NEW YORK — Just south of Yankee Stadium, there is a parking garage. And on the site of that parking garage, a long time ago, there was another stadium, also called Yankee. And in that old Yankee Stadium, the great New York Yankees teams of the 1990s and early 2000s won championships, constructed a permanent legacy in these parts and inspired a generation of kids from across the city and the surrounding suburbs, who dreamed of someday entering its gates — or maybe those of its gleaming successor across the street — and being a part of a new generation of pinstriped champions.
Two of those kids, in fact, grew up to face each other Monday at the new Yankee Stadium in the second inning of Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. Back in the day, Charlie Morton and Todd Frazier were separated by a couple of years and a couple of exits on the New Jersey Turnpike. On Monday night, they were separated by 60 feet 6 inches of grass and dirt.
What happened when they faced each other here transformed this series, producing the biggest moment in the Yankees’ thorough 8-1 victory in front of 49,373 fans. But only one of them, Frazier, wore the pinstripes and had the pleasure of living out a childhood dream. Morton had the dream play out in reverse — with himself as the losing pitcher for the visiting team, the Houston Astros, and the one who surrendered the big blast, instead of hitting it.
“It’s unbelievable, to be honest with you,” Frazier said. “It’s such a cool feeling. I wish everybody could feel what I’m going through.”
With the win, the Yankees closed to within 2-1 in this best-of-seven series, with Game 4 on Tuesday pitting New York starter Sonny Gray against Houston’s Lance McCullers Jr.
The Yankees won because 37-year-old starter CC Sabathia delivered a vintage performance, tossing six shutout innings against the most prolific offense in the game this season. They won because Aaron Judge, the strikeout-prone slugger, broke out of his slump with his own three-run homer, which capped a five-run, fourth-inning burst that put the game away. Perhaps equally important, they won without using their three best relievers — Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson and Chad Green (though Chapman and Green warmed up) — which could help Yankees Manager Joe Girardi navigate the next two games here.
But more than anything they won because of Frazier’s swing, which gave the Yankees their first lead of the series and gave Sabathia the cushion he needed to attack the Astros’ hitters. It took the pressure off a Yankees offense that had amassed 27 strikeouts and just two runs in a pair of one-run losses in Houston in Games 1 and 2.
“After Frazier hit the home run early,” Sabathia said, “I just wanted to try to get back in the dugout as quick as possible and let these guys score some more runs.”
In Frazier’s childhood dream, his big Yankee Stadium homer probably looked a little different. It may have come in a cold drizzle, in the bottom of the 15th inning — a walk-off job — on a majestic swing, much like the one Frazier, nine years old at the time, saw Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz make in Game 2 of the 1995 AL Division Series to beat the Seattle Mariners.
As he sat on the Yankees’ dugout Monday night, in the chill of a 57-degree night, he confessed to bench coach Tony Pena how he was filled with emotion, his childhood memories of Leyritz’s homer bubbling up inside him and mixing with his own butterflies. He saw Bernie Williams, one of the stars of the 1990s Yankees, throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and told himself it was time for him to step up.
“I’m going to have goose bumps this whole game,” he told Pena, “because it’s cold, and you see the old stuff and the nostalgia here.”
Instead of soaring and landing with an impact similar to Leyritz’s 1995 rocket, Frazier’s homer merely gave the Yankees an early lead — albeit a crucial one — and came on a swing that was something less than majestic.
On a 1-1 pitch from Morton, with two outs and runners on first and second, Frazier made a lunging, defensive hack at a knee-high, 95-mph fastball on the outside corner, of the sort a batter makes with two strikes with the intention of fouling it off in hopes of getting a more hittable offering on the next pitch. So off-balance was Frazier, his top hand came clear off the bat midway through his swing. As the ball headed on the fly toward right field, Astros right fielder Josh Reddick saw it and actually started to rush in.
But this being Yankee Stadium, with its notoriously short porch in right, and this being 2017, the year of the home run, of course Frazier's awkward drive sailed and sailed until it landed in the seats, a three-run homer that gave the Yankees their first lead of the series. As Frazier circled the bases excitedly — pointing to the outfield seats, where dozens of family members from his hometown of Toms River, N.J. were seated — Morton simply looked on with astonishment.
“It was unbelievable,” Morton said. “If you were to show me a video of his swing, the pitch speed and the location, I never would have thought [it could result in a home run].”
According to Statcast measurements, Frazier's blast had an exit velocity of 100.5 mph and a launch angle of 21 degrees — which means nothing in the abstract. Except that balls hit with those vectors resulted in home runs just 6 percent of the time.
“A little unorthodox maybe,” Yankees designated hitter Chase Headley said of Frazier’s homer. “But he got the barrel on it, and he hit it to the right part of the ballpark.”
Morton, whose highlight of a childhood spent as a Yankees fan was getting Girardi’s autograph one afternoon at a spring training game in Tampa, was gone by the fourth, failing to match the performances of teammates Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 2 in Houston. He departed with two outs and two on in the fourth, with Will Harris summoned from the bullpen to face Judge.
Like the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series, the Astros had managed to hold down Judge, the AL home run leader this season with 52, with a steady diet of breaking balls, many of them off the plate. After seeing breaking balls on 32 percent of pitches during the regular season, that number was up to 54 percent in the playoffs, and Judge was not responding well. A first-inning strikeout against Morton on Monday, on a cut fastball off the plate, was Judge's 20th in 32 postseason at-bats to that point.
“Hopefully,” Girardi said before the game, "[the Astros] starting making some mistakes up.”
The 93-mph, belt-high fastball that Harris threw Judge on a 2-2 count in the fourth would qualify as that — and Judge pounced on it, sending it on a line over the wall in left.
“Why would I come in the postseason and try to change something, even though I’m struggling for [a few] games?” Judge said when asked about his struggles at the plate. “It’s six [postseason] games. I’ve got to get ready to play for the game today.”
Judge, the presumptive AL rookie of the year and possibly its most valuable player as well, not only smashed the home run that turned the game into a rout, he also contributed a pair of outstanding defensive plays, one at the wall and one in shallow right field, to rob the Astros of hits.
In the fourth inning, Judge crashed hard into the right field wall to run down Yuri Gurriel's drive. Judge, the 6-foot-7, 280-pound slugger, came up slowly but appeared to be okay. The wall, meanwhile, was said to have entered the concussion protocol.
Judge, 25, is too young to have remembered much of the Yankees’ glory years, and besides, he grew up nearly 3,000 miles away in northern California. But a big home run, in the chill of October, in front of a full house at Yankee Stadium, resonated no less for him than it did for the New Jersey native with whom he shares a pinstriped uniform these days.
“I get a chance to play in the ALCS with the New York Yankees,” Judge said. “It’s a dream come true.”
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