The Upstart Yankees and the joys of low expectations in fandom

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Last night the New York Yankees overcame historical odds to beat the Cleveland Indians 5-2 in a series deciding game five shocker. They were a huge underdog going into the series, playing a team that had won 102 during the regular season, that featured a historic 22 game winning streak late in the year. After taking a 2-0 over New York, no one gave the Yankees much of a chance to get back into the series, let alone win. So when Brett Gardner knocked in an RBI single off of a 12 pitch at bat in the ninth inning, also scoring Todd Frazier from second base on an error, it felt like one of the crazier moments in recent baseball history. 

It’s almost cliche to talk about how this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Bronx Bombers. A year in which the team would finally free themselves of huge contracts on older players while bringing up some of their young prospects, and feel out what kind of roster they would carry into the future. It’s safe to say that no one saw the brilliance of Aaron Judge coming. There was a very specific kind of joy that came with watching a six foot, eight giant mash baseballs into the stratosphere all summer. Judge has had his ups and downs this season, including a an ALDS in which he broke multiple records for strikeouts in a playoff series. He may not have been a deciding factor against the Indians, but the Yankees would not be in these playoffs without his record breaking, 52 home run season. 

While Judge and fellow heavy hitter, Gary Sanchez had their struggles in the Indians series, shortstop Didi Gregorius had a monster Game Five, hitting two home runs against Corey Kluber, a pitcher who is sure to garner his fair share of AL Cy Young votes. It was Didi’s home runs that would knock Kluber out of the game early, and give the Yankees an early lead that would prove be all they needed to win the deciding game. Gregorius had a great season for New York, hitting 25 home runs and providing reliable defense up the middle. It’s crazy to think, but Didi is only two years older than Aaron Judge, and still has plenty of room to improve as a player. 

There was no bigger question mark coming into the season than how would the Yankees find enough wins out of their starting staff to get to the playoffs. There were serious questions about older pitchers like CC Sabathia and Michael Pineda, and constant worries about injuries to their would-be ace, Masahiro Tanaka. It would turn out to be second year righty, Luis Severino who would step up to be the ace in New York’s rotation. His power fastball, which often reaches up to 100 MPH would overpower much of the league this year en route to 230 strikeouts and a 2.98 ERA. After really struggling in the Bombers Wildcard game against the Twins (.1 IP, 4H, 3ER) the young flamethrower pitched a brilliant seven innings against the Tribe in game four, recording 9 strikeouts in seven innings. When you pair Severino with Sonny Gray, a mid year acquisition Yankees GM Brian Cashman made to sure up the rotation, New York now has a fighting chance in any playoff series, especially when you have the best bullpen in the Majors backing it up. 

The youth movement that has served the Yankees so well all season, will now go up against a franchise who has followed a similar path to success, although for the Astros this has be a decade long rebuilding project. Houston won 101 games during the regular season and boasts a lineup filled with potential MVP hiitters. Just watching someone like Jose Altuve, a 5-6 shortstop who unfathomably had a .957 OPS with 24 home runs this season, feels like watching a completely different sport. The Astros lineup also features sluggers like Marwin Gonzalez (23 HR, .907 OPS) George Springer (34 HR) and Carlos Correa (24 HR, .941 OPS). They ranked first in the AL in runs scored, batting average, OPS and OPS+. I’m already extremely excited to see how this best in class lineup fairs against the big arms in the Yankees bullpen. 

The Yankees are currently +160 underdogs going into their series with the Astros. They have some real question marks going into the series. If Judge and Sanchez continue to struggle, it’s hard to imagine the bombers having enough fire power to keep up Houston. One wonders which version of Servino will we see in this series, the guy who looked overmatched in his first playoff appearance, or the dominant pitcher who helped his team survive against the Indians. Both of these teams have great bullpens, and this series is probably going to come down to who can do the most damage in the early innings and start to wear down the other teams relief pitchers. New York deserves to be the underdog, but it would not surprise me if they continued to defy expectations and put a real scare into another of baseball’s elite teams. 

It’s not very often you see a team led by such young stars impress in professional sports. Getting to cheer for a team without the burden of huge expectations is a very enjoyable experience. I remember watching a young Thunder squad push a would-be championship Lakers squad to their limits, and thinking, ‘it has to be a ton of fun to watch those guys play.’ Watching the baby bombers succeed at the level they had, while still making the mistakes you would expect out of a young team, is just plain fun. If the ride ends here then sobeit, at least the young players got a taste of the playoffs, and all the pressure that goes with playing in October. There’s no ceiling on Yankee Stadium, and like a moonshot from Aaron Judge, there’s no telling how far this squad is capable of going.