Houston ace Dallas Keuchel had owned this team — until Wednesday night — and now the Yankees are one win from the World Series.
NEW YORK — The man on the mound for the Houston Astros was supposed to belong on a short list of the greatest New York sports tormentors. Think Reggie Miller with a beard, or Tom Brady with a beard, or Chipper Jones with a …
You get the picture.
The young Yankees had battled their way back into this American League Championship Series with a pair of victories in Games 3 and 4, but those came against the back end of the Astros rotation and the shaky (to put it kindly) Houston bullpen.
Beating Dallas Keuchel?
That was supposed to be the impossible task. Keuchel owned the Yankees, singlehandedly sending them home in the 2015 AL Wild Card game and breezing through the opener of this ALCS. Maybe, the thinking was, the Yankees could have a chance in Game 5 if they could get into Houston bullpen again, but otherwise, good luck.
And so you can imagine the delirium in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night when, just after 7 p.m. and before the fifth inning had even ended, Houston manager A.J. Hinch walked to the mound to take the ball away from his dejected and soundly defeated ace.
Keuchel had said the night before that he loved it when fans of the “Evil Empire” — oh yes, he went there — booed him. The man with the beard was not feared or jeered. He was cheered.
The Yankees cruised to a 5-0 victory in Game 5 to take a 3-2 advantage in this ALCS, and in the process, they can cross off another item on their October “To Do” list. And, at this point, you really have to wonder: If they can beat Keuchel like this, what can’t they do?
They face Houston’s other ace, Justin Verlander, in Game 6, and they need to prove that all the magic they’ve generated at Yankee Stadium over the past two wonderfully wild weeks can travel to Texas.
“We know we want to get a piece of Verlander,” third basemen Todd Frazier said, “and we want to get him out early too.”
Verlander had a Bob Gibson-esque type performance in his 124-pitch, compete game victory in Game 2. This ALCS isn’t over, although you would never know by watching the Astros’ body language in the late innings of this lopsided game on Wednesday.
Still: It is hard not to look ahead now. The narrative around this Yankees team was supposed to be all about the future. Even before Wednesday’s game, Girardi fielded several questions about what this postseason might mean for 2018 and beyond.
Would this run raise expectations? “I’m sure it has,” he replied. Would all of these tense playoff games prove invaluable for the young players? “I think the experience every day helps them,” he answered.
Forget all that. This Yankees team is about right now. If you’ve seen any reason to think that 2017 can’t end with a 28th world championship and a parade in lower Manhattan, go ahead and send it along. The Dodgers, up 3-0 against the defending champion Cubs in the NLCS, are damn good.
But the Yankees are blossoming into the same exact thing in front of our eyes this month. What they did to Keuchel is the latest sign that this group is becoming something special.
The 0.00 postseason ERA against the Yankees wasn’t the only daunting statistic the Houston ace brought into this game. He has faced the team in the opposing dugout over 57 2/3 innings in his career and hadn’t hit a single home run. Could this Yankees lineup, so dependent on the long ball, beat him without one?
“Against a guy like that, the only way you’re going to break through is to grind them out, grind them out, grind them out,” designated hitter Chase Headley said. “And finally, we were able to break through.”
They did that with seven hits and a walk over 4 2/3 innings. Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez — there go those kids again — each had an RBI hit off Keuchel, and an fifth inning with three singles, a walk and an error is what eventually chased him off the mound.
Masahiro Tanaka had more run support than he needed. He pitched seven brilliant innings, allowing just three hits and striking out eight. Weren’t the Astros supposed to have the best offense in the major leagues? They have looked overmatched from top to bottom, and have official reached the throwing-their-bats-and-helmets-in-frustration stage.
The Yankees, meanwhile, just keep doing their thing. Game 4 was all about the emotional rally from a 4-0 deficit, but Game 5 was just a methodical win that could have been pulled from June or July.
They are one victory away from the World Series now — five victories, if you want to get crazy, from a celebraton that absolutely no one saw coming. They have a long way to go, of course, and everything changes if Verlander shuts them down on Friday night in Houston.
But after the way they beat up their bearded tormentor, does anyone want to bet against them?