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ALCS Game 2 Reactions: A tale of two fly balls

The Yankees head home down 2-0, after a devastating loss that illustrated the razor-thin margins that determine playoff success.

Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

After losing a winnable Game 1, the Yankees entered Game 2 placing a tremendous amount of pressure on the shoulders of Luis Severino. Their lineup has looked moribund at times, and the right-hander knew he’d have to be near-perfect to feel comfortable about his chances of winning this game and clinching a split in Houston. The Yankees very nearly did secure that split, but were denied thanks to the parallel fates of a pair of fly balls.

Severino, to his credit, pitched a very strong game. He wasn’t throwing quite as hard as he was in Cleveland, but he still had great life on his fastball, sitting 96.5 mph with the heater and using it to generate a heap of whiffs from a contact-heavy Houston lineup. Severino’s command wavered in the second and third innings, but otherwise he was dialed in, pumping gas and mixing in his deadly changeup and slider with aplomb.

But a common refrain on the broadcast was that Severino “made just one mistake” referring to the fastball on the inside corner that Alex Bregman turned on for a three-run homer, accounting for the entirety of Houston’s offensive output. It’s a mistake to call the pitch a mistake.

Severino’s fastball came in on Bregman’s hands at 97 mph. Over the last three seasons, four-seamers at that speed in that piece of the strike zone have produced a .252 wOBA when put in play. Basically, that kind of pitch turns the average hitter into Jeff Mathis.

Bregman isn’t an average hitter, of course, and he did well to turn around and get bat on ball, but the contact he produced was poor. The ball exited his bat at 91.8 mph and a launch angle of 36 degrees. Read: the ball was not struck hard, and Bregman got way under it.

Because of some combination of the short porch that is the Crawford Boxes, the swirling winds welcomed in by a roofless Minute Maid Park, or maybe even just the particular baseball Severino threw, Bregman’s flare easily carried out. The wind may not have been the sole factor in carrying the ball out, but it really seems to have played a role; per Statcast, balls struck at the same speed and angle as Bregman’s homer traveled an average of 326 feet, 34 feet shorter than Bregman’s ball actually flew.

Five innings later, Aaron Judge strode to the plate down 3-2 and with a man on first. Judge struck a missile off of Bryan Abreu, a 106 mph liner to the opposite field. Analyst Devan Fink noted on Twitter that similar flies travel an average of 414 feet, 69 feet further than Judge’s ball actually flew.

The wind knocked Judge’s ball down, with Kyle Tucker gratefully corralling it at the wall. On almost any other night, in almost any other park, Judge comes away with at least a double, very possibly a game-winning dinger. On this night, it was a long, loud out.

These are the margins that can define success in October. Severino didn’t execute a perfect pitch to Bregman, but it was a fine pitch, not a blunder. Bregman didn’t handle it perfectly either, striking the ball fairly weakly, in a way that results in a out almost every time. Instead, it left the Yankees in a daunting 3-0 hole. Against Abreu, Judge did execute pretty much perfectly, demolishing a slider left middle-middle. He was left with nothing to show for his efforts.

This isn’t to excuse the Yankees for their miscues, whether they be ones made by players on the field (lord knows they made enough poor swing/non-swing decisions late in this game), or by executives constructing the roster (see: the trades for Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Josh Donaldson). It just goes to show that, when you have teams this good on both sides, playing a game so prone to whimsy and capriciousness, sometimes, all that separates the champions from the heartbroken is the direction the wind decides to blow.

Stray reactions:

  • Oswald Peraza, in his first playoff start, looked pretty overmatched at the plate but stellar in the field. It’s unfortunate the Yankees handled his late-season promotion so clumsily, confining him to the bench for much of September and keeping him from getting developmental plate appearances in the bigs or Triple-A. Sure, getting Peraza playing time down the stretch doesn’t mean he would suddenly start raking against playoff pitching, but it would certainly have put him in a slightly better position to succeed now that the pressure is on.
  • The Yankees’ defense as a whole was fantastic. Peraza, Gleyber Torres, and Anthony Rizzo made a number of phenomenal plays, helping the Yankees’ run prevention unit keep this dangerous Houston lineup quiet. The Yankees run a frustratingly poor bottom of the order, but part of that equation is that most of their weaker hitters carry with them excellent gloves. The equation hasn’t entirely worked out in their favor this postseason, but their pitching and defense as a whole have done enough so far against Houston to win games if the top of their lineup could heat up a bit.
  • Severino showed how silly Boone’s Game 1 intentional walk of Yordan Alvarez was, at least in the view of this writer. Alvarez’s career OBP is .384. You’ll notice that doesn’t read 1.000. 62 percent of the time when pitchers throw to Alvarez, he gets out. There is no need to take 62 percent and automatically turn it into zero by playing scared. Severino played without fear, challenging and beating Alvarez on his own terms:
  • Opposite Severino, Framber Valdez didn’t make any big mistakes, but instead a series of small ones that the Yankees crucially did not capitalize on. Early in the game, Valdez was entirely unable to put himself in favorable counts, with the Yankees spitting on a series of low sinkers. Valdez went to a pronounced hitter’s count (which I’ll define as 2-0, 3-1, or 3-0) on six of the first eight Yankees he faced, offering batters real chances to do damage. But the Yankees couldn’t punish him, only scoring in the fourth inning thanks to a defensive miscue by Valdez himself.