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Wild Thing

In the autumn of 1954, the Giants won their last World Series title in New York City. The first game set the tone for the rest of the championship series. Their half of the scoreboard showed five runs, nine hits, and three errors. The Indians: two runs, eight hits, zero errors. The Giants had dominated the National League, battering their opponents to the tune of 97 regular season wins and 57 losses, while Arnold Hano, author of A Day in the Bleachers and terribly, openly biased against all non-Giants teams, later described the Indians as a “slow, dull, crippled ball club” despite their franchise-best 111-43 finish.

When the story of that day is told, however, those details become insignificant embellishments. What people remember best—what is worth preserving, what captured the spirit of the Giants’ indomitable run—was the sight of 23-year-old center fielder Willie Mays sprinting for the center field wall, glove outstretched, a Vic Wertz fly ball careening toward the warning track, Mays’ hat tumbling back onto the grass, the gentle thunder of the crowd when he pivoted back toward the diamond to return the ball to second base and prevented the Indians from taking a 3-2 lead in the eighth.

The best narratives in baseball don’t just dissect what happened; they poke and prod at the hows and whys. They tell us what happened and then make us believe that it mattered.

The Yankees won the AL Wild Card game on Tuesday. This likely wouldn’t have come as a surprise to you even if you elected to skip the game. The Yankees went 91-71 this season; the Twins finished 85-77. The Yankees had Aaron Judge and a bullpen that put professional fire-breathers to shame. The Twins rampaged through the last two months of the season, bullish in their pursuit of a playoff berth, clenching the second Wild Card spot between their teeth for 26 consecutive days as the season rolled to a stop. And they still entered Tuesday’s winner-take-all match as underdogs, the scrappy comeback club that rallied from their 103-loss season in 2016 to toss their hat in the ring for a championship.

The Yankees won on Tuesday, and unless you have a personal or professional stake in the Yankees winning, it hardly mattered. But here’s how they did it.

Judge finds the left field bleachers.

It would give them undue credit to say that the Yankees knew Aaron Judge would collect a home run on the first night of the playoffs. Certainly, they hoped for it. They believed it was possible. They’d seen all 52 of his dingers light up the scoreboard during the regular season, two of them off the Twins. Even knowing the pitfalls of the postseason, the crapshoot odds and ill-timed slumps, even after watching Giancarlo Stanton sprint toward 60 home runs only to fall short by a single jack on the last day of the season, they hoped.

Judge did not disappoint.

His two-run, 108.1-mph blast wasn’t the farthest or hardest-hit of his career, nor was it even the most striking component of the club’s eight-run effort. It was, however, the third time a Yankees rookie belted one out in his postseason debut, following in the footsteps of 1955 catcher/outfielder Elston Howard and 1998 outfielder Shane Spencer before him. As Judge charged around the bases like a kid on Christmas morning, the home run returned the Yankees’ advantage, helping them get a leg up on their AL rivals after the chaos of the first few innings.

Buxton’s heroic leap at the wall knocks him out of the game.

Not two innings after the Twins stripped their starter from the game, Byron Buxton was knocked out of the game after he separated a fly ball from the warning track by slamming back-first into the center field wall, à la Willie Mays and Ken Griffey Jr.

Buxton took an at-bat following the catch (and even stole base), but felt the tightness blossom in his muscles before he could resume his post in center field to start the fourth. Zack Granite took over in center field, meanwhile, and compromised the Twins’ efforts in a completely different way.

In the eighth, with one out and none on, Granite slapped a ball toward first base and sprinted down the line. What looked like an easy out became a close out, as Tommy Kanhle dropped the ball and forced Starlin Castro to chase it down and tag Granite for out no. 2. The Twins outfielder ran out what might have been an infield hit and did an about-face once he realized he forgot to step on the bag. It was too late.

There was no contact with the base, so the out was incontestable. Granted, this was no Merkle’s Boner, but it didn’t help the Twins any, either.

In a battle of bullpens, Yankees combine for one run and 13 strikeouts.

The first pitch Luis Severino fired at Brian Dozier registered 100 mph on the radar gun. The fifth pitch Luis Severino fired at Brian Dozier registered 99.5 mph out of his hand, then got a friendly bump to 105 off the bat as it stretched into the center field bleachers.

Greatness demands passion; at times, it also demands composure. Severino couldn’t tame the strike zone quickly enough to counter the Twins’ offensive drive, and one seven-pitch walk to Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario two-run home run, Eduardo Escobar base hit, and Max Kepler double later, Joe Girardi relieved the rookie of his responsibilities. No other starter has been ousted as quickly from a playoff elimination game in 17 years.

Ervin Santana fared little better, getting knocked out after two innings and four runs when Didi Gregorius and Brett Gardner lifted a pair of home runs in the first and second. While Girardi spun his carousel of high-octane relievers in Severino’s absence, Paul Molitor wasn’t so lucky. Jose Berrios made a rare relief appearance, becoming the second consecutive Twins starter to stumble with three runs scattered over three innings.

By the time Minnesota’s relievers hit their stride in the seventh, the Yankees’ four-run lead looked close to impenetrable. The Twins hadn’t scored since Buxton’s RBI force out in the third, and the Yankees’ relief corps was only growing stronger. All told, they spun 8 2/3 innings of 13-strikeout ball against the Twins. Chad Green, Tommy Kanhle, and Aroldis Chapman threw over 95 mph. David Robertson topped out at 93.4 mph and caught five batters swinging on his hallmark pitch, a knuckle curve.

Chapman returned the Yankees to the Division Series in the ninth inning, burning a hole in the middle of the zone with three straight 100+ mph fastballs. He didn’t need subtlety or nuance here. His final pitch sank well under Polanco’s bat, pressing into Gary Sanchez’s glove at 103.7 mph.

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As to the why of the Yankees’ win? Sometimes, the team that’s better on paper is also better on the field. Sometimes, the team with the deeper bullpen, the solid backup plan, the flamethrowers and upstart young hitters that couldn’t possibly sustain a .339 TAv and .667 SLG, manage to synchronize expectations with performance.

Tomorrow, the Yankees will go head-to-head against the best team in baseball. The Indians, like their 1954 counterparts, hold the winningest record in the American League. Their 22-game winning streak sparkles just a little brighter than the two separate 11-game streaks they carried 63 years ago. They’re no longer the “slow, dull, crippled ball club” of the mid-1950s, if they ever fit those labels.

We’ll see what happens. By any stroke of luck, we’ll have a good story to tell, too.

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