Tuesday, October 17, 2017

ALCS Game 3: Unorthodox Smash Hit

By Jeff Kallman

Of all the people watching when Todd Frazier connected off Astros starter Charlie Morton in the bottom of the second Monday night, there were two who were the most disbelieving: Frazier and Morton themselves.

Aaron Judge putting a dent in his postseason-long slump in the bottom of the fifth was believable enough to Yankee fans and too believable to the Astros. But Frazier looking like he was stumbling over a rolling oil drum as he swung with two out and two aboard wasn't supposed to hang up a three-spot with that swing.

"You don't think it's going," Frazier said of the opposite field homer, "just because how unorthodox the swing was."

The pitch headed beyond Frazier's reach, seemingly, since Frazier stood more or less in the middle of the batter's box. He looked like he was reaching out a car door to pick a $10 dollar bill off the sidewalk. He barely got the end of the bat on the ball. And it still traveled over the right field scoreboard.

"If you were to show me a video of the swing, show the pitch speed and the location," said Morton, who lasted three and two-thirds innings, "I would have never thought that. That was unbelievable."

Well, who said orthodoxy was the only way to get three legs up in an American League Championship Series, an 8-1 rout in Game 3 or otherwise?

Slumping though he was, Judge played to the orthodox in the bottom of the fourth. Sort of. The only reason he wasn't hitting with the bases loaded and two out was Houston reliever Will Harris wild pitching Frazier home, allowing Chase Headley (RBI single) and Brett Gardner (plunked) to move up.

Then Judge managed to shorten his swing just enough on an up-and-in fastball — well, for any other mortal it would have been up and in. For Judge, all 6'7″ of him, it was belt high. That's the last place Harris wanted to throw, considering Judge has been throttled all postseason by pitches — breaking balls a specialty — sailing up to the plate but dropping under his belt.

And Judge drove the mistake on a line into the left field seats. There's nothing like a gift into your higher-than-normal-men's wheelhouse to make a kid playing and smiling through a 4-for-31, nineteen-strikeout slump feel wanted again.

"You can't have all the good, come out here and hit a thousand, even though I want to," said Judge after the game. "It's baseball, I've got to enjoy the good times and the bad times. That's what I picked up and learned from my teammates. They've supported me through the good times and the bad times."

"Judge did what Judge has done 50-plus times," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, speaking like a man to whom the end of Judge's postseason slump was nothing more than a question of how and where, "which is hit the ball out of the ballpark when he gets a pitch to hit."

Actually, until the series shifted to Yankee Stadium Monday night, orthodoxy seemed to be the rule — good pitching beating good hitting, with the Astros having just enough more of the latter to come to New York with a 2-0 series lead, outscoring the Yankees 4-2 in the first two games. Which ended in identical 2-1 scores, especially when Justin Verlander went the distance in a Game 2 masterpiece.

Early in Game 3 it looked like the Yankees weren't going to have much more luck even in their own playpen. In the first inning with two out Didi Gregorius bunted his way aboard and got picked off in a blink. It was almost reminiscent of Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara's game-ending shazam! pickoff of the Cardinals' Kolten Wong to tie the 2013 World Series at two games each.

The first Yankee hits in each of the first two innings came with two outs, and the second proved the most damaging. Starlin Castro beat out an infield hit, Aaron Hicks singled up the pipe to follow, then Frazier hit his rolling and tumbling 3-run homer. Come to think of it, all the Yankee runs on the day — all eight of them — scored with two outs, too.

They almost got a third straight inning's worth of a two-out hit when Gregorius smashed one to Jose Altuve. Altuve took the ball on his knees and threw it from there, too, and a replay review showed Marwin Gonzalez, playing first base for Game 3, managed to hold the pad with his foot taking the throw.

When Judge wasn't wreaking havoc at the plate, he did it in right field. He's been doing it in right field most of the postseason. If Willie Mays was a right fielder, he'd be Judge.

The lad ran down Yuli Gurriel's high liner, took a flying leap, hit the right field fence as he caught the ball, and hit the ground like a skyscraper while holding into the ball in the top of the fourth. The thump when Judge hit the fence was loud enough that even home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom was unnerved.

"I don't know what got hurt worse," Cederstrom was heard to say through microphones arrayed for the Fox Sports television broadcast. "The wall, or him."

"I was trying to make the play for CC," Judge said. "He was working his butt off."

That was the understatement of the night. Sabathia pitched as though he saw caution tape around the plate, but he fought through four walks against his five strikeouts in his six shutout innings. On the regular season, in 10 starts that came immediately after Yankee losses, he was 9-0.

He's not even close to the howitzer he once was. Since 2015 he's been surviving and thriving with a slider that travels slow enough until it breaks like an ice cream stick in the hands of a kid. Sometimes even he can't believe he's surviving that way. "It's weird," he said after the game. "Me being 37, smoke and mirrors, getting a shutout."

"Look at the size of him," Frazier said of the now-crafty left-hander. "And he looks like a bear out there on the mound, just ready to pounce on somebody. He's made for this, for sure."

The shutout was lost in the top of the ninth when, after Adam Warren relieved Sabathia and pitched two spotless innings of relief, manager Joe Girardi with an eight-run cushion for comfort reached for Dellin Betances, whose formidability has been compromised of late by almost frightening inconsistency.

Sure enough, Betances walked both Gonzalez and pinch hitter Derek Fisher. Girardi couldn't forge the hook fast enough, probably thinking there went his opportunity to guarantee a full extra day's rest for his bullpen stalwarts Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman all.

So he reached for Kahnle. Maybin loaded the pads with a base hit to left, but Kahnle struck out George Springer authoritatively. Then he walked Alex Bregman to send home Gonzalez with Altuve, the little big man and likely American League Most Valuable Player this year, coming up.

Every Astros fan in creation prayed Altuve would blast one onto the River Avenue El behind the stadium. Altuve looked at three lethal enough Kahnle changeups — basically the right-hander's money pitch; he'd failed to throw one to Maybin and threw only one to Bregman — then whacked a fourth to second for a game-ending double play.

The Astros were supposed to have an offense that could wear down and slaughter the best pitching you could throw their way. But they have only 3 extra-base hits in 89 trips to the LCS plate and a .169 team batting average. And the LCS so far is only the second time all year the Astros were limited to two runs or less in any three-game span.

With two innings' worth of machine gun and mortar fire, the Yankees became the LCS scoring leaders — 10-4 if you're scoring at home. They're not hitting noticeably better than the Astros overall on the set (team LCS batting average: .183), but there's nothing like a Game 3 rout to make you suddenly feel like a lineup of four and a half mastodons and four and a half Bigfeet.

"Our whole lineup isn't hitting," said Astros right fielder Josh Reddick after the game. "We relied on Altuve and [Carlos] Correa a little too much in the first two games, and we've just got to come together as a team and maybe talk it out and work on the things we were doing in the Boston series. We need to put this game behind us.

"We got our butts whipped tonight. That's the only way to put it," he continued. "We didn't come out and do our jobs. But it could be worse. We could be down 1-2. At least we've got a little bit of a lead now."

The emphasis is on "little." Nobody told the Astros these Yankees would be pushovers. Nobody would have been that foolish.

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