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Yankees 5, Guardians 1: New York wins hard-fought ALDS in five

Nestor Cortes gave the Yankees the start they needed while the big bats swung hard, earning an ALCS date in Houston.

Division Series - Cleveland Guardians v New York Yankees - Game Five Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

“The Yankees hit just .182 against Guardians pitching in this series, but they hit nine home runs to the Guardians’ three”.

On Saturday, when I called the Guardians a bunch of slap-hitting shit goblins, it got some traction online, with Guardians fans rightly pointing out that there are many ways to win a baseball game, and indeed, a playoff series. What we know, though, is that the sustainable, predictable way to increase your odds of winning is to hit the damn ball over the fence. Bloops are fine, but there’s way more variance in those batted balls than the ones that travel 400 feet in the air.

For the Yankees, that was the key all series long, and in the decisive Game 5 tonight. Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge clubbed home runs early, the Guardians were behind the eight-ball before a whole bunch of fans were even in their seats, and the combination of Nestor Cortes and three relievers held the Guardians to a single run on eight hits — none of them for extra bases. The Yankees advanced to the ALCS with the 5-1 final score.

If there wasn’t already a Legend of Nestor Cortes, there is now. The lefty, working on three days’ rest for the first time in his career, was simply stellar in five innings of one-run ball today. Efficiency was going to be the key, so he cut through the opening couple frames on just 18 pitches. You’re not going to strike out a lot of Guardians, so Nestor allowed just two batted balls over 95 mph — owning the corners and edges of the zone and inducing easy-to-convert medium contact.

Right from the jump, it was clear that the risk of three days’ rest was going to be worth the payoff. Steven Kwan led off the game with a single, of course. Cortes got a little help from Amed Rosario, making the bizarre decision to bunt which he did straight up in the air for the first out. After that came a popout and lineout, so Kwan was stuck at first.

The Yankees rewarded that kind of effort in their turn to bat, punishing the Guardians’ gamble of the rusty Aaron Civale over a Bullpen Game (or Shane Bieber on short rest). Gleyber Torres, who had a terrific night, walked to lead off the home first. Aaron Judge struck out, Anthony Rizzo was hit by a pitch, and Giancarlo Stanton stepped to the plate:

Barring Judge reaching, you couldn’t script a better start for the Yankees. I was afraid after the emotional ups and downs of yesterday the lineup would come out a bit flat, as we’ve seen more than once over the past couple seasons. Instead the exact opposite happened — the Yankees owned the plate, had great PAs, and Stanton did what he’s done so many times in the postseason. It was the 11th bomb of his playoff career in just 23 games.

This also brings up the notion of what clutch is. We’re so used to thinking of it in an extremely limited context — a “RUNNER ON THIRD, TWO OUT, NINTH INNING, WHO DO YOU WANT AT THE PLATE”-kind of thinking. Sure, that’s one kind of clutch. But how do we describe the hitter who has a huge hit in the first inning, the kind of hit that makes everyone’s job for the rest of the game that much easier, and means you avoid having to worry about the runner on third in the ninth inning?

After getting that three-spot, Cortes did exactly what you need to do, shutting down the Guardians on 11 pitches, shattering Josh Naylor’s bat for an easy popout before fanning Gabriel Árias and Andrés Giménez. He was cookin’, and once again, the offense answered their starter’s dominance:

Judge has been well-handled by the Guardians staff this series; very clearly there’s a photo of him in the clubhouse with big red letters reminding Cleveland not to let him beat them. He added much-needed insurance with his second home run of the series, and laced a single 101 mph in the seventh, so I think he’ll be just fine for the trip down to Houston.

The only real speedbump that Nestor hit came in the third inning, which started with a strong play by Aaron Hicks to hold Austin Hedges at first, only for an unfortunate misplay in shallow left field to change the calculus a batter later:

Aaron Hicks left the game with a bad left knee, will receive an MRI tonight, and was replaced in the game by Marwin Gonzalez. I know how most Yankee fans feel about Hicks, but if tonight was the last time we see him in pinstripes, that is a terrible, unfortunate way for it to happen. Hopefully, it was just a bad bump.

Cortes looked a little thrown off by the misplay, walking Rosario on four pitches, each further from the zone than the last. Hey, everyone loses focus, the question is how quickly can you get it back — he got weak fly balls from José Ramírez and Oscar Gonzalez, with one run scoring on J-Ram’s, and that was all the damage he allowed.

The maligned Yankees bullpen was even stingier than Cortes, firing four innings of shutout ball to secure the ALDS triumph. The Guardians only really threatened one more time, with two on, two out, and Jonathan Loáisiga throwing to Josh Naylor:

I know we’re probably past Naylor Discourse; I thought it was a dumb celebration but whatever, you took Gerrit Cole deep sure celebrate. This is the downside, though: fans chanted “Who’s your daddy” at him all night long, and even Oswaldo Cabrera seemed to have something to say. Naylor went 0-for-4, but credit to him for at least appearing to take it in good spirits.

J-Lo and Clay Holmes dominated before we saw Wandy Peralta make a little history in the ninth, becoming the first pitcher to ever appear in all five games of the Division Series. The soft top of the Yankee bullpen gave up an infield hit, but nothing else, recording the last out of the ALDS, and sending New York to the ALCS to take on the waiting Houston Astros — although not before we got one last dig at Naylor:

The Yankees and ‘Stros have been on a collision course all year. They are the two best teams in the American League, by a fair margin. You could argue the Yankee regression this season started when the Astros came to the Bronx. It is the third time they will have faced off in the ALCS in six seasons. Hollywood couldn’t write a more dramatic bracket for this postseason, but here’s the thing about movies: nobody cares what happens in Acts 1 & 2. The only thing people remember is Act 3.

Justin Verlander is waiting, and Jameson Taillon was already announced as New York’s Game 1 starter in the pregame tonight. It’s a quick turnaround and a tough opponent, but if the Yankees have the ABs tomorrow that they had tonight, their status as underdogs might not last all that long. First pitch comes from Houston at 7:37pm Eastern.

Box Score