How the Yankees beat themselves

2019-10-20 AroldisChapman.jpg
It almost figures that Aroldis Chapman’s smile of utter disbelief would be taken the wrong way by Yankee fans after Jose Altuve’s Saturday night special.

Aroldis Chapman showed a very odd smile almost immediately after Jose Altuve ended his assignment and the Yankees’ season with one swing. Then, as the Astros’ little big man rounded third, Chapman finally made the long, head-down walk off the mound into the Minute Maid Park visitors’ clubhouse.

Every report from that clubhouse after the Astros’s stupefying 6-4 win Saturday night describes Chapman as, phrased politely, bent out of shape. He sank at his locker, refusing to look up unless one or another teammate happened by for a pat on the back. And when he looked up, the towel he put over his head stayed put.

He’s not the only man who ever smiled in disbelief after being humiliated in front of a full house in the ballpark and a throng watching on television or listening on radio. And he won’t be the last. He’s not even the only Yankee who ever smiled in disbelief in a moment like that.

Even Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera showed a very similar smile after Luis Gonzalez singled the Diamondbacks into a World Series ring on the longtime Yankee bellwether’s dollar. But I don’t remember Yankee fans crawling all over The Mariano the way they hammered Chapman over it.

“At that moment when the ball went out, I couldn’t believe it,” the 31-year-old lefthander who still throws the proverbial lamb chops past wolves said after Altuve’s drive banged off the left field pavilion concrete. “I couldn’t believe it went out at that time of the game. For that split-second, I just couldn’t believe it.”

Why did Chapman throw Altuve a second straight slider on 2-1 after showing him two fastballs that didn’t quite reach his once-signature 101 mph but still had plenty enough giddyap to stay above the average? Did beleaguered Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez lose the plot? Did manager Aaron Boone call the pitch from the dugout? And did either or both simply make a terrible call?

“I fell behind in the count and wanted to get ahead with the slider, and I didn’t,” Chapman said. “It didn’t land in the spot where I wanted, and he took full advantage of that. That’s what I was trying to do in that at-bat.”

In the moment you, too, sat in disbelief, even if you were an Astro fan and even if you knew that if anyone could or would come up big enough in that moment, a pennant on the line in a game tied in the top of the ninth, it just had to be Altuve.

Look at the Astros through the full ALCS set. Alex Bregman, who’s liable to be named the American League’s Most Valuable Player if Mike Trout isn’t, had a solid on-base percentage but slugged .222.

Yuli Gurriel looked like an Astro bust overall until he smashed a three-run homer in the Game Six first. Carlos Correa hit a couple of home runs including the electrifying Game Two winner but hit 22 points below his weight otherwise. And their likely AL Rookie of the Year, Yordan Alvarez, was last seen offering a ransom for his kidnapped bat.

And look at the Yankees. Aaron Judge hit one out in Game Two (and it was his only homer all postseason long) but nothing else among his six hits in 27 plate appearances went for extra bases. Except for one home run Giancarlo Stanton’s bothersome quad made him useless in the designated-hitter role. Brett Gardner, Mr. Savages-In-The-Box? He had a .345 . . . series OPS.

Sanchez, the classic good-hit/terrible-field catcher, hit one out and managed to drive three in but he was otherwise good for nothing much at the plate. Of all the Yankee regulars, only D.J. LeMahieu—whose two-run homer in the top of the ninth set the stage for Altuve’s heroics in the bottom of the inning in the first place—and Gleyber Torres showed real value in the batter’s box.

Then you remembered Chapman began reaching for his slider more after 2016. Including 31.1 percent of the time this season and 38.3 percent of the time when he had a hitter at two strikes, according to MLB.com. And with George Springer aboard on a two-out walk, Chapman and the Yankees didn’t even think about putting Altuve on to pitch to Jake Marisnick, a late-game insertion who’s known for his defense far more than his bat.

Boone said it wasn’t an intentional walk situation but a situation to pitch aggressively. “[H]e just hung a breaking ball,” Boone told reporters after the game. “That’s obviously a pitch he’s trying to not give in and probably get down and out of the zone, see if you get a chase or something, and he hung it.”

Except that there wasn’t a jury on earth who’d convict him for malfeasance or cowardice if he’d ordered the free pass to Altuve. And of the eleven breaking balls Chapman threw in the inning, four of them hung—including the strike at which Altuve looked one pitch before the hanger that graduated Altuve from mere Astro heart and soul into eternal Astro legend.

All season long Boone and the Yankees operated around their bullpen. All season long Boone managed his pen adroitly, refusing to overwork those bulls, refusing to let the other guys have the same looks at the same arms in too-short intervals.

And all of that disappeared in the American League Championship Series. Against a team that pounces on the slightest mistake and refuses spurn such gifts as seeing the same arms in just about the same situations. And, against a Chapman whom the Astros hadn’t even seen except for two ALCS innings before Saturday night but whose slider suddenly made the ten most wanted list.

In fact, Chapman was almost in danger of resembling the forgotten Yankee this postseason. And when he did appear, he didn’t miss as many bats as usual. Even inserted to pitch the ninth in a Game One division series blowout, when he got one strikeout and two contact outs plus a walk. When a man with a 13.4 strikeouts-per-nine rate on the season doesn’t miss that many bats, the alarm should be blasting.

Just don’t ask Chapman if his use during this postseason factored into the final disaster. He isn’t buying it. “What happened on the field is what happened on the field,” he said matter-of-factly. “It had nothing to do with that.”

Far more sensible to point to assorted Yankee mistakes all series long and even all Game Six long. They weren’t as slapstick in Game Four as they were in Game Six, but Game Six was its own comedy of errors, official and unofficial alike:

* Playing for the double play with nobody out and the Astros having first and third in the bottom of the sixth. Down a run, the Yankees should have played the infield in. Instead, they got the double play grounder, but shortstop Didi Gregorius unexpectedly took a quick peek toward the plate before throwing. That moment cost the Yankees the double play and the run scored regardless.

* Letting Tommy Kahnle pitch a third day in a row. Kahnle was one of the Yankees’ best relievers in the set but it was bad enough the Yankee bullpen rarely if ever appeared in differing conditions without Kahnle being extended like that. The Yankees may have been lucky to escape the sixth with only one run scoring in the inning.

* Judge ambling too far toward second base on Aaron Hicks’s seventh-inning pop to shallow left. Granted that Astros left fielder Michael Brantley wasn’t known for his defensive virtuosity, but his diving catch, springing up promptly, and throwing strongly back to first doubled Judge up too easily. You got why Judge got over-aggressive but every baserunner matters in a tight game and he cost the Yankees a chance to push one around the circuit.

* Edwin Encarnacion was such a bust as the Yankee designated hitter this series that, with Stanton still ailing, Boone could and should have reached for alternatives. He had Cameron Maybin on the bench. He could have assigned the defensively challenged Sanchez to DH in Game Six and sent Austin Romine, who doesn’t hit much but handles things far better defensively, out behind the plate.

The Astros entered Game Six with a shot at both the pennant and at not having to burn Gerrit Cole in a Game Seven when they’d far prefer to have him open the World Series if they got there. The Yankees entered Game Six needing to do or be dead. Those Game Six mistakes built the Yankee coffin Altuve nailed tight shut.

Neither the Astros nor the Yankees hit with authority during most of the ALCS, but the Yankees had potential tying or go-ahead runs at the plate 26 times in the set. Entering Game Six they were 5-for-29 with men on second base or better. The Yankees also became notorious this set for failing to cash in several bases-loaded situations including first innings in Games Three and Four. But staying loyal to the veteran Encarnacion, a June trade acquisition, cost the Yankees dearly.

He may have hit 34 home runs during the season but come the ALCS Encarnacion looked twice his 36 years. He wasn’t anywhere near resembling the bombardier who once sent the Blue Jays into a division series with a mammoth game-ending three-run homer made possible when Orioles manager Buck Showalter wouldn’t even think about bringing in his best reliever because it wasn’t a quote save situation.

All season long Boone looked like a master administrator. You don’t win 100+ games in your first two seasons otherwise. But in Game Six he looked like a novice while his team got out-played, out-thought, and out-smarted most of the way.

Right down to the moment he wouldn’t even think about giving up the ghost, walking Altuve on the house after 2-0, and pitching to a .289 regular-season on-base percentage instead of a .353 OBP with a man on in the bottom of the ninth. If he’d ordered Altuve walked he might have gotten extra innings and another chance.

And don’t even think about blaming Game Six plate umpire Marvin Hudson. Both the Astros and the Yankees had plenty of reasons to complain about his Rocky Horror Picture Show-wide strike zone: a little to the left, a little to the right, let’s do the Time Warp again. The only wonder was that no Astro or Yankee was tempted to try fouling Hudson into the concussion that took Jeff Nelson out of the set unintentionally.

The Yankees measure their success by World Series appearances. And they’re not even a twentieth as obnoxious about it as their fans. Of all the cliches around the Yankees, the truest is that they don’t like to lose. Of all the cliches around Yankee fans, the truest are a) they think annual trips to the World Series are their birthright; and, b) to err is human, but to forgive is not Yankee fan policy.

They’ve just finished only the second decade in their history without reaching a World Series. And they did it by failing to deliver the second part of their most successful manager ever’s wisdom: Baseball is percentage plus execution. With occasional lapses operating the former.

The first ended the year Eugene Debs was imprisoned for speaking against World War I, Prohibition took legal effect, Albert Cushing Read made history’s first transatlantic flight, American women received the vote, and eight members of the White Sox either did their best to throw a World Series or kept their mouths shut about those trying to do it.

It’s enough to make a team whose average age this season is 28 feel as though the average age is 86.

And the way Jose Altuve 86ed the Yankees in the end sent him to the same chamber of legends where Lew Burdette, Bill Mazeroski, Luis Gonzalez, Dave Roberts, and David Ortiz reside in the small but honoured sub-chamber of Yankee slayers.

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