NEW YORK — Sunday night offered a survival test for the New York Yankees and another referendum on the postseason future of an entire class of players. The 2017 MLB playoffs had reduced starting pitching into a form of rodeo, the participants striving merely to hang on to the horns as long as possible, principally in violent and unartful failure. And then a relic burst forth Sunday night inside Yankee Stadium, where two men tamed the bull and damn near had it doing tricks.
Masahiro Tanaka and Carlos Carrasco engaged in an October pitchers’ duel, that subcategory of baseball thought to be near extinction. They turned hitters helpless, bullpens dormant and the scoreboard into an open carton of eggs.
Carrasco pitched well enough to end the Yankees’ season. Tanaka pitched well enough to extend it. Neither right-hander blinked, until Game 3 of the American League Division Series distilled to an October rarity greater than even a starting pitching showdown: A moonshot off the planet’s most dominant reliever.
Greg Bird, one of New York’s famed Baby Bombers, smashed a home run into the second deck off impeccable relief ace Andrew Miller in the seventh inning, providing the lone run of the Yankees’ season-preserving, 1-0 victory over the Cleveland Indians. They will meet again Monday night in the Bronx, with the Indians still ahead in the series, 2-1.
“Probably the biggest win that I have gotten since I came here,” said Tanaka, in his fourth season with the Yankees. “I came here to pitch in these types of games and to be able to help the team win in these types of games.”
Aroldis Chapman closed the game in dazzling and dramatic fashion after embattled Manager Joe Girardi summoned him with one out in the eighth. He pitched around consecutive one-out singles in the ninth, struck out four and breathed fire for a solid 15 minutes. He rifled 30 fastballs of at least 100 mph, topping out at 104, which Jose Ramirez somehow fouled back. He ended it with an epic encounter with Carlos Santana, who lofted the second 3-2 fastball he saw — the 34th pitch Chapman threw, hummed at 102 — into deep center field for the final out.
“In an elimination game, you can’t hold back,” Chapman said. “Everything you have, you have to go out there and give it all.”
Tanaka shut out the Indians for seven three-hit, one-walk innings, striking out seven and inducing 20 swing-and-misses with a powerful mix of splitters and sinkers. Carrasco nearly matched him, yielding three hits and three walks while striking out seven in 5⅔ scoreless innings, leaving the game with the bases loaded. It could not be said Carrasco lost the bout. But Tanaka lasted longer and received better support from the cavalry behind him.
“There were times when starters could give up two or three runs and stay in the game for six or seven innings,” Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. “With teams having established bullpens like they have, you’re not going to see that much.”
No one provided more support than Bird, a 24-year-old left-handed masher who missed all of 2016 after shoulder surgery and most of this season after ankle surgery. “I bet on myself,” Bird said. “I knew I could come back and be a part of this.”
Leading off the seventh, Bird stared out at Miller, the lanky left-hander who became an impenetrable force last October. Already, Miller had displayed his powers, entering with the bases loaded and two outs and escaping with a popup.
This season, left-handed hitters produced a .481 on-base-plus-slugging percentage against Miller and only one homer, struck by Cody Bellinger. Miller ran the count to 1-1 with two sliders, then rifled a 95-mph fastball. It stayed over the plate’s heart, and Bird pulverized it, sending it soaring high through the thick New York air. It landed in the upper deck, and the stadium erupted.
“Plain and simple, I’m not ready to be done playing,” Bird said. “And I don’t think the rest of the team is.”
The first 11 games of the postseason may have petrified Tanaka and Carrasco. Before they walked to the Yankee Stadium mound, starting pitchers had punched up a collective 6.52 ERA while lasting, on average, a shade more than four innings. By the time they finished, Tanaka and Carrasco had lowered the starters’ playoff ERA to 5.70.
Tanaka found his first trouble in the fourth. Jason Kipnis ripped a laser to right field, where Aaron Judge gave inelegant chase and let the ball deflect off his glove, allowing Kipnis time to race for a triple. Jose Ramirez, the Indians’ strongest MVP candidate, strode into the batter’s box. Tanaka struck him out, burying a splitter for strike three. He repeated the feat against Jay Bruce, the Indians’ hottest hitter this series, with another barrage of splitters and sinkers.
Judge made up for his misplay — and the 0-for-10, eight-strikeout, four-walk batting line he now carries for the ALDS — in the sixth. With a man on first, Francisco Lindor lofted a splitter to right field, a harmless flyball in adult-sized parks but a grave threat to the short porch in Yankee Stadium. Judge drifted back until his heels scraped the fence. Judge, a 6-foot-7 behemoth, leapt and snared the ball above the fence, stealing a cheap home run. Tanaka removed his cap and doffed it in Judge’s direction.
Arm trouble cast Carrasco as an observer to the Indians’ World Series march last year, which meant he made his playoff debut Sunday night. It was his absence, in part, that launched the current mini-era of monstrous bullpens — with his rotation in tatters, Terry Francona leaned on Cleveland relievers earlier and longer than any manager in playoff history.
The strategy, and pitiful performance of starters this postseason, had caused some to wonder whether teams may do away with traditional starters altogether. Carrasco and Tanaka provided a forceful rebuke and a beautiful reminder of how delightful a pitchers’ duel can be.
“That’s two of the better starting performers you’re going to see,” Francona said.
That was enough for them. As for the fate of the Yankees season, Bird handled that, taking advantage of . . . ah, for this night, just call him some chump reliever.
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