NEW YORK — If the Yankees season ends Friday night, which by all indications it will, the enduring image of their last stand will be this: The sight of CC Sabathia, with a 39-year-old body, a degenerating right knee and now a throbbing left shoulder, having to be coaxed off the field, while Giancarlo Stanton, built like Michaelangelo’s David with mobility to match, sat idle on the bench.
Whether that was by Stanton’s choice, by general managerial decree, or by field manager negligence has yet to be determined.
But the raw facts are these: Needing to play their best game of the season Thursday night, the Yankees played possibly their worst.
And needing one big hit at what turned out to be a key moment of the game, manager Aaron Boone could not find a way to get his highest-paid player into the game.
The result was a soul-crushing 8-3 defeat to the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series that left the Yankees on the verge of elimination and a 10th consecutive year without a World Series appearance. The final indignity was watching Sabathia, who had served this team so well for so long, trudging dejectedly off the mound, his career ending in pain and defeat.
Now, the Yankees need to put together a three-game winning streak against the team that had the best record in baseball, and they need to win two of them at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros were the most difficult team to beat in both leagues.
Frank Sinatra may not be singing “New York, New York’’ for the final time quite yet, but he is certainly warming up those vocal cords.
“We’ve handled everything that’s been thrown at us so far this season,’’ said DJ LeMahieu. “I know we’ll show up tomorrow and give it everything we’ve got.’’
That may not be enough. In fact, the argument could be made that the Yankees gave it less than their best shot in Game 4.
Not only did they fail to capitalize on two bases-loaded situations against Zack Greinke, who they nicked for three runs and two home runs in their 7-0 victory in Game 1, the Yankee bats struck out 13 times against a six-pack of Houston pitchers Thursday, stranded 10 runners and were unable to manage a single hit in seven tries with runners in scoring position.
Their best chance came in the bottom of the fifth when they loaded the bases for the second time with only one out — they did so in the first inning but could score only once, on a walk to Brett Gardner — trailing 3-1.
Gleyber Torres, the hitting star of Game 1 with five RBIs, struck out on a close check-swing call by home plate umpire Dan Bellino.
That brought up Edwin Encarnacion, who had been 1-for-13 with seven strikeouts to that point in the series. Before the game, Boone had said that Stanton, who had not played in the previous two games due to a quad strain suffered in Game 1, would be available to pinch-hit in the right situation.
If this wasn’t the right situation — the bases juiced, two outs and the Yankees desperate for a big hit — it’s hard to imagine what would be.
And even if Boone was concerned about Stanton’s ability to run — he didn’t look very fleet on the basepaths in pregame warmups — you weren’t looking for speed there, only power. Encarnacion can’t run even when healthy. It would have been a straight-forward swap — power-for-power, gimp-for-gimp, DH-for-DH.
But Boone chose not to pull the trigger. Instead, he sent Encarnacion up, and the ensuing strikeout was as predictable as boos for Adam Ottavino. That ended the Yankees’ last real chance to make a game of it. George Springer had hit a three-run homer off Masahiro Tanaka in the first, Carlos Correa hit a three-run jack off Chad Green in the sixth, and the Astros added two more late runs as the Yankees normally-solid defense devolved into low comedy.
Gary Sanchez’s two-run shot in the bottom of the sixth — only his second hit in 17 at-bats this series — served as mere window-dressing for an overall performance almost too ugly to watch.
Asked whether he had considered sending Stanton up to hit for Encarnacion in the fifth, the typically loquacious Boone clammed up. “No,’’ he said.
“That wasn’t the situation I was considering,’’ he said.
But Boone was downright chatty compared with Stanton, who brushed past a group of reporters waiting for him to dress at his locker.
Got a moment, Giancarlo?
“Not right now,’’ he said, rushing out the door.
That raised the same question that was asked of Boone: If not now, then when?
Probably next year. The game the Yankees had to win turned out to be one they almost seemed to be trying to lose. And for the past three games, they have been doing it with 24 men, because if Stanton didn’t get into this game, he’s probably not fit to get into any game.
Boone addressed the team afterward, the gist of his message being that the Yankees have to win on Friday.
“We need to flush this one immediately,’’ he said.
“It’s definitely not the way we wanted to play tonight but we’re not out of anything,’’ said LeMahieu, an MVP candidate during the season but a committer of two errors at first base in Game 4. “Our backs are against the wall, but we just got to keep going.’’
“I feel bad but we have to try to forget tonight and focus on tomorrow,’’ said Torres, who committed two errors at second. “We’re confident we can win. One hundred percent.’’
“You can’t give a team like that too many opportunities but that’s what we did and they capitalized,’’ chimed in Aaron Hicks, the Yankees’ No. 3 hitter Thursday despite having had just five plate appearances since Aug. 3 due to an elbow injury. “We need to clean it up tomorrow.”
Maybe nothing the players or their manager did in Game 4 would have changed the outcome, and there’s probably very little that can help them with Verlander, Cole and the end of their season looming.
But wouldn’t it have been nice to see what might have been had Boone chosen to send his most dangerous hitter up in the most important moment of the game?
There’s always next year, of course.
Or, in the case of Stanton, the next eight years. What's the hurry?
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