October 4, 2017 at 12:22 AM
NEW YORK — The 2017 Major League Baseball playoffs dispensed with the preliminary and descended immediately into glorious madness. They shoved us out of the plane before we could check our chutes. They turned homerific in the first inning and Homeric before the third. It was like you walked into a bar and politely requested a beer, and instead the bartender punched you in the face. Baseballs exploded. Pitchers liquefied. Somebody threw a trident.
Never let this October be compared to a roller coaster — roller coasters ramp up. The New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins, in the American League wild-card game at Yankee Stadium, threw haymakers and hand grenades at each other. The first pitch hummed 100 mph. The fifth landed in the seats. Neither starter lasted more than two innings. Luis Severino's nightmare became a footnote before the first inning ended. Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez nearly lost all future generations of Sanchezes thanks to a foul tip.
The Yankees survived the Twins' initial barrage, weathered the madcap opening innings and rampaged into their first AL Division Series since 2012 with an 8-4 victory. The Yankees' bullpen recorded the final 26 outs after Severino yielded home runs to two of the six batters he faced. Mammoth rookie Aaron Judge treated his first postseason game like a play thing, going 2 for 4 with a walk and one of the Yankees' three home runs, a two-run shot in the fourth that pushed New York ahead 7-4 and finally allowed one team to assert control.
"We don't panic," Judge said. "Pressure, it either molds you or it breaks you."
The Twins, who traded closer Brandon Kintzler to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline in hopes of retooling, were not supposed to be here and can be warmed by the feat of becoming the first team to lose 100 games and make the postseason a year later. The Yankees advanced to face the defending AL champion Cleveland Indians in a starry division series, which starts Thursday night at Progressive Field.
By then, they may have finally shaken off the wild-card game. The first inning saw both teams score three runs and lasted 45 minutes. The teams hit four home runs, which accounted for 10 of the 12 total runs scored. They together used nine relievers, who combined for 18 strikeouts. The game ended around midnight, after Aroldis Chapman blazed the 343th pitch past Jorge Polanco.
The pyrotechnics provided an apt bridge from the 2017 regular season to the playoffs. The postseason favors short-sequence offense and jet-fueled arms. This season, the league set records for home runs and strikeouts. Those trends should be accentuated as managers use only their best arms and offenses know they cannot rely on stringing hits together.
It began, for the Yankees, as a waking nightmare. Twins leadoff hitter Brian Dozier pulverized Severino's fifth pitch, a 99-mph fastball, two rows into the left field seats. Severino walked Polanco, and cleanup hitter Eddie Rosario hooked a slider into the first row of the bleachers in right.
Severino yielded a single and a double to the next two hitters he faced. Before Judge could throw the ball back into the infield, Manager Joe Girardi had taken the first step up the dugout stairs to retrieve Severino. Girardi would turn the season over to his bullpen, 26 outs from the finish line.
Immediately, the Yankees got Severino off the hook. Twins starter Ervin Santana walked leadoff man Brett Gardner, and Judge floated a single to shallow center. Cleanup hitter Didi Gregorious laced a 3-2 fastball into the right field seats, a thunderbolt that tied the game at 3. Yankee Stadium erupted, the Yankees' dugout frothed and, back in the clubhouse, Severino exhaled.
The Yankees took the lead with another blast, and a dose of attitude. In the second inning, Santana buzzed Gardner with a 95-mph fastball under his chin. On the next pitch, a 3-2 pitch, Gardner unloaded and laced the ball into the second deck. He dropped his bat and posed. As he stomped to first base, Gardner stared at Santana.
"It's my first postseason homer," Gardner said. "Just excited to take the lead back. It's maybe the biggest game I've ever played in. You kind of take for granted early in your career when you're going to the playoffs, you just kind of expect to have it happen every year. But recently, things haven't been that way around here."
The Yankees' bullpen settled the game. Chad Green, the first man through the gates, struck out four of the first five hitters he faced. David Robertson pitched 3⅓ innings and struck out five, becoming the first Yankees reliever to hit those numbers in a playoff game since Mariano Rivera in 1995. Robertson had never thrown three innings, and only once had he pitched more than two.
"That's the best bullpen I've ever seen," Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia said.
The Yankees continued to grind the Twins, despite one moment that caused the crowd to gasp. Dozier foul-tipped a pitch from Robertson, and the deflection smashed Sanchez in his athletic supporter. Seeing it live, Robertson placed his hand over his midsection and winced. Upon viewing the replay, the crowd groaned in unison.
The moment brought levity into a clubhouse riding high. The Yankees believe they have the core of a burgeoning dynasty, a collection of young talent unrivaled in their franchise since the days of Jeter and Posada, of Pettitte and Rivera.
Last July, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman grew frustrated with spinning wheels, tired enough to prioritize patience. He traded Chapman and Andrew Miller and watched them both throw aspirin tablets in the World Series. The Yankees shed Ivan Nova, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann. They went young.
They expected a rebuild would take a few seasons, but 2017 expedited the process. Severino, his performance Tuesday notwithstanding, became an ace at 23. Judge turned out not to be a heaping hunk of potential but a fully formed MVP candidate. Sanchez slugged 33 homers. The young talent invigorated mainstays like Gardner and Gregorious. The Yankees' playoff drought ended.
And now, having survived the wildest of wild cards, the Yankees take their young team into Cleveland, to face a 102-win powerhouse. After Tuesday night, they have seen it all.
Read more baseball coverage: