By Jason Keidel
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In a game that tested the hardihood of local fans, the Yankees and Twins endured a healthy rain delay, then played through a wet, sweaty Tuesday night in the Bronx.
The 5-2 win by the Bombers left them one game closer to clinching the first wild card, while the Twins were left barely hanging on to the second spot, just 1 1/2 games ahead of the Angels.
CC Sabathia (12-5, 3.81 ERA) won another big start, and continues to be a revelation this season. And, at least for one night, baseball in the Bronx went exactly as scripted, with the starter going six innings, then handing the ball over to the nuclear bullpen of Chad Green, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman (with all due respect to Delin Betances, who’s surely part of that blueprint, but is scuffling a bit right now).
After a bumpy start, Sabathia retired 14 of 15 batters, and the ‘pen handled the rest.
All these games matter to the Yankees (84-67) and Twins (78-73), but there’s a little added sizzle because they’re playing each other and neither seems to be poised to win their respective division. Certainly not Minnesota, which is 16 games behind Cleveland (94-57), which lapped the division with an epic 22-game winning streak that changed its sobriquet to “Windians.”
The Yankees, on the other hand, are three games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL East, which sounds close, but the Bombers can’t seem to break that three-game membrane with only 11 games left in the season.
This year, the home run has become absurdly abundant, with the MLB all-time record 5,694th belted out of Kaufman Stadium by Alex Gordon at around 9 p.m. The mark was previously set in 2000, a year that not only featured biblical concern over Y2K and all kinds of apocalyptic projections, but also worldwide panic over performance-enhancing drugs.
Yet Tuesday night’s game didn’t have the synthetic feel of a home run derby. It felt like a portal to the 1990s Yankees clubs, which won with clutch hitting and gutty pitching, spraying balls all over the outfield, with players huffing to home from third rather than strolling around the bases. (We even had a player thrown out at home plate.) With the starter gutting his way through the middle innings, cutting out middlemen, and handing the ball to hard-throwing relievers.
While over 42 percent of MLB runs this season have been generated by the homer, easily the most in baseball history, only one of the seven scored Tuesday came by way the long ball: a solo shot by the Twins’ Max Kepler.
But unlike the 2000 season, every batter digging into the box these days isn’t built like Evander Holyfield. There is fun, fundamental baseball being played around the sport, complete with stolen bases, outfield assists, and plays at the plate. But just like 2000, or any year, pitching is what will make the difference between those whose seasons end at the beginning or end of October.
And while you didn’t expect Sabathia to be at the center of any pennant-chasing rotation, here he is, perhaps the most reliable starter on the squad. Strictly by stats, Luis Severino (13-6, 2.93 ERA) has been the Yankees’ best pitcher this summer, but the old left-hander isn’t far behind. And if the Yankees had to win one game, would you go with the younger, stronger, yet less reliable Severino, or someone who has been defined by October, who pitches best in long sleeves under brown leaves?
Even in the year of the blast, the Bombers aren’t feasting on the long ball. They have only a modest 219 homers (while surrendering just 181). Though they have robust lumber in Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, they have the kind of scrappy hitters who remember what singles and doubles feel like. As a quartet, Brett Gardner, Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, and Chase Headley are averaging 22 doubles and 43 walks. They strike out way too often, especially Gardner (117) and Headley (128), but so has everyone this year, with every hitter seemingly golfing for the fences.
The Yanks and Twins square off again Wednesday afternoon, with, coincidentally, Severino taking the mound. Over his last three starts, the hard-throwing righty is 2-0 with a 1.29 ERA and 26 strikeouts. Either Severino or Sabathia will likely start the first game of the playoffs for the Yanks. Joe Girardi will have a serious decision to make. But both are getting hot while the air is getting cool, which makes either choice a solid choice.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel