Two weeks into their longest playoff run in seven years, the Yankees are still alive. They’ve survived a sudden-death Wild Card round, and they’ve survived a 2-0 deficit against possibly the best team in baseball. They have a chance to see past another tough deficit against another brutal opponent in the ALCS.
The Yankees have carved out a theme for themselves for the playoffs: they’re best with their backs against the wall. The idea of “never quitting” is pretty trite when it comes to sports, but the Yankees have embodied it about as well as a team can.
Moreover, though, the Yankees haven’t just stuck to a consistent theme throughout the playoffs. Somehow, they’ve managed to stick to all the key through lines that defined their entire 2017 season.
The regular season was one of surprise for the Yankees. They were still a year or two away, the conventional wisdom went, and the fruits of an unprecedented sell-off wouldn’t be realized until 2018, 2019, and beyond.
That idea was driven away quickly, as the Yankees were one of the hottest teams in the league out of the gate, dispelling any notion that their rebuild at last year’s trade deadline would be a sign of leaner times in the Bronx. Instead, it appeared the Yankees had found money and that this season would be gravy, in addition to the great years that were surely to come in the future due to the team’s great farm system.
Yet the 2017 season was also one of missed opportunities. The team lost a disproportionate number of close games, in spite of the league’s best relief corps, and watched an early division lead evaporate. What was a chance to lock down the AL East and one of the best records in baseball eventually turned into a fight for a Wild Card spot, one the Yankees eventually won going away, thanks to a bundle of trade deadline reinforcements.
The Yankees in the playoffs have played all the hits from the regular season. They have managed to squeeze the found money/missed opportunity dichotomy into their small sample sprint for the World Series. Even over just the past couple weeks, the Yankees have missed golden opportunities, yet also managed to make this run feel like gravy.
The Yankees missed a monumental opportunity in the ALDS, thanks to a memorable mistake by Joe Girardi and a lack of execution in Game 2. Girardi’s non-challenge has entered into October lore of bad managerial decisions, and Chad Green’s subsequent grand slam allowed to Francisco Lindor ultimately cost the Yankees a game in which they scored six runs off Cy Young favorite Corey Kluber.
They missed massive opportunities in the first two games of the ALCS. Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino both pitched effectively, and the bullpen was about as dominant as ever in Houston. Yet thanks to a couple of baserunning blunders and a key defensive mistake, the team fell in a pair of 2-1 games that easily could have gone the other way.
The Yankees have lost three one-run games in the postseason. They went 18-26 in one-run games in the regular season. They missed chances to win close games, even with a great bullpen, all season, and they’ve continued to do so in the postseason.
Yet the Yankees’ one-run losses weren’t supposed to mean this much in a transition year. They weren’t expected to make the playoffs, and after dropping the first two games in Cleveland, they weren’t expected to remain in the tournament this long. Even with all the squandered chances, they’re still here, past everyone’s expectations.
And in doing so, they’ve managed to touch on the team’s other major motif of the regular season: looking better than their record would indicate. The Yankees have lost in heartbreaking fashion in the playoffs, but when they’ve won, they’ve typically done so with ease. Highlights include their 8-1 win to get on the board in the ALCS, or their shellacking of Trevor Bauer in cruising to a 7-3 victory in Game 4 of the ALDS.
Through nine games, the Yankees are just 5-4, but have outscored their opponents on average by 1.3 runs per game. It’s foolhardy to look at run differential in such a small sample, but the Yankees’ run differential in the playoffs prorates to a +216 mark over a 162-game season, very close to their actual +198 figure from the regular season.
Even at a more micro level, the Yankees have hit on their other major touchstones: Aaron Judge doing jaw-dropping things while also going through nightmarish slumps, Gary Sanchez home runs and stupid Gary Sanchez-defense controversies, CC Sabathia stopping losing streaks, dominance in their home park.
Which is all to say, the playoffs have been more of the same for the Yankees, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. The regular season was at times incredibly frustrating, but in the end was a wonderful surprise and tremendously fun to follow. The playoffs have been, well, agonizing, but also a joy. Here’s hoping their blowout wins outnumber their one-run losses from here on out.