NEW YORK – At its core, as absurd as it may sound, this New York Yankees team that’s now one win from the World Series consists of the discarded, the doubted and the forgotten. Take Masahiro Tanaka, whose seven brilliant innings Wednesday in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series thrust him into company that lives on mostly in boldface. In May, when the Houston Astros shelled him for eight runs, when the prospect of him opting out of his contract following the 2017 season seemed unlikely, Yankee Stadium bathed him in boos.
Five months later, as he strutted into the dugout with his seventh shutout inning in the rearview and an eventual 5-0 Yankees victory and three-games-to-two series lead ahead of him, the team left in Tanaka’s wake was the very same Houston Astros. Only this time, as their team batting average in the ALCS lingers well below .200 and their slugging percentage somehow approaches the same embarrassing nadir, Tanaka left them flaccid, much as he has the rest of his opponents during this stirring Yankees run.
The 49,647 at Yankee Stadium witnessed a third consecutive Yankees win – the second time they’d managed to rescue themselves from a two-games-to-none deficit this postseason. The first, in the division series against Cleveland, vanquished a 102-win team. Should the Yankees finish out the Astros as the series heads to Houston for Game 6 and possibly Game 7, they would add a 101-win pelt to their wall.
“Being down 0-2 to Cleveland and being able to come back probably helped us coming back being down 0-2,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I’m not sure what would have happened had we not went through that experience.”
Well, they wouldn’t be here for one, and they wouldn’t have experienced the multi-level vengeance Game 5 gifted them. It wasn’t just Tanaka, who limited the Astros to three hits and one walk while striking out eight on 103 pitches and joined Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Whitey Ford among the Yankees who have thrown at least seven shutout innings twice in the same postseason.
To say Astros starter Dallas Keuchel had owned the Yankees over his career would be an understatement. He knocked New York out of the playoffs in the wild-card game two years back. In Game 1 of this ALCS, he shut them out over seven innings. For his career entering the game, Keuchel boasted a 1.09 ERA against the Yankees.
And while a Starlin Castro double and Greg Bird single in the second inning greeted him with an early run and an Aaron Judge double in the third scored another, a two-run deficit wasn’t the worst possible situation, not with Keuchel striking out eight Yankees over the first four innings, not with the Astros primed to break out eventually.
They still haven’t. Tommy Kahnle followed Tanaka’s two scoreless innings to finish the game, and the Astros’ game-by-game hit total for the series now reads: six, five, four, three, four. That’s 22 hits over five games for baseball’s most potent offense.
The second best? That was the Yankees, whose balanced offense chased Keuchel with another pair of runs in the fifth inning – the first on a Gary Sanchez rocket down the line that scored Chase Headley, who had three hits, and the second on Didi Gregorius’ slow-rolling single up the middle, which sent home Judge and left Keuchel with an ugly line: 4 2/3 innings, seven hits, four runs.
“Keuchel doesn’t lay very many eggs,” Girardi said. “He doesn’t. So when he makes a mistake, you’d better take advantage.”
The Yankees made sure to. Sanchez didn’t miss in the seventh, either, when Brad Peacock left a slider over the middle of the plate and he deposited it into the left-field stands for a 5-0 lead. Like Tanaka, Sanchez was once doubted, down in the minor leagues, when his prospect status dimmed amid work-ethic concerns. And Judge, the Rookie of the Year-to-be, entered the season a question mark following a dreadful 2016 debut. There are others, too, up and down the roster, giving this Yankees team some – gulp – charm.
As difficult a matchup as Game 5 was thought to be, Game 6 should be even harder. The Yankees will face Justin Verlander, whose complete-game, 13-strikeout gem in Game 2 put New York in this redemptive position in the first place.
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