For a brief, tantalizing moment late in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, it looked like the New York Yankees would save their season by snatching victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat.
Then Jose Altuve happened.
The score was knotted at 4-4 when the Houston Astros' star second baseman strode to the plate at Minute Maid Park with two outs and a runner on first in the bottom of the ninth inning. With Aroldis Chapman on the mound, Altuve had every reason to sit dead-red on triple-digit heat.
The fireballing closer fell behind in the count 2-0 before throwing two consecutive sliders. The second was a hanger that the 2017 AL MVP didn't miss:
With their 6-4 win, the Astros earned the right to face the Washington Nationals in the World Series. It will be their second appearance in the Fall Classic in the last three years, all three of which have also seen them finish with more than 100 regular-season wins.
For their part, the Yankees failed to avenge their seven-game loss to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS. What's more, they also cemented the 2010s as the first decade since the 1910s in which they didn't make a World Series appearance.
This is bound to bring a few regrets to mind, the first of which may be how they wasted the game-changing hit that preceded Altuve's by mere minutes. DJ LeMahieu, who had been the Yankees' rock all season, worked Roberto Osuna for a 10-pitch at-bat that ended with a game-tying two-run homer.
"Yeah, kind of embodies his season, that at-bat, so good," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com. "Off their closer, obviously—just a really good battle and spoiled pitches, spoiled pitches, finally got one he could handle and ride out of there."
According to FanGraphs, LeMahieu's bomb lowered Houston's win expectancy in Saturday's contest from 91 percent to 56 percent. Given who was left in the Astros bullpen—namely Hector Rondon and Bryan Abreu—the Yankees might have perceived their odds to be even better.
So much for that, however, and the Yankees won't find much consolation in the fact that the Astros only outscored them by a single run throughout the series' six games. If anything, that might only inflame the greatest regret they'll soon be feeling.
That they could have won this series if only they had the right tools for the job.
Granted, it's difficult to downplay the success the Yankees enjoyed in the regular season.
They won 103 games and scored 204 more runs than they allowed despite fighting a yearlong battle with the injury bug. They got basically nothing out of staff ace Luis Severino and slugger Giancarlo Stanton, as well as limited contributions from fellow slugger Aaron Judge.
The Yankees nonetheless maintained their usual strengths: stellar relief pitching and an explosive offense that specialized in the long ball. Only Tampa Bay Rays relievers accumulated more wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. The Bronx Bombers also had an .829 OPS (third in MLB) and finished second to only the Minnesota Twins in 2019 with 306 total home runs.
Yet the Yankees showed the Twins who's boss in the American League Division Series precisely because their best qualities came through in a three-game sweep. They out-homered the Twins five to four and their relievers gave up only three runs in 13.1 innings.
The Yankees didn't break serve in these departments in the ALCS. They had a higher OPS (.673 to .600) and hit two more homers (10) than the Astros (8). And though Chapman had the fatal slip-up in what was a bullpen game for both sides on Saturday, Yankees relievers easily outclassed Astros relievers through the first five games of the series.
But something else happened in those first five games that perhaps ensured somebody from New York's Johnny Wholestaff effort in Game 6 was doomed to fail:
- Astros Starting Pitchers: 31 innings pitched
- Yankees Starting Pitchers: 23.2 innings pitched
None of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole or Zack Greinke was at his best in Games 1 through 5, but they pitched well enough to eat up innings and save Astros relievers from too much exposure.
The same can't be said of Yankees starters. Though Masahiro Tanaka and James Paxton pitched well in Games 1 and 5, they also flopped in Games 2 and 4. Severino needed everything he had to merely get through four and a third in Game 3.
The list of people who are surprised that New York's starters weren't up to the challenge of hanging with Houston's starters ought to be exactly zero names long.
The latter group was the class of the American League with a 3.61 ERA. The former, meanwhile, were lucky to escape the regular season with so much as a 4.51 ERA. Yankees starters didn't log many innings, and only Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Angels starters surrendered dingers at a higher rate.
Severino's long absence didn't help. Nor did it help that only Domingo German exceeded expectations, and his postseason participation was nixed when he was placed on administrative leave under the MLB-MLBPA Domestic Violence Policy in September.
It's a wonder that the top arms in the Yankees bullpen weren't already gassed when the postseason arrived. As such, it's no wonder at all that guys like Adam Ottavino, Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle did seem to run out of gas as the Yankees' October journey wore on.
Though they could just wave goodbye to retiring left-hander CC Sabathia and move forward with a starting five of Severino, Tanaka, Paxton, German and J.A. Happ, the Yankees would be wise to bring in outside help for their rotation this winter. To wit, Cole and potentially Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg will be free agents.
If they do indeed see to this aspect of their run prevention, the Yankees might as well see to the other aspects of it that let them down in the ALCS.
Yankees defenders weren't as sharp as their Astros counterparts, who notably put on a show (see here, here and here) in Game 6. The series was also a reminder of all that slugging catcher Gary Sanchez can't do behind the plate, as he too often suffered relapses with his blocking problems.
Ultimately, the crushing defeat the Yankees just suffered must double as a much-needed wake-up call. What they have is plenty good, and yet not good enough.