Last night’s game between the Yankees and White Sox had every reason to be a drag. The Chicago lineup was destitute, and the Yankees were trotting out a shell of their preferred lineup. The pitchers, Lance Lynn and James Shields, were middling veterans whose best years were in past past. The temperature at first pitch pushed triple digits.
This was a game in the dog days of August, one that, in truth, really didn’t hold all that much meaning. The White Sox have behaved all year like their games don’t matter, and the Yankees, while still alive in the AL East race, are far enough out of the division lead and comfortable enough in their wild card lead that every game they play is unlikely to make much of an impact on the playoffs.
That’s not to say the game was meaningless. Yet it featured an all-but-tanking team versus a banged-up juggernaut just trying to hold it together, on a night where wiser souls sought the friendly confines of air conditioning.
Despite all that, the game itself was a cracker. It was an exciting spectacle from start to finish, showcasing some of the defensive sloppiness that the Yankees have dealt with recently, and the offensive resiliency that comes with a lineup this talented.
I attended last night’s game, scoring decent seats, probably due to all the factors I just listed. I shuddered when I saw the scorching forecast and the drab pitching matchup, and anticipated a hot slog of a game.
Instead, the atmosphere in the stadium was palpable from the moment the game started. The two-strike chants for Lynn were loud from the first inning on. The crowd, uniformly drenched in sweat, audibly ached for Giancarlo Stanton to smash his 300th career home run, swore with yet another Miguel Andujar error, and implored Greg Bird to just give them a reason not to boo him.
In spite of the heat, the low stakes of the game, and the battered state of the two teams, the Bronx faithful came out en force, and helped turned what I thought would be a forgettable experience into a joyful one. The mood turned sour when Lynn and Jonathan Holder got knocked around in the sixth inning, but even facing a 4-0 deficit, a hopeful undercurrent ran through the air.
There were fireworks late in the game, but the moment in the stands I will never forget was the instant Brett Gardner, leading off the home half of the sixth, laced a ball into the gap. In my opinion, there’s no better time in a baseball game than when the audience registers that the baserunner is about to go for one extra base, maybe one he shouldn’t go for. Whether he’s trying to score from first on a single, steal home, or stretch a double into a triple, that moment, when the fans realize the runner is just going to go for it, is pure electricity.
As Gardner rounded second and headed for third, the crowd rose to its feet. As he slid safely into third with a triple, the stadium exploded. I have been to playoff games the Yankees won, at the new stadium and the old one across the street. I know it’s the recency bias talking, but it felt like the stadium was close to as loud when Gardner reached third base down four runs to a 52-79 team as it was at those playoff games.
It’s easy to make post hoc declarations after a victory, but once Gardner slid into third, it felt certain the Yankees would win. Andujar sent the crowd into a frenzy again and sliced the lead in half with a rocket into the left field seats, and at that point, it seemed Chicago might as well just forfeit. The comeback appeared nigh when the Yankees put two on with two out that same inning, but Bird lined out to delay the inevitable (spoiler: Bird did not give them a reason not to boo him).
Instead, the comeback had to wait just a little, but not so long that there wasn’t still a buzz in the air when Stanton ripped a single into center to lead off the eighth, and scored when Aaron Hicks defiantly placed one into the right field seats to tie the game. Dellin Betances came on for the ninth and predictably made the White Sox hitters look foolish, giving the Yankees a chance to walk it off.
They did, of course. The fans in my section barely had to time to react the announcement of Neil Walker’s pinch-hitting before Walker had deposited the first pitch he saw into the right field bleachers, an absolute no-doubter. The reaction was one of elation, the kind where you high-five strangers and hug your loved ones as the hero rounds the bases.
It’s typical, at various points during the eternity that is a baseball season, for a team to take its lumps. Every team has to deal with it, even the best ones. The Yankees have suffered some tough stretches in the second half, losing key players left and right. The four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox stands out as the low point.
Those tough stretches did not kill the team, and they didn’t ruin the season. The upstart, likable Yankees that shocked everyone last year are still here. They’re here in the precocious skill of Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres, the mid-career renaissances of Aaron Hicks and Dellin Betances, and the veteran know-how of Giancarlo Stanton, CC Sabathia, and Brett Gardner.
The team undoubtedly has its shortcomings. Their owners can make silly comments to the press, refuse to spend when the team could use it, and take too long to institute things like a pride night. On the field, at least, the joy remains. The atmosphere at Yankee Stadium is electric every night, the Yankees are still a great team, and baseball is still a great game.