NEW YORK -- For the Red Sox to break their decades-long curse, they had to get past the Yankees. Ditto with Michael Jordan's Bulls, who couldn't start a dynasty until they beat the Pistons' "Bad Boys" team.Duke had to get past UNLV. The Oilers had to beat the Islanders. Rocky
NEW YORK -- For the Red Sox to break their decades-long curse, they had to get past the Yankees. Ditto with Michael Jordan's Bulls, who couldn't start a dynasty until they beat the Pistons' "Bad Boys" team.
Duke had to get past UNLV. The Oilers had to beat the Islanders. Rocky had to defeat Apollo.
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As the Yankees continue their pursuit of a 41st American League pennant and 28th World Series title, they knew they would have to finally get the better of the pitcher that had been their principal nemesis for the past three years: Dallas Keuchel.
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That bearded demon was exorcised Wednesday night in front of 49,647 eager witnesses.
The decisive 5-0 win in Game 5 gave the Yankees a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series presented by Camping World. The series moves to Houston for Friday's Game 6, as the Yanks will try to wrap up the pennant against Justin Verlander, another former AL Cy Young Award winner who beat them handily earlier in the series.
Then again, the Yankees aren't shying away from Verlander or anybody else this month. They've already hit Corey Kluber -- this year's AL Cy Young Award favorite -- hard twice this postseason, scored against top relievers Andrew Miller and Ken Giles, and now they've beaten Keuchel, who hadn't allowed a run in either of his previous postseason starts against the Yanks and boasted a 1.09 ERA in 57 2/3 career innings against them.
That changed Wednesday, as the Yankees scored in three of the first five innings, knocking the lefty out of the game with two outs in the fifth and a 4-0 lead that felt much larger given what Masahiro Tanaka was doing to the Astros' lineup.
"I thought we swung the bats pretty good tonight," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Especially considering who we're facing."
Hitting coach Alan Cockrell wanted his guys to be aggressive against Keuchel, who had fanned 10 Yankees over seven scoreless innings in Game 1. Three of the first five batters swung at the first pitch, and although Keuchel retired all five, it gave him something to think about.
"We were looking to hit from pitch one," Cockrell said. "You watch video, and if you're going to get a mistake to hit, it's usually when he's trying to get strike one. He's got weapons, command and movement, so we were looking to hit early."
Starlin Castro doubled on a 1-0 pitch with two out in the second, a ball with an exit velocity of 111.4 mph, the hardest hit he's had since Statcast™ was implemented before the 2015 season. Then Greg Bird drove Castro in, singling on a 2-0 sinker to give the Yanks their first run against Keuchel in more than 14 postseason innings.
"To break through in the second inning, to get a run, I thought that lifted everybody's spirits," Chase Headley said. "It gave us some confidence that we could get to him going forward."
Aaron Judge continued to swing a hot bat, doubling in a run in the second to make it 2-0. A two-out rally in the fifth ended with RBI hits by Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius, driving Keuchel out of the game after 4 2/3 innings.
"I've never seen that," Carsten Sabathia said. "I didn't know how to react."
On MLB Tonight, MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds described how the Yankees hitters moved up in the batter's box in order to get ahead of Keuchel's late-breaking pitches:
Tanaka finished his night with seven scoreless innings of three-hit ball, striking out eight. That brought the rotation's ERA down to 1.29 in the five games against an Astros offense that scored more runs than any team in baseball this season.
The Yankees needed their wins in Games 3 and 4 to get back in the series after losing the first two in Houston, but they knew that unless they beat Keuchel or Verlander, the Astros would ultimately have the last laugh. Coming into Game 5, Houston was 5-0 this postseason in games in which Keuchel and Verlander pitched, and 0-3 when they didn't.
But just as the Red Sox needed to get past their rivals before they could end the Curse of the Bambino, the Yanks had to figure out how to beat Keuchel if this year was going to be truly special.
"I've been here three years and we haven't beaten him," Cockrell said. "Tonight, it was like, 'Let's go get him.' They had a good plan. They accept the fact that guys like that are going to make pitches and get you out, but they grind. I can't say enough about that. Their fortitude is freakin' off the charts."
Fortitude, resilience, grit; call it whatever you want, they'll need all of it Friday night if they hope to do the same against Verlander, who fired a complete game and struck out 13 in the Astros' Game 2 win.
"They might have a not-so-good at-bat, but they're coming right back up there the next time and they're competing," Cockrell said. "They've done that all year. We've beaten some good pitchers and come back against the back end of some really good bullpens. They just don't quit."
Now that they've finally climbed Mount Keuchel, it's unlikely that Verlander -- or anybody else (Clayton Kershaw? Yu Darvish?) for that matter -- will feel like an indomitable task for the Yankees.
Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.