By Jason Keidel
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For decades, the MLB playoffs have weeded out bad teams and bad pitching, each game distilled to a granular game of small ball.
Not this year. It felt more like each game morphed into three or four hours of home run derby, with players working on their round-tripper trots more than bunts, sac flies, and hit-and-runs.
Then came Sunday night in the Bronx.
Yankee Stadium once again was the main nerve of the sport, the loudest, proudest place in baseball, and home of a gripping pitching battle. It was pristine playoff baseball — a game of goose eggs and ground balls and great defense. Game 3 of this ALDS was easily the longest scoreless period to start a playoff game in either league.
Carlos Carasco and Masahiro Tanaka worked in their own pitching bubbles, their own zones, their own zen, reducing otherwise sublime hitters into bewildered bat boys, strutting up to the plate, then strolling heads-down back to the dugout. Though it was oddly warm and muggy for an October evening, it was a familiar and refreshing display of baseball at its five-tool best.
Tanaka was just a bit better, and a home run by Greg Bird made the Yanks 1-0 winners. A hot night lasted until the end, with a sweaty ninth inning that left two Indians on base to end the game, which was quite fitting.
The Yankees were 15-4 during the regular season when Tanaka pitched at least six innings, including 5-0 in the last five such games. He delivered to make it 6-0. And in his last seven home starts, the former (and now surging) Yankees ace is 6-1 with a 1.10 ERA, with 64 strikeouts and just seven walks. Opponents are batting just .188 over those games.
Another stat was at the Bombers’ back — the Yankees had never been swept in the ALDS.
Andrew Miller, who isquite familiar to Yankees fans, had surrendered one home run to a left-handed batter all year. Yet Bird just destroyed a fastball that sailed high and long well into the upper deck in right field, landing somewhere in the jumping, frenzied masses.
It may feel like the Yankees have all the rings, records, and retired jerseys, but they don’t actually win every game, or every World Series. In fact, they weren’t even supposed to be here. This was supposed to be a year of rebuild or at least reload, a six-month bridge to true contention. But the Yanks jumped the line, and said we don’t rebuild in the Bronx. And here we are.
So Yankees fans, as they so often do, got greedy, jaded, and just silly when the Bombers got here. And when the club simply lost to a better club — a club, by the way, that set an AL record with 22 straight wins and has lost like three games since 2010 — Yankees fans whine and moan and blame it all on Joe Girardi.
It wasn’t the Indians who beat the Bombers, you see. It was Girardi because he didn’t challenge a play in Game 2, a pitch that supposedly hit one of Cleveland’s batters but perhaps instead hit the knob of his bat. Forget that the Yanks were still winning after that gaffe, or that they had another six innings after that to secure the win. The entire season can be blamed on one mistake. Thankfully, there was no emotional or physical hangover on Sunday night.
According to the FS1 broadcast team, the home team has won just 53 percent of playoff games over the last five years. Then they conceded what we natives have known all our lives — that it was different in Gotham, that the rules and edges that come with home cooking are just a bit more poignant or profound in the Big Apple.
For one night, the Yankees reminded us why they’re the Yankees, why there’s no place to win like New York City, with Yankee Stadium booming again, with “Seven Nation Army” blaring in the sixth inning, and entire sections of fans jumping up and down like piano keys.
The last time the Yankees won 1-0 in the postseason was in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS. There are some striking similarities between then and now. Mike Mussina went seven innings, as did Tanaka. Derek Jeter made his iconic flip to Jorge Posada. Aaron Judge saved the night with a leaping catch above the right field wall. And both times the Yanks were trailing in the series, 2-0. Those Yanks were arguably the best in baseball, having won four of the prior five World Series. This club isn’t quite there yet.
The Yankees didn’t win Sunday night because they’re better than the Indians. They won because of where and when they played. Chalk this one up to the Bronx. Tip your cap to River Avenue and to pinstripes, a portrait that has dominated the sport for a century.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel