AL Wild Card: Dallas Does Bronx Buttercups

All around Astroworld, you could hear a soft sigh of nervousness in the bottom of the seventh Tuesday night. If manager A.J. Hinch lifting Dallas Keuchel backfired, and the Yankees turned the Houston bullpen into steak, Hinch was going to be battered up one side and down the other as, well, as Matt Williams's heretofore undetected disciple.

Hadn't Keuchel built a 3-hit, 7-strikeout shutout over six despite working on three days' rest? Hadn't the Yankees tried about everything they could think of and still not been able to get anything close to a run off him? Hadn't he shaken off a few early hiccups and settled into such a groove that the Yankees could have resurrected Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra and still not gotten anything?

Keuchel hadn't carved the Yankees so much as he methodically diced them, one chunk at a time, looking for all the world as though you could load the pads on him and he'd still find a way to dismantle you before you could even think about getting one of those runners home. The Bronx Bombers became the Bronx Buttercups.

All around Yankee Stadium, you could hear the soft Chico Marxian whisperings behind the periodic cheerings that translated to, "Tuesday night we go to the ballgame, but the Yankees fool us — they no show up."

But in the bottom of the sixth Keuchel found himself with two on, two out, and Alex Rodriguez due to check in at the plate. And Hinch strolled out to the mound to see if his man might be faltering. Keuchel fed A-Rod something that could only be popped up into center field for the third out, but perhaps Hinch saw something he didn't like and chose not to take any chances.

Not even after a measly 70-something pitches. Not even with a decent enough 3-0 lead. Not even with his man really getting somewhat stronger as the game got longer. Hinch wanted this wild card game so bad he could taste it in the heart pounding up in his throat. Even if he had to hook his stout starter to do it.

Hinch already felt blessed enough thanks to Colby Rasmus — once a troubled Cardinal and Blue Jay but now a rather comfortable Astro — sending Masahiro Tanaka's first service of the top of the second about twenty five rows back into the right center field seats just astride the second deck.

And, thanks to Carlos Gomez leading off the top of the fourth with the same result, also on the first pitch of the inning, if you didn't count Gomez targeting the left field seats.

And, thanks to Jose Altuve — following pinch runner Jonathan Villar stealing second — dumping a quail into shallow left off Yankee relief bellwether Dellin Betances, on which Villar with practically a long jump scored without sweat in the top of the seventh.

Just what was Yankee manager Joe Girardi thinking when he lifted Justin Wilson, who'd sailed through an inning and a third, in favor of Betances, who'd begun showing the fatigue of possible overwork over the past two seasons? Actually, Girardi probably got lucky with Wilson Tuesday night, considering Yankee starters averaged under six innings in 2015 and both Wilson and Betances showed the fatigue of picking up that slack down the stretch.

Was Hinch feeling blessed enough to lift his horse Keuchel even though Keuchel rid himself and the Astros of an A-Rod threat almost in a blink, and with a delicious cutter in the bargain, and Gomez had no intention of letting the high pop land anywhere but in his on the run glove?

Apparently, he was. And his bullpen, often maligned down the stretch for faltering or at least skidding enough, refused to let their skipper's feeling go for nothing.

Tony Sipp in the bottom of the seventh shook off a one-out walk to Chase Headley to rid himself of touted Yankee rookie Greg Bird on a called punch-out and another engaging Yankee rook, Rob Refsnyder, on a shallow pop.

Will Harris in the bottom of the eighth allowed nothing out of the infield, including by pinch-hitter Jacoby Ellsbury, who ended the inning with as mild mannered an infield popup as can be mustered even by a fellow whose season was compromised by injuries and whose second-half slump kept him out of Tuesday's starting lineup.

And Luke Gregerson got rid of Carlos Beltran (swinging strikeout), A-Rod (swinging strikeout), and Brian McCann (first-pitch ground out to shortstop) so fast you'd have missed it if you blinked. Just like that, the Yankees — who once led Toronto on the regular season and were probably lucky to get the first AL wild card in the first place, considering their 30-34 season finish — were headed for winter vacation.

Tanaka pitched well enough to win the game and he kept the Yankees in the game. The Yankee offense fooled him, too.

They had a man in scoring position in the first and Rodriguez got himself frozen by Keuchel for the third out — on an 87 mph pitch that could have been drilled.

They had Bird on first with their first hit of the night in the second and stranded him with Refsnyder's little tapper back to the mound.

They looked like a threat in the fourth when A-Rod sent Astros right fielder George Springer toward the 314 mark on the wall, only to see Springer got a better jump on it than they thought, catching it right at that mark.

But that's all it was. Looking like a threat now and then. And if the Yankees looked like they were complaining about plate umpire Eric Cooper's low strike zone, they didn't seem to have an answer for why Rasmus and Gomez adjusted while Keuchel, Sipp, Harris, and Gregerson prohibited the Yankees from doing likewise.

The Astros hitters looked at 21 called strikes and a third of them were out of the zone. And that's now 22 consecutive scoreless innings Keuchel has thrown at the Yankees. They came to the ballgame and he fooled them — he showed up.

Not that the Astros think it's going to be a leisurely stroll from there. "Now we get to go to Kansas City," said Rasmus after the game. "It's going to be some grind-it-out baseball. We have to come in there the way we came in tonight. It's going to be fun."

And the Royals won't fool them, or anybody — they'll yes show up.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site