HOUSTON -- The magical, memorable ride of the Yankees' 2017 season came to an end at 10:19 p.m. CT on Saturday, with Greg Bird lofting an easy fly ball to Astros center fielder George Springer for the final out of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World.
The Yankees had played in, and won, four potential elimination games over the course of their postseason run, sending the Twins and Indians home for the offseason. Though it was now their turn to empty lockers and look toward next year, on some level the Yanks' 4-0 defeat felt like just the opening chapter of a story that will soon be continued.
"We obviously proved a lot of people wrong this year," Brett Gardner said. "We had a lot better season than most people expected us to have. I'm proud of the guys, the way we fought and just battled through things all year. Going to the postseason, the Wild Card Game, then Cleveland and Houston -- just playing some really, really good teams. We just came up a little bit short."
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For the Yankees, the difference in the ALCS was the tremendous disparity between their performances at home and on the road. For just the fifth time in MLB history, the home team won all seven games in the series. Games 3, 4 and 5 at Yankee Stadium featured raucous, sold-out crowds that suited up as a 10th man of sorts.
The decks rocked as though the "Core Four" was still circling the bases at the old place across 161st Street, and those tremors clearly unnerved the Astros, who couldn't wait to return to friendlier confines. Houston's fans did their best to answer, transforming the generally pleasant Minute Maid Park into an inhospitable venue for the Yankees, who were just 40-41 on the road during the regular season.
"Home-field advantage plays a big role," Aaron Judge said. "In the Bronx, our crowds were rocking every night and it was electric, but it was the same thing here in Houston. Their crowd was on its feet the entire game. That's what you want to play in. It was a lot of fun."
Less enjoyable for Judge and his teammates was the buzzsaw of the Astros' pitching staff -- particularly Dallas Keuchel and ALCS MVP Justin Verlander -- which never buckled enough for the Yanks to take the crowd out of the game. After managing just one run in Games 1, 2 and 6, they were blanked on three hits in the decisive contest by the tandem of Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers
"You've got to give them credit," manager Joe Girardi said. "They pitched their rear ends off."
Though some will point to the vaunted bullpen running out of steam, as Player Page for David Robertson was unable to record an out in Game 6 and Tommy Kahnle coughed up three runs in Game 7, the Yankees' bats were consistently cold in Texas. In three of the four games, the Yanks managed only a single extra-base hit. Bird's fifth-inning double was their only such knock of Game 7, and he was erased on a sharp play at the plate by Astros third baseman Alex Bregman and catcher Brian McCann.
"You're facing tough pitching," Gardner said. "I think you look back at we played 13 playoff games and the home team won 12 of them. I don't know exactly why, but I think that home-field advantage in the playoffs and playing in front of your fans makes a difference. I know it does for us in New York. It's just that much more of a reason to have a great year, win the division and have home-field advantage next year."
Recognizing his team was stung by the defeat, Girardi urged the Yankees not to hang their heads as they departed Houston, their bags headed back to the Bronx instead of Hollywood.
"Obviously, we wanted to move on and win this game, but there are a lot of things to be proud of," Bird said. "That's the truth. There's a lot of things everyone in this room can be proud of. We had a great group. I know everyone says that, but I mean it. The veterans are awesome and like big brothers to me. I couldn't be more appreciative."
The Astros had been arguably the AL's most complete team in the regular season, winning 101 games, and maybe there was no shame in having taken Houston to the limit -- especially at the conclusion of a season that most prognosticators expected to feature a win total for the Yanks in the mid-80s.
But Judge had trouble swallowing the knowledge that they had carried a 3-2 series lead back to Houston, only to watch the Astros turn their diamond into an all-night party.
"We'll be thinking about this night until Spring Training of next year," Judge said. "We're going to fight and try to get better in the offseason. We'll rest a little bit, but then we'll try to get better every day."