HOUSTON -- These “Next Man Up” Yankees withstood a historic barrage of injuries that saw a Major League record 30 players land on the injured list, including all but one member of their Opening Day lineup. On they pressed, riding a blend of power-hitting bats and big bullpen arms to 103 regular-season victories and their first division title in seven years.
Their backs to the wall in the American League Championship Series, Aaron Boone’s “savages” forced a return trip to Houston, where their journey ended on Saturday. DJ LeMahieu tied the game with a ninth-inning homer, but José Altuve hit a walk-off blast off Aroldis Chapman to secure the pennant as the Astros handed the Yankees a 6-4 defeat in Game 6 of the ALCS.
“We talked about winning the division, putting ourselves in a good spot for the postseason and the World Series. We came up short,” said Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge. “No matter how many games we won in the regular season or whatever else we did, this season is a failure.”
Emotions were raw in the visiting clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, where the Yanks’ offseason began for the second time in three years. While bedlam consumed the playing field in the wake of Altuve’s blast, Boone consoled his players amid an array of bloodshot eyes and hearty back slaps.
“It’s the ultimate pain you can feel in sports,” Boone said. “I know how good of a club we have. To get back into it and then for it to end that way, it's hard and our guys are hurting. But I could not be more proud of them and the way they always compete. It will serve us well moving forward when we get to the top of the mountain.”
This marks the first decade since the 1910s that the Yankees were unable to reach the World Series, with their last championship having been secured in 2009. New York posted the best regular-season winning percentage in the decade (.569), and the Yanks were tied with the Dodgers for the most playoff appearances in the 2010s (seven).
“Just like that, with one swing of the bat, it's all over,” outfielder Brett Gardner said. “It'll take a while to get over; some of us may never get over it. It’s definitely a special group of guys, and the future here is bright. It’s just frustrating the way this ended.”
The Yankees trailed throughout most of the contest, with Yuli Gurriel's first-inning three-run homer off opener Chad Green putting the bubbly on ice in the home clubhouse. Frequently referred to as the Yanks’ MVP, LeMahieu refused to allow the evening to slip away that easily, even when they were down to their final two outs against Roberto Osuna.
LeMahieu engaged Houston's closer in a 10-pitch battle, fouling off five pitches before stunning the orange-towel-waving crowd of 43,357 by driving a two-run homer just past a leaping attempt by right fielder George Springer.
“I think we can look ourselves in the mirror, knowing we battled and we did everything we could do,” LeMahieu said. “I think we fought all the way to the end, like we’ve been doing all season.”
Some in uniform were already thinking ahead to a potential Game 7 when Chapman was summoned for the home half of the ninth, the seventh Yankees pitcher in a battle of the bullpens. After a two-out walk to Springer, Altuve pounced on a 2-1 slider, pummeling a drive 407 feet over the wall in left-center field that secured the third pennant in Astros history.
“I fell behind in the count and wanted to get ahead with the slider, and I didn’t,” Chapman said through an interpreter. “It didn’t land in the spot where I wanted, and he took full advantage of that.”
In the end, Boone said, those were the types of moments that did not show up frequently enough for the Yankees.
Gary Sánchez had trimmed the deficit with a run-scoring single in the second inning off opener Brad Peacock, representing a rare hit with runners in scoring position -- the Yankees finished the ALCS 6-for-35 in those situations. Gio Urshela drew New York within a run with a fourth-inning solo homer off rookie Jose Urquidy.
J.A. Happ and Luis Cessa each pitched two scoreless innings in relief of Green. As the Yankees handed the game to their higher-leverage arms, Alex Bregman grounded into a fielder’s choice that pushed across a sixth-inning run off Tommy Kahnle, the first Yanks reliever to work a third consecutive day this season.
“I felt like I had my best stuff out there,” Kahnle said. “It just didn’t go my way.”
“They have a great team,” Boone said. “They made a couple more plays than we did.”
Brantley’s snag prompted a deafening roar from the Astros fans, representing another highlight in the sequence that sent the Yankees home for the offseason, wondering what they can do to get over the Houston hump.
“It's tough,” Judge said. “It's a roller coaster of emotions, from DJ tying it up in the ninth to Altuve walking it off there. We'll be thinking about that all offseason, every single day. That's what's going to fuel me to do whatever I can to put our team in a better position to win.”