HOUSTON — The end of the Yankees’ season was formally announced Saturday night by the jarring sound of a thunderclap, a booming walk-off home run in the ninth inning that could not have been hit any harder, or louder, by the smallest of the mighty Astros, the pocket-sized assassin named Jose Altuve.
As the orange-and-blue confetti spewed from cannons and the train’s steam whistle blared, the Yankees slowly retreated from the grassy floor of Minute Maid Park, their championship dreams obliterated by a soul-crushing 6-4 loss in Game 6 of the ALCS.
That’s twice in three years that the Yankees have been sent home by the Astros, and as the steel-and-glass dome shuddered with the deafening celebration, it was stone-silent inside the visitors’ clubhouse, where the Yankees hugged each other, many with watery eyes. A tearful Aaron Boone went from locker to locker to console his players, forcing the occasional smile.
This was a scene almost never witnessed by outsiders. The pain still was raw from the Yankees’ numbing defeat, brought on by a dizzying ninth-inning roller-coaster that began with DJ LeMahieu’s tying two-run homer on the 10th pitch from Astros closer Roberto Osuna — only to be followed by the 5-6, 165-pound Altuve crushing Aroldis Chapman’s hanging slider.
The reversal was so breathtaking in its speed, and so stunning in its finality, that the Yankees barely had time to react to the whipsaw of emotion. All they could manage was to reach out, hug their neighbors and hope the shared strength might keep them upright.
“It’s as tough as it gets,” LeMahieu said. “But we can look in the mirror and know we did all we could do. We fought until the very end.”
That’s undeniable. The Yankees won 103 games with a roster stricken by injuries and rallied back from a 3-1 deficit in the ALCS to force Saturday’s Game 6 back in Houston. They were “Savages” — a nickname created by Boone’s combative spat with an umpire — and spurred by the slogan “Next Man Up,” as Brett Gardner proudly displayed on his T-shirt, a mantra that was tailor-made for these Yankees.
“This definitely isn’t how we thought it would end,” Gardner said. “We dealt with a lot of adversity all year long. No matter what was thrown at us, we were able to push it off to the side. But just like that, with a swing of the bat, it’s all over.”
For all they accomplished in 2019, though, the Yankees failed to topple the Astros. Their World Series drought was extended to 10 consecutive seasons and counting, and they went an entire decade without winning the World Series for the first time since the 1910s.
The ‘17 Yankees, sparked by 52-homer rookie Aaron Judge, made it to ALCS Game 7 before losing to the Astros, the eventual world champs. That group was ahead of schedule, but these Yankees had bigger goals in mind and were convinced that they were of championship caliber.
“No matter how many games we won in the regular season, or whatever else we did, this season is a failure,” Judge said. “We’ll be thinking about this for a while. I’ll be thinking about it all offseason. Every single day.”
In their most important game of the year, the Yankees turned to an opener — Chad Green — to set the tone for the bullpen strategy to follow, and he surrendered a three-run homer by Yuli Gurriel with two outs in the first inning that the Yankees spent the entire night trying to recover from. They finally did when LeMahieu homered just over the glove of a leaping George Springer and into the first row in rightfield, but the good feelings lasted only a few minutes.
They trusted their fading playoff hopes to a pitching strategy that would have looked more familiar at Steinbrenner Field in March than Minute Maid Park in October. The Yankees felt confident because they were 13-7 in their opener starts during the regular season. All the smart teams are doing it, right? Even the Astros chose to go that route for Game 6.
But the Astros had a safety net, and if their bullpen couldn’t do the job Saturday, they still had Gerrit Cole, fully rested, for a potential Game 7. Astros manager AJ Hinch even flaunted the Cole card as he addressed the media before Game 6, stating that they had the “best backup plan in baseball.”
What did the Yankees have? Their pocket ace was Green, and then Boone would piece it together from there, presumably building a bridge to his high-leverage relievers. We’ve been conditioned to view this approach as perfectly logical, but with one caveat: a breakdown anywhere in that chain could turn out to be the fatal flaw.
The Yankees suffered three of them. In the first inning, after Altuve’s double and a two-out walk to Alex Bregman, Green threw a 96-mph fastball at the top of the strike zone — though a bit inside off the plate — and Gurriel crushed it into the Crawford Boxes high above the leftfield wall.
“I’ve had some success against Gurriel,” Green said later, “and he jumped the first pitch.”
That staggered the Yankees and cranked up the decibels inside Minute Maid, but they still were able to stabilize themselves — thanks to the unlikely duo of J.A. Happ and Luis Cessa. The pair pitched a combined four scoreless innings, allowing only a bunt hit (thanks to Gary Sanchez’s double clutch) and a harmless leadoff walk. But the Astros took a 4-2 lead in the sixth off Tommy Kahnle on a walk, single and forceout.
Ultimately, the Yankees used seven pitchers to get the baseball to Chapman in the ninth inning, with the score tied at 4, and had a chance to stretch their season for one more day. But with Chapman struggling to throw his fastball for a strike, Altuve sensed a slider was coming. He hammered the pitch with such force that it caromed high off the train trestle in leftfield and knocked the Yankees right out of October.
“It’s hard and our guys are hurting,” Boone said. “But I could not be more proud of them and the way they always compete. It will serve us well moving forward, when we get to the top of the mountain.”
In that quiet clubhouse, the Yankees pondered the distance left to climb — again reminded that they’re still looking up at the Astros.
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