Playoff Baseball Tonight! – The New Yorker

Baseball tonight—the Houston Astros and the Yankees, up at the
Stadium—and grab it if you can. This is the best part of the baseball
year, the mid-series three games of the four-out-of-seven League
Championships, when the batters will be facing the other guys’ mid-level
starters and have already seen their bullpens. The Astros took the first
two games by identical 2–1 scores, but these Yankees, as we know,
persevere when trailing.

Yesterday, the Dodgers took a 2–0 lead in their N.L.C.S. faceoff with the Cubs when
their tawny-maned slugger Justin Turner struck a three-run walk-off homer
in the bottom of the ninth. The teams will resume tomorrow, at Wrigley
Field.

The earlier decimations of the Divisionals and the one-game-and-out
wild-card wipeouts are already over, with ten teams shrunk to eight
in a few days. Gone, among barely recalled others, are the Red Sox, the
Indians, and the Nationals. I watched all this mostly late at night
while sitting a foot or two from my home screen, as my elder eyesight
requires, and felt bruised by so much bad baseball and slightly sickened
by so many extreme closeups of gigantic pizzas and quesadillas in the
fast-food commercials. The Applebee’s menu was accompanied by an Eric
Carmen lyric that goes, “I’ve got hungry eyes / I feel the magic between
you and I . . .”

Not as bad, to be sure, as the Nationals’ 9–8 loss to the Cubs in their
self-eliminating, fifth-game home finale, when the Nats grotesquely
destroyed themselves with a near-unimaginable series of mistakes,
including a passed ball, an ill-advised wild throw past first, and a
call of batter interference, all by the catcher Matt Wieters, in the top
of the fifth. There was also a run-evolving wild pitch, a bases-loaded
hit batter, and a picked-off Nats runner. All this did away with the
Nationals’ early 4–1 lead and, in the end, contributed to their fourth
post-season departure in the past six years. The only thing everyone in
Washington can agree on right now is that something is deeply wrong with
their ball team, something that requires fixing. For starters, I suggest
a floral horseshoe-wreath farewell to manager Dusty.

The Yankees-Astros games, in their opening A.L.C.S. meetings, in
Houston, felt clear and bracing—a pair of minimalist, 2–1,
pitcher-dominated quickies, each involving a play in which a Yankee base
runner was erased by the brilliant Houston defense. In the opener, the
Yanks were up against the Astros ace and former Cy Young holder Dallas
Keuchel, a huge local favorite whose weird stage-prop beard is worn in
replica by dozens of kids throughout the stands. His left-handed,
scimitar-like, low-breaking stuff delivered seven scoreless innings,
which was just barely better than the Yankees’ Masahiro Tanaka’s six,
marred only by three little singles and two runs in the fourth.

The play of the game came when Aaron Judge, with his teammate Greg Bird
on second, singled to left, where Marwin González snatched up the ball
and threw out Bird by a whisker at the plate. Replay, while taking
nothing away from the peg, showed that Bird had stumbled a fraction on
the base path and had also run too wide a route around third. The
postgame Fox commentators also reminded us that Judge’s hit came on a
three-and-two count, when Bird should have been off sooner, and from
closer to third.

There was more of this the next day, when the Yankees’ Brett Gardner
whacked a third-inning, two-out double to right against Justin
Verlander, but was erased, stretching, on a scintillant relay throw by
the shortstop Carlos Correa. Never make a third out at third base is an
ancient precept, but Gardner had a clear shot and later blamed himself
for a little wobble on the base path. What lingers here is the quickness
and absolute assurance displayed by so many different Astros. That play
at third had been started by the right fielder Josh Reddick, who had
just pulled down a deep drive from the Yankees’ d.h. Chase Headley near
the wall. Correa, who is only twenty-three years old, not only made the
flashy mid-play relay but also hit a solo home run in the fourth and
delivered the game-winning run with a one-out double in the ninth. All
this, and here at last comes mention of José Altuve, the best hitter in
his league, who just completed his fourth straight season with two
hundred-plus hits. He’s a little Eveready who can meet any pitch to any
part of the zone with a straight-arm full stroke. He appears to run and
steal bases with a whirring impatience, and waits on the bench between
times almost in the same mood. He was on first in the ninth inning after
another single in this second game, and, taking off with Correa’s drive
to right, buzzed the bases and slid home with the winning run. Altuve
goes five feet six, and is a prime candidate for this year’s American
League M.V.P., challenged only by Judge, who is his almost perfect
opposite in every respect. I am waiting for the moment in these next few
games when we see them side by side at different altitudes in the middle
of the same play.

Verlander, the Astros’ starter in the second game, is another story, a
near-Jurassic figure, known to us for his implacable pitching and
late-season heroics with the Tigers. He is stolid and at home out there
in the middle of things, with his stubbled chin and intelligent gaze and
rocking, no-windup delivery. He exceeded even his own expectations this
time, surrendering a lone run in the fifth, and staying on for the
tied-up full nine innings after a hundred and twenty-four pitches and
thirteen strikeouts, five of them coming in the seventh and eighth.

Strikeouts, of course, come in shocking numbers these days, and we will
be anxiously watching at the Stadium, tonight and later, every time Aaron
Judge steps in. He fanned twice in the most recent game, but endured
four-strikeout games three times against Cleveland. All this comes after
his all-time rookie record two hundred and eight strikeouts over the
regular season.

My baseball experience stretches back a bit, and I can’t quite get my
mind around this new and widespread swing-and-sit-down style of ball.
Babe Ruth struck out all the time, to be sure, but I also have vivid
images of Hank Aaron and Ted Williams and, more recently, Albert Pujols,
home-run hitters who almost always made contact and left the plate
disconsolate when they didn’t. Judge appears sad but never surprised
when he fans. I keep reminding myself that he is still only twenty-five,
and will almost surely keep on learning and improving. One of these
days, but maybe not this week, he will reach a breaking pitch down and
away and rip it into deep right for a double and bring me bounding out
of my chair.

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