By Jason Keidel
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Since Game 4 so drained the adrenal gland, the Yankees and Astros offered a laugher in Game 5 — even if the Astros aren’t laughing.
Indeed, there’s nothing funny for Houston, which has tried everything, and virtually everyone, and still can’t climb the pinstriped wall that is only growing in stature and confidence.
When the ALCS came back to the Bronx, the Astros knew they could afford to lose the first two games and chalk it up to holding serve, a formality that would soon be thwarted by their pair of aces coming to the mound. Surely the Astros would restore order when they sent Dallas Keuchel to the bump. Keuchel was not only a playoff ace, he seemed to own the Yankees just as much as the Steinbrenner family.
Entering Wednesday night’s game, Keuchel’s 0.70 ERA was the lowest in MLB playoff history among those with a minimum of four starts. He’d also mastered the Yankees, including two scoreless playoff outings — one in the 2015 wild-card game, the other in Game 1 of this ALCS.
But between the blossoming bats, stellar pitching and native ambiance that clearly fuels the Yanks and strikes fear in foes, the Bombers find themselves nine solid innings from a most unlikely trip to the World Series.
PHOTOS: Yankees-Astros ALCS
Though Masahiro Tanaka had a bewildering season overall, he’s been every bit an ace at home, with a 6-1 record and 1.10 ERA at Yankee Stadium since the All-Star break, with opponents batting .188 against the understated, Japanese pitcher. CC Sabathia has understandably gotten much of the love for his surreal revival this season, pitching 10 years younger than his actual age (37). But the Yanks would be watching the ALCS without Tanaka.
And just as the Yankees’ nuclear bullpen has bogarted the bold ink, they would not be in a position to hold or save games if not for the starters pitching past the back of their baseball cards. Tanaka (seven scoreless innings pitched, three hits, eight strikeouts) was masterful. And most figured he had to be in order to match zeroes with Keuchel. But the Bombers finally solved the Matrix-style headlock the lefty had on their lineup, with virtually every Yankee getting in on the hit parade Wednesday night. Seven of the nine Yankees hitters either got a hit or scored a run in the 5-0 wipeout that felt like 15-0, as Houston was never in danger of making the game competitive.
If not for Keuchel and fellow ace Justin Verlander, the Astros may have been swept in this series, a laughable assertion just a few days ago, when the Astros seemed to have a chokehold on the series. Now the Astros return to Houston battered, rattled and perhaps beaten.
For the first time since the old stadium was inexplicably pummeled into dust, the new stadium has had that implicit energy, a shimmering, electric vibe that only occurs in Gotham. This is not the provincial pride of a native New Yorker. Every player who’s put on pinstripes will tell you that winning in New York City — especially in October — has its own sound and fury. If the Astros weren’t aware of it, or how long sleeves and brown leaves aren’t the only difference between New York and Texas, they just got a three-game lesson in Aura and Mystique.
Only Verlander’s arm stands between the Yankees and a shot at their 28th world championship. While a World Series in the Bronx has become a rite of autumn, this was not supposed to be the year the Yanks returned to their ancestral October home. Considering the Yankees didn’t even win their division.
Considering they had to play a one-game playoff just to reach the ALDS. Considering they were down 2-0 in a best-of-five series with supposedly the best team in the American League (Cleveland), which had won 22 straight not long ago. Considering they lost the first two games of the ALCS.
Considering all the odds and obstacles, the Yankees have taught their foes and fans something about unity, about guts and guile, and about a team that doesn’t hear the white noise of social media or the endless bloviating from the media or masses. At times it must have felt like only the Yankees knew they would be here. And they were probably right. And with one more win, they can call themselves American League champs.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel