If October was once again going to turn the New York Yankees' way, as it has in so many past golden autumns, this was the moment. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he was sure of it. He was not alone in that belief, as a sellout crowd of 50,113 rose to the kind of fever pitch that used to make the old Yankee Stadium tremble.
"The stadium was rocking, that’s for sure," said Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel, the bearded left-hander who was standing alone in the middle of all that noise in the sixth inning Tuesday night, two runners on base, Alex Rodriguez striding to the plate as the potential go-ahead run. “A-Rod’s coming up. Doesn’t get any more exciting than this."
Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch popped out of the visitors dugout. He had two relievers, left-hander Tony Sipp and right-hander Chad Qualls, warming up. Keuchel, who had taken the ball against the Yankees now three times this season and had not allowed a single man in a pinstriped uniform to cross home plate, was working on three days’ rest.
Watching from the stands, surrounded by Yankees fans and having to stand up for every pitch, was Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. Did he think, even for a moment, that Hinch was going out to fetch his ace?
"I knew if he didn’t signal to the bullpen right away," Luhnow said, "Dallas was probably going to convince him that he should stay in the game. That’s what happened. It was the exact right decision. A.J. managed this game flawlessly."
"I walked out there to gauge the room temperature a little bit," Hinch said. "And with Dallas, he’s cool, calm, collected all the time.
"I wanted him to finish that at-bat. But as you’re walking out there, that’s probably the most adrenaline I’ve had in this chair in my short managerial career, because you’re at the Yankee Stadium, it’s the sixth inning and Alex Rodriguez is up and you have the potential Cy Young Award winner on the mound. So what a great moment, and I’m really happy it turned out in our favor."
Keuchel threw one pitch to Rodriguez. It would be the last pitch he would throw, and it was one he selected based on a piece of information he had processed from Rodriguez’s previous at-bat, when he had lined out to right in the fourth. Rodriguez had swung at a first-pitch fastball.
"I knew with his first-pitch swing in his second at-bat," Keuchel said, "I was definitely throwing a cutter. I knew if I could elevate it or get it middle-in, I had a good shot to have him pop it up, and luckily that’s what he did.
"But I was playing blackjack there, and it paid off."
Rodriguez lifted an easy fly ball to center, where it was gathered in by Carlos Gomez, who somehow set aside the pain he felt on every swing to hit a home run and give the Astros eight innings despite a strained intercostal muscle. Colby Rasmus had preceded Gomez’s fourth-inning blast with a drive into the right-field seats in the second, both home runs coming off Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka, who on this night was no match for Keuchel. Jose Altuve singled home another run in the seventh, off Yankees right-handed relief ace Dellin Betances, and the Astros’ bullpen set down the Yankees without another hit over the final three innings.
"The script played out today the way we hoped it would," Luhnow said. "Good starting pitching, good bullpen, no mistakes on defense and the offense showed up in different parts of the lineup. That’s how we played all year, that’s what got us here and that’s what hopefully is going to keep us going."
If the Astros were in awe of their surroundings, they never showed it. The tone was set by Keuchel, who struck out Yankees leadoff man Brett Gardner to start the game, the first of Gardner’s three whiffs, and Rodriguez to end the first on a called third strike with a runner on second.
"We couldn’t solve Keuchel," Girardi lamented. "We couldn’t solve him the whole year."
The Yankees’ vulnerability against left-handers had revealed itself, especially after Mark Teixeira fractured his leg. When the Red Sox came in for a series at the end of September they gave the Yankees fits with a rookie left-hander, Eduardo Rodriguez, and a 35-year-old, Rich Hill, who only weeks before had been pitching for the independent league Long Island Ducks.
Tuesday night, the Yankees were facing one of the two left-handers who will be recognized as the best pitcher in the American League. If Keuchel doesn’t win, Toronto’s David Price will. Short rest for Keuchel did not translate into a shortfall in will.
"If I had a chance to take the ball in the wild-card game," Keuchel said, “I didn’t want to let my teammates down. I knew if we had a shot, I was going to give everything I possibly could.
"Never would I imagine that I would have pitched that well or we would have played that well in Yankee Stadium, on that big a stage. But that’s what we’ve been doing all year."
Closer Luke Gregerson was on the mound for the final three outs. He struck out Carlos Beltran and Rodriguez, then induced Brian McCann to hit a roller to the rookie prodigy, Carlos Correa, who threw across the diamond to Marwin Gonzalez, one of four Astros who have been on the team through all the losing.
"Believe it or not, I probably couldn’t have been calmer," Gregerson said. "I don’t know what it was. I think I thought about it all day. I was just trying to breathe and keep calm the whole time, and it worked out. I was calm. I felt great.
"I didn’t know what to do when he hit the ground ball to short. Carlos threw it to first, I froze for a second. I didn’t know what to do. I just went to the person with the ball. But to come in there and close out the game in Yankee Stadium is something I’ll never forget."
Gregerson was part of the late-inning Oakland collapse in the wild-card game against Kansas City last season, the one that served as catalyst to the Royals’ wildly unexpected run all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. The Astros haven’t been in the postseason for 10 years. Could it be their turn on the magic bus?
"I think this team is prepared, I think they’re ready," Gregerson said. "I know they’re young, but they showed this ain’t no fluke. This team can play some baseball. We can pitch, we can hit and we’ve got the opportunity to win."