Bang a Gong

Bronx, N.Y., September 30, 2017; Yankees 2, Toronto 1 — In a season expected to be a stepping stone to future success, this 2017 Yankee team surprised friend and foe alike, copping their 91st victory in a 2-1 win over visiting Toronto Saturday afternoon, with one game to go. That’s a seven-game improvement over the 2016 team’s win total of 84, the same number second Wild Card Minnesota had when today’s action began. Baseball being baseball, however, that’s no guarantee the Bombers will best the Twins in the WC game Tuesday night, a do-or-die affair that will fray the nerves of every fan.

But now is not the time to worry about that. The Yankees used two of their most reliable weapons of the 2017 season to keep the AL East race alive Saturday afternoon, riding a mammoth Aaron Judge home run and a stellar CC Sabathia start to beat the Blue Jays. Alas, a half hour afterward Boston completed a victory over Houston to take the division, making the Yankees the Wild Card. But the Yankees have earned the right to celebrate a dynamic upturn in the team’s fortunes. They’ll face Twins ace Ervin Santana Tuesday, as they did with Marcus Stroman of Toronto today. The teams matched blanks through three, with Sabathia facing the minimum nine despite two base hits, each removed on a double play. The Yanks failed to score with a walk and a single in the first, and Greg Bird was out trying to stretch a hard single into the right field corner in the second.

But Stroman began the bottom of the fourth by falling behind Aaron Judge, the day’s DH, 2-0. A dangerous bat in any event, but with Judge expecting a fastball when he feels free to swing from his heels, the outcome was predictable, a no-doubt-about-it missile to left center, one that reached the back rows of the bleachers, 484 feet long we were later told. 1-0 Yankees, but Stroman had only made one of two mistakes in this inning. After Gary Sanchez lined out deep to center on the next pitch, Didi Gregorius stroked a hard single just past shortstop, then scampered to second on a wild pitch to Starlin Castro. The Yankee second sacker made Stroman pay on the very next pitch, an rbi single up the middle, giving the Yanks a 2-0 lead. A fielder’s choice grounder and Todd Frazier’s infield single put runners on the corners, but further damage was averted when Jacoby Ellsbury lined hard to second base. Still, the four hits forced Stroman to a 30-pitch inning, and he was replaced in the fifth.

Sabathia, meanwhile, was dealing, holding the visitors to four hits and no walks into the sixth, when he recorded his sixth strike out. Seven and six pitches, respectively, in the first and the third kept his count down, but he almost gave up a run to his next-to-last batter. With one down in the sixth, shortstop Ryan Goins lofted a high, deep drive to right that came down just short of the fence, short, at least until the most clueless Yankee fan on the planet reached out his glove and caught the ball. Umpire Bill Miller at second immediately stopped Goins and called it a double, a ruling that stood up under what had to be the quickest replay review of the year. CC struck out the next batter, and Chad Green came on to retire Josh Donaldson on a fly to right, with Goins dying on base. The aforementioned fan, who celebrated his catch and seemed to expect high fives all around, appeared surprised both when no congrats were forthcoming, and when Stadium Security removed him from the stands.

It became a bullpen battle, with Tommy Kahnle replacing Green in the eighth and immediately running into bad luck. Ezequiel Carrera topped an 0-2 roller toward third, and Kahnle’s rushed throw pulled Bird off the bag, for a leadoff single. A five-pitch walk made matters worse and, once David Robertson came on and pounded the zone for one strike out, he walked a batter to load the bases. Donaldson hit a fly to left that appeared deep at first, but the stiff breezes that froze us to the bone all day drove the ball in, with Brett Gardner coming in for the catch. His throw to the plate was on the money, as was Sanchez’s grab, lunge, and attempted tag. But give Carrera credit; he made a great circular slide to score a run. Then David struck out Justin Smoak, and Aroldis Chapman came on for a one-two-tree save for a 2-1 Yankee final.

Sabathia has a big-game reputation, and he did not disappoint. He threw 14 first-pitch strikes to 19 batters, and the 50/24 strikes/balls ratio was solid. Sprinkling in the occasional 90 mph fastball and slow curves at 78, he kept the Jays off balance with sliders and changes of pace. He got 11 swings and misses, that he walked none was huge, and the Goins double was the only extra-base hit.

The chill in the air was a shock following a hot, steamy week, though we did escape with just a minor shower threat early in the game. Perhaps the cold, breezy conditions helped the big veteran southpaw. He kept the game moving, and his low pitch count mercifully got us away from the cold after two hours, 57 minutes of play. And for whatever reason, first pitch in this game came at 1:06, the earliest I’ve seen them start in years; it’s usually 1:09 or 1:10.

It will come as no surprise that a franchise as storied as the Yankees has quite a few historical highlights on late-season September 30. It is the day that Babe Ruth, bettering his own mark, set the season home run record at 60 in 1927, a number that would stand for 34 years until Roger Maris broke it. (It’s exciting that Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton has 59 as I write this.) Sadly, the Babe’s last Yankee game came seven years later, on September 30, 1934. And Don Mattingly stroked three hits on this day in 1984 to outpace teammate Dave Winfield in the batting race, as they finished 1-2, at .343 and .340, respectively. The Yankees also clinched their second American League pennant on September 30, 1922, and won the first game of the 1953 World Series over the Dodgers on this day as well.

Playing meaningful games in late September is the mark of a successful major league baseball season. And the Yanks play their the only meaningless contest of the year on Sunday, as they prepare to host the upcoming Wild Card game on Tuesday. A nervous moment that will be, yes, but they can take heart in the fact that they have been playing very well of late, particularly at home, where they are 13-3 in September, including 3-0 vs Minnesota.

Of some interest in music history is that this would have been the 70th birthday of glam rocker Marc Bolan, front man of the band T. Rex. If you’re not familiar, check them out. Have fun with it, as I suggest the Yankees and their fans should be doing based on their fine year right now. The future, it seems, is theirs, and perhaps the present too. We’ll start seeing on Tuesday. In the meantime,

Bang a Gong