By Ernie Palladino
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Playoff games are made of moments, and the Yankees can’t afford to have any more bad ones.
They have already had two of those in dropping the first two AL Championship Series games to the Astros, and we’re not even talking about Brett Gardner’s ill-fated try for third in the third inning of Saturday’s 2-1 Game 2 setback.
We’re talking about things that happened around home plate; things that if they continue will short-circuit any comeback over the next three games at Yankee Stadium.
Things around the dish haven’t exactly been flawless, as Greg Bird and Gary Sanchez proved in the first two games in Houston. The Yanks need to clean that up, fast. Even if CC Sabathia follows his two excellent starts against Cleveland with a gem Monday, and Sonny Gray rediscovers the command on Tuesday that made him a must-have deadline pickup, expect the remaining games to be as close as the first two.
The lineup may not have to face the buzz-saws Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander threw at them the first two games, but there’s no reason to believe that Charlie Morton and a well-rested bullpen thanks to Verlander’s complete-game win Saturday can’t keep things tight against Sabathia.
That means the Yanks are going to have to play mistake-free ball to get this series back to Houston. Either that, or produce such an offensive barrage that even a major gaffe at the plate won’t matter. But if Aaron Judge and Sanchez don’t snap out of their combined 1-for-14 ALCS slump with eight strikeouts — a continuation of a .116 (5-for-43) performance with 26 strikeouts against Cleveland — the chances of that happening are less than good.
So, eliminating mistakes on both the bases and on defense becomes paramount. And going into this leg of the ALCS, the Yankees haven’t proven they can do that at critical times.
Bird, the sweet lefty swinger whose homer in Game 3’s 1-0 win set the Yanks on a three-game knockout path in the Division Series, made his mistake in the crucial moment of Game 1 in Houston. Down 2-0 in the fifth, his ever-so-slightly-late break from second on Aaron Judge’s two-out single got him thrown out at the plate and ended the only real threat against Keuchel.
It took a perfect throw from left fielder Marwin Gonzalez to get him. But Bird isn’t a speedster to begin with. Chances are he didn’t pick up an extra step during Sunday’s off-day, so a more conservative approach to base running all-around may be called for going forward.
Defense around the plate presents an even thornier issue. It’s no secret that Sanchez is weak with the mitt. He led the league with 16 passed balls, and his overall technique is not conducive to blocking bounced wild pitches.
So was it any surprise that Sanchez couldn’t come up with Didi Gregorius’ short-hop relay as Jose Altuve mad-dashed home with the Game 2 winner?
The Yanks did everything right until the ball got to Sanchez. Judge got Carlos Correa’s double to the gap in to Gregorius quickly. Gregorius got the relay to Sanchez in plenty of time despite Correa’s pop-slide into second that caused the shortstop to alter his throw slightly.
Sanchez has to make that play. Austin Romine probably would have fielded the hop and tagged out Altuve with five feet to spare. But the ball hit the glove and bounded far enough in front of Sanchez to eliminate all possibility of stopping the speedster.
With that, Verlander had his complete-game, 2-1 victory, and the Yanks headed home in a familiar situation.
Joe Girardi could put Romine behind the plate and DH Sanchez, but that would potentially weaken the lineup, even in light of Sanchez’ slump and the fact that Jacoby Ellsbury, Chase Headley, and Matt Holliday have gone 0-for-20 in the postseason. And Sanchez’s rocket arm, so advantageous in keeping runners honest in a close game, precludes using Romine as a late-innings substitute.
So the Yanks must take their chances with Sanchez.
They escaped once from a 2-0 deficit. But that was in a best-of-5 series. Though the best-of-7 format provides more room for blips and bloopers, it’s obvious runs will be precious for however long this one goes.
If the Yanks continue to give them away at the plate through faulty base running and defensive shortcomings, the Astros will surely make them pay.
The price could bring a quick end to the Yanks’ comeback hopes.
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