Yanks' season ends in familiar heartbreak

October 24th, 2022

NEW YORK -- The Yankees’ two most recent trips to the American League Championship Series ended with heartbreak in Houston, their pindrop-silent clubhouse filled with back slaps, hugs, tears and regrets. The opponent remained the same this time, with the Astros celebrating yet another advance to the World Series, but winter arrived earlier than expected in the Bronx.

In the end, the Yankees could not “slay the dragon,” as manager Aaron Boone once quipped about the likelihood that this year’s ALCS would feature a Houston vs. New York matchup. The Astros have toasted the final out of the Yanks’ season in three of the last six years, doing so again on Sunday as the Yanks absorbed a 6-5 loss at Yankee Stadium, completing a four-game sweep.

“If we’re not the last team standing, it doesn’t matter what you do or what happened. It’s a failure,” said outfielder Aaron Judge. “We came up short. We didn’t finish our goal.”

The Yankees have lost each of their last five ALCS appearances (2010, ’12, 17, ’19, ’22), a record for consecutive losses in this round since its 1969 inception. Despite setting a championship as their goal each spring, they have not reached the World Series since hoisting the franchise’s 27th trophy in 2009, a time when the iPad, Instagram and Uber did not exist.

“It’s an awful day, just an awful ending,” Boone said. “It stings. It hurts. There’s no one I would rather do it with than those guys in there and how together they are.”

New York’s opponent in that 2009 Fall Classic, of course, was the Phillies -- an organization that figures to have its hands full with the Astros beginning on Friday. On a brisk evening that started about 90 minutes late due to rain, the Yankees built an early three-run lead against starter Lance McCullers Jr., snapping a 14-inning scoreless streak that dated to the fourth inning of ALCS Game 2.

Nestor Cortes exited in the third inning with a left groin injury and, though Harrison Bader continued his tremendous October surge with a fifth postseason home run, Gleyber Torres committed an error on a critical seventh-inning double-play ball that opened the door for two Houston runs, including Alex Bregman’s go-ahead RBI single off Clay Holmes.

“Every mistake we made, they took advantage, every time,” Torres said. “We have a really good team here, a special team. I feel those four games, we didn’t hit really well. We missed too many opportunities.”

In a season when so much of the Yankees’ world revolved around Judge, from his chase to shatter Roger Maris’ single-season AL home run record to his candidacy for AL MVP to his unsettled contract situation (heck, even the team’s regular-season win total was 99), the final at-bat of the autumn went to Judge, who grounded back to Ryan Pressly for the last out.

“We had all the individuals in this room to bring home a championship,” Judge said. “In my mind, there’s no doubt. It’s a special group we have here. We battled out there. They had an answer for us at every turn.”

The Yankees -- so desperate to stave off elimination that coaches and players watched highlights of the 2004 curse-reversing Red Sox before Sunday’s game -- were swept in a best-of-seven series for just the fourth time in franchise history, following the 1963 World Series (Dodgers), 1976 World Series (Reds) and 2012 ALCS (Tigers).

Boone suggested that the outcome may have been different if key players were healthier, namely infielder DJ LeMahieu, outfielder Andrew Benintendi and right-hander Ron Marinaccio. There is some truth there, but it is unclear whether those additions alone would have been enough to close a talent gap between the Yanks and Houston that has never looked wider.

The Astros defeated the Yankees in nine of 11 games this season, including the playoffs; when Giancarlo Stanton and Torres knocked run-scoring hits off McCullers in the first inning, it marked the first time all year that the Yankees led Houston after an inning (New York’s two wins came on walk-offs).

“The bottom line is, we need to be better if we want to beat those guys,” said pitcher Luis Severino. “They’re here because they’re the best.”

It promises to be a fascinating offseason at the corner of 161st Street and River Avenue, one which could determine the franchise’s direction. Judge’s looming free agency is naturally a prime topic of conversation, but general manager Brian Cashman’s contract is also expiring, a position he has held since 1998.

Boone has two years remaining under contract; Rizzo (who himself has an opt-out that he said he has not decided on) said that Boone should return, noting, “Boonie does a good job with the players. It’s been a fun atmosphere to come to work every day. That starts in the clubhouse with the freedom we get.”

Once again, the October script concluded with a few comforting words and promises to keep in touch over the offseason, an all-too-familiar outcome. There are no banners raised at Yankee Stadium for division titles or home run records; more than ever, the imperative is to catch up to where the Astros are.

“There’s a lot of things to be proud of,” said pitcher Gerrit Cole. “Realistically, with the rest of the league, we’re probably right up there towards the top. But they beat us in every facet. I watched the series and I didn’t really see an area where we played better than them.”