NEW YORK -- The complete implosion of the New York Yankees, a 103-win team that spent Game 4 of the American League Championship Series looking like a 103-loss team, ended Friday at 12:28 a.m. local time. Remaining at Yankee Stadium were maybe 5,000 fans. They stayed to boo.
Over the previous 3½ hours, they had watched the Yankees bungle balls in the field and squander opportunities at the plate and serve up home run balls on the mound. They saw CC Sabathia, the heart of the team, walk off the field because of a shoulder injury likely to end his career. They witnessed an excellent team demoralized by a better one. The Houston Astros had left the savages in the box famished. The ALCS wasn't over following the Houston's 8-3 victory that gave the Astros a three-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven series, but it felt like it.
"We played poorly tonight. There's no other way to explain it," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "And we need to flush this immediately because -- we talked about it as a team: We need to get over this in a hurry and come put our best foot forward tomorrow. And now, stranger things have certainly happened, a lot stranger."
Not this strange. The Astros have Justin Verlander lined up to pitch Game 5 on full rest. If the Yankees win, they need to go into Houston, with a taxed relief crew, and win a battle of the bullpens in Game 6. Should that happen, they'll have to beat Gerrit Cole, and the Astros haven't lost a game started by Cole since July 12, a span of 16 starts.
After winning Game 1 in Houston, the Yankees have married nonexistent clutch hitting with mediocre pitching, and in Game 4, they added to it butchery in the field. First baseman DJ LeMahieu committed a pair of errors. So did second baseman Gleyber Torres. Never before in the postseason had the right side of an infield committed four errors in a game. The last time the Yankees managed that many miscues in a playoff game was in 1976. It wasn't ugly. It was unsightly.
"It was a tough night," LeMahieu said. "And then that happened."
"That" was Sabathia walking off the field almost certainly for the final time. He had planned on retiring following the season. Boone brought him in to clean up an eighth-inning mess left by Adam Ottavino, one of the Yankees' best relievers during the regular season and an energy-sucking black hole this October. On his 20th pitch of the night, Sabathia grimaced and wiggled his left shoulder, which had thrown 56,375 pitches in the regular season and 2,287 more in the playoffs. He tested it once more and knew he couldn't continue, a cliché come to life -- literally leaving it all on the field.
The stragglers from a crowd announced at 49,067 gave Sabathia a worthy ovation, saluting his Hall of Fame career. And then they returned to jeering a Yankees team thoroughly outclassed by the Astros all night. Houston walloped a pair of three-run home runs: George Springer in the third inning, off starter Masahiro Tanaka, and Carlos Correa in the sixth, off reliever Chad Green. The Astros' baserunning was nonpareil, their fielding superior and their pitching sufficient. Even after their starter, Zack Greinke, battled uncharacteristic bouts of wildness, reliever Ryan Pressly struck out Torres and Edwin Encarnacion with runners on second and third to wriggle out of a fifth-inning jam.
From the sixth inning on, the Yankees truly fell apart. LeMahieu booted a spinning nubber off Alex Bregman's bat to start the inning, and Bregman scored on Correa's home run. LeMahieu and Torres kicked balls in back-to-back, eighth-inning at-bats. Torres, charging a ball in hopes of nailing the speedy Jose Altuve in the ninth, overran it.
The Yankees' night was like a nightmarish baseball remix of the Twelve Days of Christmas: five hits a-flailing, four errors a-making, three runs a-scoring, two guys not fielding and a season ceasing to be.
"We can't sit around here and mope about this game or the past couple games," Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge said, and that sentiment was echoed by his teammates, who talked about short memories and resilience and all the standard tropes of teams that aren't winning. Which made sense: After a performance like Game 4, nobody in his right mind wants to bother remembering it.
Thing is, as thoroughly as the Yankees asserted themselves and dominated the Minnesota Twins in the division series -- and have owned them in recent playoff matchups -- the Astros are on the verge of similarly vexing New York. The Yankees blew a 3-2 lead in the ALCS two years ago before the Astros went on to win the World Series. New York lost the wild-card game to Houston two years prior to that. Houston is doing everything the Yankees aren't, chiefly hitting with runners in scoring position. The Yankees have gone 0-for-13 in such situations during Games 3 and 4. The Astros whacked three hits -- including both home runs -- in Game 4 alone.
"We did a lot of things right, and we have a team offense," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "We have a lot of big names. We have a lot of guys that have some star appeal. We do have guys any given day that can bust out and have that big monster night. Our team is at our best when everybody is doing something, and we put a lot of pressure on the opponent every day."
The Yankees caved against the lineup in Game 4, and whether it was plating only one run in the first inning when Greinke walked three batters or blowing another bases-loaded chance in the fifth, the game's run-scoringest offense during the regular season turtled when faced with what amounted to a must-win game. Because, as Boone said, now it will take something strange for an Acela World Series to become a reality. And baseball, as unpredictable a game as it might be, doesn't often see its fanfic come to life.
The anger in those 5,000 or so who were there to hear "New York, New York" play at the end of a long October night was palpable. It would be one thing for the Astros to beat the Yankees; it was entirely different to see the Yankees beat themselves. This wasn't the team that had run roughshod through the AL East. It was some fun-house-mirror version, sloppy and impotent and vulnerable. It was the sort that can't afford to show up again, because if it does, 2019 will register as another failure for the game's ultimate championship-or-bust franchise.