Go big or go home.
That’s the beauty of postseason baseball and is the reason so many teams go home early in this everybody gets a birthday cupcake, even though it is not your birthday, postseason.
The adrenaline is finally flowing now even with no fans in the stands. The 60-game season/spring training is done. Now you are seeing some real baseball and some big-time performances.
The Yankees’ two-game sweep of the Indians is a perfect example of that. Big at-bats, big plays and the Yankees are on their way to San Diego to face the Rays in an AL East ALDS that starts Monday at Petco Park.
They got there because of a clutch go-ahead single by DJ LeMahieu in the top of the ninth inning that lifted the Yankees to an incredible 10-9 win over the Indians at Progressive Field. It was a night of comebacks as the Yankees trailed 4-0, got a grand slam from Gio Urshela and kept charging.
Urshela made the defensive play of the night, saving a run in the bottom of the eighth with a double play from his backside and then bounced a single on an 0-2 pitch off losing pitcher Brad Hand to set up the two-run ninth inning. Big plays were everywhere and that is what the postseason is all about. Gary Sanchez hit a two-run home run and then a game-tying sacrifice fly in the ninth.
A leadoff walk by Hand in the ninth to Giancarlo Stanton, who homered earlier in the game, started the comeback. When Stanton walked, Aaron Judge was cheering him on from the dugout and was already wearing his batting gloves.
Yes, Judge was due up seventh in the inning but was wearing his batting gloves. That’s what a leader does. And Judge did come to bat that inning and walked. Big plays, big hits and little things too make the difference in October.
This game started Wednesday night in September and ended early Thursday morning in October.
In the Yankees Game 1 victory on Tuesday, LeMahieu singled to lead off the game against ace of aces Shane Bieber. Then Judge homered to right-center on the first pitch he saw from Bieber, a fastball.
Judge gives the Yankees their bigness in more ways than one and that is what the Yankees have always been about, dating back to the days of Babe Ruth. The big hitter. The big presence.
The Yankees follow Judge’s lead and they will need to continue to do that to beat the Rays. The two teams do not like each other, and it will be old school hardball in this best-of-five series.
Again, the first pitch Judge saw in this postseason – a typical Indians’ postseason – he drilled for a two-run home run and the Yankees were off and running. No player has more will to succeed this October than Judge. The Yankees after having been ousted by the cheating Astros in 2017 and ’19 left an emotional scar on Judge who has had more than enough physical issues his short career.
In spring training Judge told me as much, that was to be the driving force for him this season. I have never seen him so focused.
So far, so good.
Aaron Judge is congratulated by third base coach Phil Nevin as he rounmds the bases after hitting a 1st inning two-run shot off of Shane Bieber on Tuesday night. Photo: AP
The Rays, a complete team that plays the game right, easily dispatched the young Blue Jays in two games. They know how to pitch against the Yankees and they certainly are not going to give up 12 walks like the Indians pitchers did in Game 2.
But there is much more at play here. Bieber fell right into the #Overnerding trap against Judge, for some reason starting him off with that fastball right down the middle. But that is what happens to teams in October that lose.
They out-think themselves. They beat themselves. The Indians have made it an art form, last winning the World Series in 1948.
A friend of mine from Cleveland once told me in his city they think the movie Major League is real. That is how sad their baseball history is, and they just can’t get over the hump despite having some good teams.
The Yankees, to their credit, sent a strong message before Game 1, saying that the underachieving Sanchez would not catch that game. Kyle Higashioka was to catch Gerrit Cole, who as Alex Rodriguez wisely noted of Cole’s success in Game 1: “Cole looking like the big time ace they bought.’’
After so many years of coming up short the big pitching money talks in October. The Yankees finally figured that out. And when Judge hit his two-run home run suddenly Cole’s chest expanded even more, there was no way he was to be denied. Cole and Judge are emotional leaders, combine that with DJ LeMahieu. Add Brett Gardner’s feistiness and you have the physical and emotional bedrock the Yankees need this October.
To their credit, the Yankees also sent a message when they started the veteran Gardner over Clint Frazier in Game 1 as well. The trust factor is there with Gardner. It’s that simple, and Gardner produced the second biggest hit of that game with an RBI double to put the Yankees up 3-0. From there it became a 12-3 cakewalk. Then came the 10-9 victory – 22 runs in two games.
That’s a big start.
DUSTY’S PYRAMID OF SUCCESS: Much credit to Dusty Baker for guiding the hated Astros past the Twins in two games in their wild card matchup. Baker had the toughest job in baseball this year, managing the Astros, a team despised by every other team for their electronic sign stealing as he picked up the pieces after the A.J. Hinch debacle. Shortstop Carlos Correa came up with the big seventh-inning home run in the 3-1 win over the Twins Wednesday and offered this telling comment: “I know a lot of people are mad, I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here, but what are they going to say now?”
It will be up to the White Sox or A’s to do what the Twins couldn’t do. The Choking Twins not only let down their fans once again, losing their record-setting 18th straight postseason game, they let down all of baseball. All of baseball wanted to see the Astros eliminated. The Astros only made the postseason this season because of the phony 16-team format. They finished the regular season with a 29-31 record, but props to Correa for coming up with the big hit. Like Judge with the Yankees, Correa is the heart and soul of the Astros, their big man. The Astros had to plug along without Justin Verlander (Tommy John surgery) but Baker has gotten them to the ALDS after their pennant-winning 2019 season.
In spring training I asked Astros owner Jim Crane what he had to say to the 2017 Yankees for the Astros cheating ways and this is what he offered up, not exactly concerned about other teams: “Listen, the Yankees have had a few comments out there. Our opinion is this didn’t impact the game. We had a good team. We won the World Series, and we’ll leave it at that.’’
That is not going to happen and the Yankees would like nothing better than to get the chance to play the Astros in the ALCS, but that is a long way off.
Dusty Baker has his Astros moving onto the ALDS, much to the chagrin of many across the baseball world.
I talked to Dusty at length this spring, when you could do one-on-one interviews before Covid, about his plan for getting the Astros right with so much going wrong. He masterfully used the pitching staff and young relievers to navigate through these two wins against the power-packed Twins. Baker is a big believer in UCLA basketball coaching legend John Wooden, and his style of leadership. Wooden is one of his heroes. Now Baker and the Astros will be heading to LA and Dodger Stadium. Baker coaches by Wooden’s Pyramid of Success and keeps a copy in his office. One of those 15 success building blocks is Poise: “Just being yourself. Being at ease in any situation. Never fighting yourself.’’
That describes Baker.
That is what Dusty taught his young relievers. Framber Valdez got the win in Game 1 and Christian Javier pitched three innings for the win in Game 2.
“When you are pitching well life is good, when you are not pitching well life is horrible,’’ Baker said after knocking out the Twins. “We had a great couple days. You really can’t tell when they are rattled. Framber, he’ll smile through it and Javier, he doesn’t show any emotion, good or bad. This is setting the stage for great heights in the present and in the future.’’
Baker, 71, was not sure he would manage again. He did a good job of managing the game in front of him and not simply managing the analytics like so many managers of today only do.
The game needs to be managed. You can’t pre-manage a game and follow a script. You have to manage the game; you have to let your players enjoy the moment and learn how to show poise and how to celebrate.
“I was just letting them celebrate,’’ Baker said of the Astros celebration. “We got some Latin music going on that we play after every win. It just feels good to win two in a row and have these guys happy and feeling good about themselves. We are still not operating on full cylinders because we have a couple other guys who have to start swinging better, but you know, we’ll get there. We’ll use the next couple of days to practice and work on getting some (batting) strokes together … We know this is going to be tough, you’re away from home and now we are going to go out in the bubble and back to Cali, back to my home.’’
After his first eight seasons with the Braves, Baker spent the rest of his career playing for California teams, eight years with the Dodgers, one year with the Giants and another two years with the A’s. He managed the Giants for 10 years.
In 1968 he broke in with the Braves. Hank Aaron was a teammate, so was Joe Torre, Felipe Alou, and Tito Francona, father to Indians manager Terry Francona. What an impressive group.
This is Dusty’s 23rd year of managing. His personal pyramid of success has worked out just fine and has been a model of many of Wooden’s building blocks including Loyalty: “To yourself and to all those dependent upon you. Keep your self-respect.’’
Dusty Baker has kept his self-respect, even when managing the Astros. “These guys,’’ he said of his Astros, “aren’t afraid of the Big Stage.’’
TWIN KILLING: Yes, the wild card round saw the Twins get ousted in two straight by the Astros, who didn’t even finish .500. The Twins have lost 18 straight postseason games. The last time the Twins won a postseason game the Curse of the Bambino was still a thing, way back in 2004. And blame it on Alex Rodriguez. The Twins had won Game 1 of that ALDS against the Yankees and were leading 6-5 in the bottom of the 12th inning of Game 2 at the real Yankee Stadium when A-Rod’s ground-rule double tied the score and then Hideki Matsui won it with a sacrifice fly. The Yankees dispatched the Twins and then had a 3-0 lead on the Red Sox in the ALCS, and I was there. Then Boston’s baseball world changed. The Curse of the Bambino was lifted.
The Twins are another team that relies on the home run, they hit 91 in 60 Fake Season Games but the Astros starting pitching staff and young relievers did not allow the Twins to extend their arms and hit any home runs in the two games at Target Field. Teams like the Twins, teams that rely only on the home run, most often collapse in the postseason because they can’t do the little things it takes to win games. They lost Game 1 because of a lazy throw by shortstop Jorge Polanco. Polanco struck out looking to end Game 2.
These usually are Nerd-based teams as well who can’t adjust in the postseason. That is because the arrogant front office leadership pays no attention on how to create runs. They have it all figured out. In the postseason, though, you have to create runs. Again, just to be clear, the Twins have not won a playoff game since Oct. 5, 2004. After that 2-0 win in Game 1 of the ALDS, they lost three straight to the Yankees, two in extra innings. I’m calling it The Curse of Doug Mientkiewicz. On July 31, of that 2004 season, Mientkiewicz was traded from the Twins to the Red Sox, who went on to break the Curse of the Bambino. Mientkiewicz and A-Rod were teammates at Westminster High in Miami in baseball and football. A-Rod was the QB. Mientkiewicz was the tight end.
Like most things in baseball, it comes back to A-Rod in some form or fashion.
FREE RUNNER: In this postseason you can already see how a Manfred rule that had good intentions has screwed up the game. During the regular season, a Fake Runner was placed at second base to start any and all extra innings for the two teams. It is called the easy way out.
Clubs got used to having that gift runner and that has created bad habits. Sure in the regular season, teams would once in a while bunt the runner over to third base, but in the postseason that has not been the case when they get someone on base with no outs. There was no greater example than the Braves 1-0, 13-inning win over the base-running challenged Reds in Game 1 of their Wild Card series on Wednesday in Atlanta. The two teams combined for 37 strikeouts. The Braves struck out 21 times. Trevor Bauer was great with 12 strikeouts in 7.2 innings, but then the wild swinging Braves struck out another nine times. Swings must be shortened in the postseason on occasion, see Urshela and LeMahieu’s ninth-inning, 0-2 hits in Game 2. Put a bunt on or steal a base. Rodriguez moaned about the fact that teams simply will not bunt this time of year and at one point noted that since teams don’t defend the bunt all that much, the pitcher would probably throw the ball away anyway.
He’s got a point.