Wednesday, October 7, 2015

For One Night Only, part 1: Dallas Keuchel, Alex Rodriguez, and the Pressure Cooker in the Bronx

For the Houston Astros, 2015 has seen several of what someone may call moments of truth. After hanging on for dear life in the American League Wild Card race, a common thought of the upstart Astros was that they were backing in to the playoffs. This was a team that had led the West Division most of the year until Texas' incredible rise from the proverbial ashes knocked Houston off of the throne. Still, the Astros qualified as the road team in the Wild Card game. In the Bronx, the orange-clad kids would meet their newest moment of truth. In the sixth inning, up two runs to nil, the Yankees had runners on first and second as Alex Rodriguez stepped into the box. Houston starter Dallas Keuchel stayed in to face the legendary power hitter. It took one pitch. Rodriguez lifted the ball high to center field. The season was on the line for both teams.

Of course, for Alex Rodriguez to be in a place for a comeback clutch hit to be needed, the Astros had to get to Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka. The former Rakuten Golden Eagle looked unhittable in the first inning as he cut right through Jose Altuve, George Springer, and Carlos Correa. It looked as if Tanaka had summoned up his old self, and the sputtering Astros were merely going to be a casualty. When the second inning rolled around, the matchup against journeyman Colby Rasmus didn't seem all to difficult. Then Rasmus absolutely annihilated Tanaka's offering well past the right field fence. There was no doubt, especially given the short porch in right at the New Yankee Stadium. Rasmus's home run would have been out anywhere. Still, Tanaka managed to shrug off the home run and return to dominance.

Two innings later, it was deadline acquisition Carlos Gomez's turn to give the home crowd reason to worry. Now I need to step aside and note that I have an affinity for any hitter who finishes his swing with two hands. Its how I've always swung a bat and I personally just think it looks cool. Anyway, once Gomez made contact, the crowd was audibly frustrated. Despite Tanaka's cool head, another pitch had gotten away, and it was now diving over the left field wall. Two runs is a good start, and Tanaka had pitched well, but the issue was on the other side of the ball, for the Yankees had yet to see anyone cross home plate.

Over the past few weeks, there was a lot of doubt as to the strength of the Houston Astros. They were not supposed to be in this place; not yet at least. They, like the Chicago Cubs, were ahead of schedule in terms of their rebuild. So naturally once the Rangers overtook them for the division lead, eventually taking the crown on the last weekend of the season, people were understandable skeptical of the Astros' ability to succeed any further. At the center of all of the madness was Dallas Keuchel. The likely Cy Young finalist had been a rock all season for Houston. There was no doubt that he would be pitching in the Wild Card game. Earlier in the season, Keuchel had pitched two great games against these Yankees. He was rolling against the Bronx Bombers on Tuesday night. Only four times had a Yankee reached base when Alex Rodriguez came to bat in the sixth inning. The night belonged to Keuchel, and if he could get this one last out, he could hand the ball off to the bullpen knowing he had given the team a chance to play on.

Alex Rodriguez, who had been vilified in recent years for steroid scandal and overall perceived demeanor as a villain of sorts, was having a renaissance of a season. His thirty-three home runs were the most he had hit since 2008. After missing all of the 2014 season on suspension, the three-time American League Most Valuable Player was alive again. Perhaps the year away had revitalized him. Perhaps he realized how much he missed being on the field. Whatever the reason for Rodriguez's rise back to grace, the Yankees were reaping the benefit. No matter the statistical category, 2015 was his best season in a few years. Once thought to be declining out of the game, Rodriguez has now established himself as a designated hitter and first base option in order to keep himself in uniform. His 687 career home runs might be suspect to investigation when it comes to his Hall of Fame candidacy, but the fact is he still hit them.

As he made contact, Rodriguez's body language said everything. The baseball lifted into center field high, but he and everyone in attendance knew it was not high enough. Dallas Keuchel needed one pitch to make it happen, and the one pitch saved the Astros season. As the ball landed in Carlos Gomez's glove, the threat was quenched and Keuchel's scoreless outing was intact. In the next inning, Jose Altuve added a run by scoring Jonathan Villar on a line drive single to left. Altuve to that point had gone hitless, something he doesn't do often. The score was three to nothing and midnight was coming in fast for the Yankees.

Tony Sipp, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson each took one of the remaining three innings. The crowd fell less and less enchanted with the game. This was not the lights out bullpen that the Kansas City Royals rolled out last year, but it was good enough to get the job done tonight. The Yankees had won enough over the summer to stay home for the Wild Card game, and now they were staying there until spring. The Cinderella Astros had won and times had changed. The New York Yankees were no longer the Colossus they had been for nearly fifteen years. They had become just another team in the fray of postseason hope. The Houston Astros, new to the American League and its playoffs, now stand against another team that throws baseball convention to the side. The Kansas City Royals, who seem at home in the playoffs despite breaking their twenty-nine year October drought last year, are up next. Top to bottom, the Royals are one of the best teams in all of baseball, but the Houston Astros deserve to be here. In a few days, the Royals may look across the diamond and see something familiar; something many people saw in them last year- a team full of destiny and bereft of expectation.

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