NEW YORK -- It didn’t feel like October at Yankee Stadium. It was humid, as if the Bronx were a southern city in August. Still, the beauty of this baseball month shone through, as the crowd grew loud and the narratives changed as swiftly as one of Masahiro Tanaka’s splitters.
Tanaka was the ultimate star in the New York Yankees' season-saving American League Division Series Game 3, 1-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians. The Indians still lead the series two games to one, but the Yankees have their ace Luis Severino starting Monday, and Cleveland must, at the least, wait one more night for another champagne bath.
On Sunday, it was Tanaka, who threw the most important seven scoreless innings of his major league career. It was right fielder Aaron Judge, who stole a two-run homer in the sixth inning. It was first baseman Greg Bird, who smashed the solo homer in the seventh. It was catcher Gary Sanchez, whose defense was not a focal point for a change, which, in other words, means it was very good.
But it was more than that because of what it washed away, at least for a day. Tanaka has had such a poor regular season he was the Yankees’ fourth choice to start a playoff game. Judge has not hit and has barely made contact in the ALDS (0-for-10 with eight strikeouts). Bird has missed most of the past two seasons due to injury. Sanchez has been criticized all season for his failure to give his pitchers confidence because of, among other things, his inability to block balls.
This was a one-day reprieve, of course, and the Yankees still have a lot of work to take care of to erase the big one, the failures of manager Joe Girardi in Game 2, that have the Yankees thinking how they could have put Severino in a much better position than trying to stave off elimination.
The team’s fans let Girardi have it in pregame introductions, as he was the only Yankee official booed.
“I’ve seen them boo players and managers that have a lot more status than I do,” Girardi said. “I prepared my family for it.”
His team, though, wasn’t ready to stop playing baseball, according to Bird. There may still be time to turn those boos back into cheers for Girardi.
Tanaka, who was 13-12 with a 4.74 ERA this season, pitched so poorly that he was Girardi’s final starter choice. On Sunday, though, he was worthy of his $155 million contract with quickness in his arm, according to pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Tanaka used a well-located fastball, a devious splitter and some rarely seen emotion. He screamed at the end of some innings, releasing his inner CC Sabathia.
“He was brilliant,” Girardi said.
But there are plays that change how a night is looked at, which is where Judge came in to save Tanaka. Judge is known for hitting home runs, but in the sixth inning, he stole one. Francisco Lindor hit a drive that the 6-foot-7, nearly 300-pound right fielder thought he had a beat on from the start. His height didn’t hurt.
“He’s bigfoot out there,” third baseman Todd Frazier said.
Judge went back to the wall, took a little leap and stole what would have been the first two runs of the game. It was Jeter-esque.
An inning later, in the seventh, it was Bird against Andrew Miller. The Yankees helped the Indians make it to the World Series last season by trading Miller to Cleveland as the Yankees tried to transform their roster with more youth to complement what they saw coming.
Before Judge and Sanchez became All-Stars, Bird was the first inkling that the Yankees might have some real young hitters making their way through the system. As a rookie in 2015, Bird slammed 11 homers in 46 games. However, injuries have robbed him of his chance to stand next to Sanchez and Bird. The talent, though, has remained.
“He’s got that lefty swing,” Frazier said. “It’s poetic.”
He missed all of 2016 with shoulder surgery. This season, he began the year as the Yankees’ No. 3 hitter, but spent most of the rest of it on the disabled list. This time, it was an ankle that needed surgery. In September, he was back, and you could tell he might be a big factor in October.
He got the best of Miller, crushing a home run to right. Usually, pretty reserved, all the emotion spilled out of Bird. After he touched home, he nearly smashed Frazier’s arm.
“I couldn’t feel my forearm for a couple of minutes,” Frazier said.
Judge may be Bird’s best friend on the team. They came up through the minor leagues together. He has never seen Bird that pumped up.
“I’m not ready to be done playing and I don’t [think] the rest of the team is,” Bird said.
No, they are not. That includes Sanchez. His defense has been such a big issue that Girardi benched him for a game in August. But, on Sunday, with the season on the line, Sanchez’s defense went largely unnoticed, which said everything.
The Yankees can lament that they should be the team up 2-1 in the series with a chance to clinch. But they do have their ace on the mound in Severino, looking for his own redemption after recording just one out in the wild-card game.
A night that began with the manager being booed and answering questions about how much longer he may have his job, ended in a victory. It is just one, but the Yankees showed again they can play with the Indians. They finally beat them. Can they beat them twice more? That is still a very tall order.
But what would Yogi Berra say after Game 3’s Yankee win?