|The upstart Astros finished off the Yankees last night (San Diego Tribune)|
It took the Yankees three years to get back to the playoffs--an eternity for baseball's most impatient organization and fan base--but just three hours to get knocked out.
New York losing last night's wild card contest completed their September collapse. Just a half-game out of first on September 8th, they went 10-16 the rest of the way, finishing six games back of the Blue Jays. With a slumping offense, leaky bullpen, and diminished rotation, New York limped to the finish line, losing six of their last seven to inferior Red Sox and Orioles teams. Had they won last night and advanced, they would have been easy prey for the well-rested Royals.
The Astros, on the other hand, were red-hot, having won 9 of their last 14 to close out the season. If LA's last-ditch comeback worried them, they didn't play like it. Houston had the look of a young, energetic team eager to move on, while the tired Yankees looked like they were ready to go home.
And so the surging 'Stros aswaggered into Yankee Stadium and blanked the Bombers, advancing to an ALDS date with Kansas City. Houston grabbed an early lead when Colby Rasmus led off the second inning with a home run and never looked back. The Astros added another in the fourth when Carlos Gomez, who'd done nothing of consequence since coming over in a deadline deal with the Brewers, also went yard, then tacked on an insurance run in the seventh. New York never recovered, making that 3-0 deficit look like a 13-0 hole by the end of the night.
Though both teams were top-five offenses in terms of runs scored and home runs, neither showed much signs of life last night. The oldest lineup and the youngest combined for just three runs and eight hits between them, and if two of those hits had stayed in the yard than it could have been a 1-0 game.
I'm still surprised New York lost, as everything leading up to this game pointed to a Yankees victory. New York was at home with its ace on the mound, facing a pitcher on short rest who'd been far less effective on the road. All the Yankees needed was six solid innings from Masahiro Tanaka and a big fly from one of their boppers, then they could turn the game over to their lights-out bullpen and take it from there.
Instead Tanaka was gone after five, yanked by Joe Girardi after just 83 pitches. Rather than take his chances with a tiring Tanaka, Girardi deployed stud relievers Justin Wilson, Dellin Betances, and Andrew Miller to keep the Astros at bay. Tanaka hadn't done much to warrant staying in the game, throwing just 49 of his 83 pitches for strikes and recording just one punchout after the first inning. Plagued by the long ball all year, he surrendered two more in the first four innings. Facing an Astros lineup that spanked 230 during the regular season in a park that favors the four-bagger, it was only a matter of time before Houston made Tanaka pay for at least one of his mistakes.
They didn't make him pay for loading the bases following the Rasmus homer--a couple hits there drives him from the game and gives Dallas Keuchel an early cushion. Not that the likely Cy Young winner needed it, as he was simply marvelous. Keuchel allowed just three hits--all singles--and one walk across six shutout innings while fanning seven. There were questions about his ability to pitch on the road (his road ERA was over two runs higher than his home mark) and on three days' rest, but he answered them both by silencing New York's bats.
The Yankee offense had been quiet lately--averaging just 3.73 runs per game over their final 26--but it had been nearly two months since they'd been shut out at home. To wit, it seemed as though their aging stars simply ran out of gas. It's clear that going forward, New York will need to start phasing out some of its older players and develop (or buy) more young talent in order to compete for a championship. Because as currently constructed, they're just too old to survive a long, grueling baseball season, which still has another month to go.
The Astros, meanwhile, remind me of last year's Royals. They're young, hungry, and while not the most talented, certainly have enough to get by. It wouldn't surprise me if they upset the Royals and possibly the Blue Jays on their way to winning the AL pennant. The future is bright for this Houston team, in October and beyond.