Throughout the first half of the 2022 regular season, it seemed like the Yankees and the Houston Astros were on a collision course. As the two best teams in the American League, they would have to meet in the AL Championship Series to decide the league pennant and the right to play in the World Series.
Here they finally are. The path was clear for the Astros, who earned the top AL seed in the postseason and swept Seattle in a division series. It was a more winding road for the Yankees, who earned a 5-1 victory on Tuesday in the winner-takes-all Game 5 of a division series against the Cleveland Guardians that felt like it may never end.
The Yankees rode the left arm of Nestor Cortes, who started on short rest and coughed up only one run over five efficient innings. They rode the bats of the sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, who each homered early and calmed the nerves of Yankees fans. They rode a bullpen, woefully depleted by injuries, that tossed four scoreless innings to close out the victory.
“It’s important to throw the first punch, especially when all hands are on deck,” Stanton said in an on-field interview after the game, referring to his team’s pitching staff.
Roughly 24 hours after the final out in the Bronx on Tuesday, the Yankees will begin the best-of-seven ALCS in Houston against a well rested Astros team that will have played just three times in the previous 13 days. And on the mound, the Astros will go with their ace, Justin Verlander, a top contender for the AL Cy Young Award at age 39 after coming back from Tommy John surgery. In order to topple the Guardians, the Yankees needed to start their ace Gerrit Cole twice, including on Sunday, so the right-hander Jameson Taillon was asked to start Game 1 of the ALCS
The Astros, who are making their sixth straight ALCS appearance, are a familiar and troublesome October foe for the Yankees. The previous two times the Yankees reached the ALCS — in 2017 and in 2019 — they were eliminated by the Astros.
“We kind of figured eventually at some point we’d see each other again,” Judge said. He added later, referring to Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, “I talk with Bregman about that and every year it’s like, ‘We’ll see you in the CS’ It’s going to be a fun matchup. It’s probably going seven games. We’ll see what happens.”
The Yankees had reason to be bothered by their 2017 exit in seven games of that ALCS The Astros, who won the World Series that year, were later discovered to be illicitly stealing signs that season and postseason. Major League Baseball punished the Astros, who, in turn, fired their general manager and manager at the time. In 2019, the Astros beat the Yankees in six games, only to fall to the Washington Nationals in a seven-game World Series.
“My ultimate goal is to go out there and win a World Series,” Judge said, “and that’s a team that’s kind of always been in the way.”
This season, even though the Yankees struggled in the second half, they and the Astros were the best two teams in the AL They secured the two first-round byes in the AL playoffs, with the Astros as No. 1 because they won 106 games to the Yankees’ 99. The Astros swept Seattle in their division series, while the Yankees needed five games — and a week — to sneak past the Guardians.
“A hard-fought, close series,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said.
This series was defined more by stops than starts. Game 2 in the Bronx was postponed from Thursday to Friday because of rain. Game 5 was also postponed by rain from Monday to Tuesday — originally a travel and workout day — but only after the teams and fans waited out a two-and-a-half-hour delay before being sent home by MLB
Rain or not, the Guardians proved to be a tough out. Despite a roster that set a major-league record for most rookies (17) on a division-or league-winning team and whose payroll was $90 million (compared to the Yankees’ $259 million), the Guardians’ strong pitching, stout defense and pesky hitting pushed the Yankees to the brink.
Throughout the series, they exposed some of the Yankees’ weaknesses, notably on defense and in their bullpen. But on Tuesday, the Yankees used a formula that carried them this season: strong starting pitching and home runs, categories in which they were among the best — if not the best — in MLB
The Yankees seized control of the game from the start. The Guardians right-hander Aaron Civale walked the Yankees’ leadoff hitter, Gleyber Torres, on four pitches. Striking out Judge was his lone accomplishment.
He then hit first baseman Anthony Rizzo with a pitch. Stanton let the first two balls go by him and then swung at the first pitch in the strike zone, sending it into the right field seats for a three-run blast that lit up Yankee Stadium.
The next batter, Josh Donaldson, hit an infield single and Civale was removed from the game. The Guardians now had to cover 26 outs with their bullpen. Cortes, however, spared the Yankees’ relief corps from a heavy load.
“I knew from that moment on,” Cortes said of Stanton’s home run, “all I had to do was throw strikes and be able to get us as deep as possible.”
As he carved up the Guardians’ lineup, his teammates gave him more wiggle room. In the second inning, Judge slammed a curveball from the left-handed reliever Sam Hentges over the right-center field fence for a solo blast. It was his fourth home run in a winner-takes-all game, the most in MLB history, according to the Yankees.
Rizzo gave the Yankees a 5-1 lead in the fifth inning with a single. After catching the final out at second base, Torres made a baby-rocking motion with his arms, mocking Guardians designated hitter Josh Naylor, who had done that to Cole after his home run in Game 4. Torres called Naylor’s celebration “disrespect” toward the Yankees and said they got “a little revenge.”
He added, “We’re happy to beat those guys and now they can watch on the TV the next series.”
In the clubhouse and on the field, the Yankees celebrated with beer and champagne. But some not too much. A drenched Taillon said he had not drunk a sip of alcohol. “Just wearing a lot of it,” he deadpanned. The next round and the Astros were already upon them.