The deciding moment of the ALCS did come down to pitching. Or, more specifically, one pitch.
It was an 84-mph slider thrown by Aroldis Chapman, who at $86 million is the highest-paid closer in the sport. The Yankees spared no expense in locking him up to that five-year deal. Yet with their playoff fate on the line, Chapman’s vaunted fastball went AWOL and he hung a 2-and-1 slider to the Astros’ Jose Altuve, who was looking for it. He belted a walk-off homer in the ninth inning that banged high off the leftfield train trestle at Minute Maid Park, gave the Astros a 6-4 victory in ALCS Game 6 and sent the Yankees home for the winter.
The point being, if the Yankees had signed Patrick Corbin in looking ahead to this October, or if they choose to sign Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg for next year, does that guarantee the World Series berth that escaped them again -- for the 10th consecutive season -- or any additional bids in the future?
It’s not automatic, obviously. But for all the Yankees’ supposed rotation deficiencies, they still won 108 games (including the postseason) and, from a statistical standpoint, marginally outperformed the Astros’ staff as a whole in the ALCS.
Over the six games, the Yankees pitched to a 3.13 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP and held Houston to a .179 batting average. The Astros finished with a 3.44 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP and a .214 OBA.
The Yankees beat Zack Greinke and Justin Verlander. In Game 2, Verlander left after 6 2/3 innings with the score tied at 2 and the Yankees lost in 11 on the Astros' first walk-off homer of the series, by Carlos Correa. Back in the Bronx for Game 3, they had Cole on the ropes early, but he still went seven in the Astros’ 4-1 victory.
Both teams went the opener route in Game 6, but the Astros’ rotation superiority gave them the safety net of having Cole at the ready for a potential Game 7. Even if the Yankees had survived Game 6, it would have been interesting to see just how long Luis Severino could have gone, or what Aaron Boone might have done to piece together the final innings coming off the previous night’s bullpen effort. But the Yankees never got that chance.
Two of the biggest pitching stars of Game 6 were J.A. Happ and Luis Cessa, who threw a combined four scoreless innings. We did take issue with Boone’s decision to not even allow Happ to go through the Astros’ entire lineup at least once (he faced a total of seven batters and was replaced for the start of the fourth by Cessa with Correa leading off). Burning Happ so quickly, with many of the high-leverage relievers already gassed, seemed like a recipe for disaster later on, with Tommy Kahnle and Chapman giving up costly runs.
“It’s going to happen,” Boone said afterward. “But I love how my guys compete always.”
The Yankees leaned heavily on their bullpen in October, but they did so after making a concerted effort to preserve their relief corps during the regular season. Plus, it’s not as if Brian Cashman ignored the rotation during the winter. He may have passed on Corbin, but he traded for James Paxton, who saved their season in Game 5. Where the Yankees got hurt was giving $34 million to Happ, in whom the Yankees soon lost faith, and maybe relying too much on 39-year-old CC Sabathia, with more than 3,500 innings worth of wear and tear.
Also, don’t forget losing Domingo German in the days leading up to the playoffs because of a domestic-violence investigation. German (18-4) was the Yankees’ best starter for the majority of the season, perhaps until Paxton overtook him in the final six weeks. While German’s escalating innings count was a concern, Cashman made it clear that he was counting on him for October, and Game 6 would have been the perfect assignment. Instead, the Yankees were carrying Jonathan Loaisiga, Tyler Lyons and Ben Heller on the roster.
Losing the ALCS wasn’t solely about run prevention. Half of the Yankees’ lineup disappeared, with Gary Sanchez, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius hitting a combined .140 (12-for-86) with three extra-base hits and 36 strikeouts. Overall, the Yankees batted .167 (6-for-36) with runners in scoring position, including 3-for-25 in the final five games.
“I thought we did everything we could do,” DJ LeMahieu said.
Upon reflection, the Yankees came up short in the margins. The ALCS hinged on a few mistake pitches and opportunities wasted. The way it ended Saturday night, with both closers giving up heart-stopping home runs in the ninth inning, showed just how close this was to stretching one more day — and maybe turning out differently.
“We won a lot of games this season,” Happ said. “We expected to win six more than we did.”