season on the wrong foot. It seemed CC Sabathia’s best days on the mound were behind him, Masahiro Tanaka had also lost his way and Didi Gregorious was dealing with an injury he had obtained while playing in the World Baseball Classic. But after a rocky start, things started going New York’s way and these kids started winning games at an alarming rate to the point that by May, the Yankees had the best record in the majors! So things were getting real if they could maintain this pace for the rest of the summer.
Rookie outfielder, Aaron Judge, a 6′ 7″, 282 lb monster of baseball player, was hitting home runs at a blistering pace and won the AL Rookie of the Month honors in April, May & June. He started breaking not only franchise but also league rookie records for home run hitting. When it came time for the All Star Game, it was no surprise that the Yankees sent a few players including Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez who also both took part in the Home Run Derby. So this was the first time in years that not only did I watch the Derby intently (which, the retirement of Chris Berman from ESPN made 1000 times more watchable!), it was so amazingly rewarding to see Aaron Judge win the thing by hitting monstrous home runs!
As the second half of the season got underway, Judge’s bat took a little while to get back into it’s groove. But the Yankees continued to roll on and while they may have slipped down in the standings a little, this young team managed to keep themselves in playoff contention and ended up winning the first Wild Card spot in the American League by finishing the season with an impressive record of 91-71…20 games above .500 and only 2 games back from the division champs, the Boston Red Sox. Brian Cashman had also made a few deals at the trade deadline to bring in starting pitcher, Sonny Gray from the Oakland Athletics, third baseman Todd Frazier and relief pitchers Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson (returning to the Bronx after departing as a free agent in 2014) from the Chicago White Sox along with starting pitcher, Jaime Garcia from the Minnesota Twins. It was obvious now that the Yankees front office got serious about this season and wanted to see the Yankees bring a championship back to the Bronx this October and were going to do their best to give manager Joe Girardi the tools to do so.
At the season’s end, it was established that the Yankees would face the Minnesota Twins in the Wild Card Game who had finished the season with a record of 85-77, giving the Yankees home field advantage. And after a very shaky start from Yankees starting pitcher, Luis Severino, who gave up 3 earned runs and only recorded one out, Joe Girardi had seen enough and went to his now stacked bullpen for the remaining 8 & 2/3 innings, using the foursome of Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle & Aroldis Chapman to hold the Twins to one run over the course of the rest of the game, while the Yankees tied the score in the bottom of the first and tacked on runs as the game went on and won with a final score of 8-4, advancing on to the American League Divisional Series to face the #1 seed in the American League, the Cleveland Indians.
With the Yankees home field advantage now out of the picture for the foreseeable future, the first two games of the ALDS started on the road at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Games 1 & 2 did not go the Yankees’ way as they had been shut out in Game 1 by a score of 4-0, while they also lost Game 2 in extra innings by a score of 9-8. The Game 2 loss would be overshadowed by manager Joe Girardi’s failure to challenge a call that Chad Green had hit Cleveland outfielder, Lonnie Chisenhall by the pitch when it had actually hit the knob of the bat, thus loading the bases with 2 outs, after which, shortstop Francisco Lindor hit a grand slam two pitches later to bring Cleveland back into the game and cutting the Yankees lead down to one. Cleveland would tie the game and win it in extra innings to take a 2-0 lead in the series to Yankee Stadium, needing only one win to close out the best-of-five series.
Home was sweet to the Yankees again though, and while Game 3 was a nail-biter 1-0 victory for the Yankees with a masterful 7-inning outing from starting pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka while David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman closed out the game, making first baseman, Greg Bird’s solo home run in the 7th stand as the only run scored in the game. In Game 4, the Yankees took a 5-run lead by the 3rd inning, which Cleveland wouldn’t come close to touching as New York starting pitcher, Luis Severino had an excellent outing, lasting 7 innings. So the series was now tied, going back to Cleveland for the deciding, Game 5.
Game 5 was the Didi Gregorious Show as Didi had hit a solo home run in the first inning and a 2-run home run in the third inning off of Cleveland ace, Corey Kluber. And while Cleveland would get men on base, they would only get two across the plate, capping off the unlikely upset in the series. This was a Cleveland team who had finished the season with an impressive 102-60 record, who had also won an amazing 22 games in a row, an American League record. So going into the playoffs, these Indians hadn’t lost two games in a row in months, let alone THREE in a row! Defeating the defending American League Champions sure had New York buzzing that maybe these “Baby Bombers” had what it takes to do the impossible in this first “rebuilding year”!
Since the Red Sox had lost the other Divisional Series in 4 games to the Houston Astros, the Yanks were headed down to Minute Maid Park in Houston to start a best-of-7-game set in the American League Championship Series. Games 1 and 2 were both decided by a score of 2-1, with Houston taking a two games to none lead in the series. Houston had benefited from very strong outings from both former Detroit Tigers’ ace, Justin Verlander (who was a trade deadline acquisition for Houston) throwing a 124-pitch complete game in Game 2 and their ace, Dallas Keuchel, who was nearly unhittable in Game 1 while both Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino both turned in great outings in losing efforts. However, back in the Bronx, the series took a turn again as the Yankees fired back with a decisive 8-1 win in Game 3, followed up by a come-from-behind victory in Game 4 to tie the series. Game 5 brought another strong outing from Masahiro Tanaka as the Yanks shut out Houston 5-0, sending the series back to Houston, just a win away from a trip to the World Series.
That’s where the wheels fell off the wagon. The team that hung with the Astros through the first two games, but fell behind in the series by two games on the road, that came roaring back with a never-say-die attitude at home by winning the next three games got stuck in the airport somewhere along the way down to Houston to wrap up this series. All of a sudden, they couldn’t get any runs across the plate. Guys would get on base but they’d never make their way home to score. Over the ensuing two games, they would muster up one run while Houston seemingly had their number, and won Games 6 & 7 by scores of 4-1 & 4-0 respectively. And like that, the dream was over. No World Series, no historic matchup against the Los Angeles Dodgers (who had defeated the defending World Champion, Chicago Cubs in 5 games). That’s it, the Bombers were headed back to the Bronx to pack up their lockers for the end of the 2017 campaign.
So just as we started believing that this team had a trip back to the World Series in their immediate future, I felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest while watching those final two games. The team who showed that you could never count them out, that they played the full 9 innings and played the way that great Yankees teams of the past had done in the postseason, had let us down. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m still super proud of these guys for the great season they put out there for us all to watch. There just were a few glaring problems with this team that was blatantly obvious while watching them all season long that never really seemed to get any better as the season went on and were taken advantage of in the playoffs. And, just as good teams do…the Astros exposed those weaknesses and capitalized on them.
There are two major factors that really need to be addressed and those have to start with the two biggest names in the “Baby Bombers” group. First: Gary Sanchez, for as good of a hitter he is…his defense behind the plate leaves a lot to be desired. I’ve had this conversation with a few people, and I just can’t fathom how this guy went from A Ball to Double A, to Triple A, to the Majors and his catching skills are what they are. It’s like each of his managers just dealt with what the guy brought on offense and turned a blind eye to the rest of his game. A lot of the time, while he gets himself in front of the balls pitched, he tends to knock the pitches down and not actually catch them. It’s like he’s calling for pitches in specific locations but is never actually set up to catch the ball in said locations. Joe Girardi is a former catcher and I’d hope he would be able to address this before it costs us again as it did in Game 2 of the ALCS when he couldn’t handle the throw from the outfield to the plate to get the runner out for the final out of the 9th inning. As I’ve said, had backup catcher, Austin Romine been in there, that out is made and we’re on to extra innings, but I can also see Girardi wanting to keep Sanchez’s bat in the lineup for those extra innings. So it was a “Damned if ya do, damned if ya don’t” scenario.
And Second: Aaron Judge has no patience at the plate and is terrible at reading pitches. He doesn’t make the opposing pitcher make decent pitches to get him out and winds up hacking at a lot of bad pitches, which is why his strikeout number this season was so high. He was basically either knocking the cover off the ball with monstrous home runs or swinging at garbage pitches and sitting down after far too few pitches. And by not making the opposing pitcher work hard to get him out, it only extends how long said pitcher can last in the game by not really affecting their pitch count.
Anyway, as I said…the end to this baseball season for the Yankees still hurts as I’m sitting here watching the World Series in Los Angeles. It’s always been said that good pitching beats good hitting, and while that tends to be true…I can’t help but feel that the Yankees had better pitching in that ALCS. The bullpen certainly was better than Houston’s, and our starting pitching stood up to the test and went toe to toe with most of their starters. This one is a hard one to swallow and I really hope it is for the boys in pinstripes as well. I hope they remember the feeling they had…standing there on the field in Houston while the Astros celebrated winning the pennant and they had to pack up and go home. Derek Jeter was on that ’95 team that lost the Divisional Series to the Mariners in 5 games, and he’s said how bad that felt being on the losing end of that series, and how he used that as motivation to push himself and will the team to the greatness they enjoyed in the late 90s. Will these “Baby Bombers” respond in kind? Only time will tell.
Next year’s spring training should be another fun competition at a few positions as there are still more prospects ready to make the jump to the Major League club. Let’s hope that the missing piece(s) from this year are waiting in the wings. I’d like to get wrapped up in a season again next year like I did this past year. This was fun & exciting!