Elimination games warp the fabric of baseball time. They make past games feel heavier, and all of a team’s faults therein more damning. They draw the individual moments of the present game into hyperfocus, with outsize importance resting on every one, each routine ground ball or lazy pop-up weighty with the sense that it means something, no matter what the score is. And elimination games make the future seem irrelevant, because who can afford to plan for the future when the present feels so crushing? (This despite the fact that the team is playing only for the chance of having any future at all.)
All of this changes how you experience the game as it’s happening. It does the same for how you experience it in retrospect. The memory very easily gets distorted, clumps together in certain spaces while leaving others totally bare; it doesn’t necessarily crystallize chronologically. Every key moment can sprout into a hypothetical after the fact: boy, we were lucky there or what if that had traveled just a fraction of an inch further or how close was it to going the other way.
It doesn’t matter so much here what the outcome was. It only matters that the stakes were high enough to press you to take stock of what you won or what you lost, and the simplest way to do this, often, is to imagine what things would be like if they were somehow different. This is something that elimination games have in common with one-run games—in the case of the latter, not so much because the stakes were high, but because “different” was so close to the same. In a one-run elimination game, then, these hypotheticals are myriad and easy. Here are a few, from last night’s 1-0 Yankees victory over the Indians to secure a Game 4.
The Breaking Point of the Pitchers’ Duel
The dominant theme of this postseason so far, to the extent that there is one, has been heavy bullpen use. Quite a bit of that has been managers calling for relief early because of poor starting pitching, which is more ordinary damage control than brilliant strategy, but that hasn’t stopped the narrative. Last night, though, offered nothing to contribute to that storyline. For five-plus innings, we got the playoffs’ first taste of a genuine pitchers’ duel.
Carlos Carrasco and Masahiro Tanaka had almost perfectly symmetrical lines through the fifth inning. They’d each allowed just three baserunners. Carrasco had struck out seven with a hit, a hit batter, and a walk; Tanaka had struck out six with two hits and a walk. Both were cruising. In the end, it was Carrasco who started making mistakes first—giving up a single in the sixth, followed by a walk and then another single that prompted a call to the bullpen.
But what if Tanaka had made the first mistake?
With one out in the top of the fourth, Jason Kipnis got on board with a triple to become the first batter of the game to move past first base. Next up was Jose Ramirez. He struck out swinging—but only because Gary Sanchez managed to successfully block a few balls in the dirt.
Neither of these was a given for Sanchez. It would’ve only been a matter of seeing the ball just a little less clearly or fumbling around for a moment longer or reaching at an angle that’s just ever so slightly off. Kipnis would’ve scored, the scoreless duel would’ve snapped, and everything would’ve been something else (if only by a fraction of a second or half a finger’s width).
Everything was what it was. Ramirez struck out. But what if he hadn’t?
The Almost Home Run
Aaron Judge is tall. Very tall, in fact. This simple piece of information, all on its own, has frequently been made to constitute a joke or a meme or a marvel. A picture of Judge next to, say, 5-foot-8 teammate Ronald Torreyes becomes a punchline. “Aaron Judge is quite big” becomes a piece of legitimate baseball commentary. (I believe “behemoth” was the term used by Cleveland radio broadcaster Tom Hamilton during Game 1 of this series.)
There is usually no depth to such observations—there is no Aaron Judge is a large young adult outfielder, and. It’s just Aaron Judge is a large young adult outfielder. There’s no “and.” They would be very bad in an improv sketch. There’s no further insight to continue the conversation. Just Aaron Judge, aware that he is tall, and everyone else, aware that he is tall, saying, “Boy, is he tall.”
Aaron Judge is a large young adult outfielder, and he saved this home run—and the game, and the season—because of it.
The Home Run
This is the easy one in a one-run game. Of course you wonder about the run.
This one wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Lefties slugged .213 against Andrew Miller this year. He gave up just one home run to a left-handed hitter (compared to the whopping total of two home runs that he gave up to right-handed hitters). Even in Miller’s darkest and most doubtful moments this season—which were still relatively light and fairly certain, compared to most moments of most relievers, and occurred only when he was battling a knee injury—home runs were never a concern.
A home run is not a potential outcome that Cleveland mentally prepares for when Miller comes out from the bullpen. Worrying about an Andrew Miller home run is not worrying, oh, maybe there’ll be an extra 10 minutes of traffic on the freeway this morning. It is not worrying, oh, maybe the 'check engine’ light has been flashing for a reason, maybe something will go horribly wrong with the car today. It is worrying, oh, maybe the car will shapeshift into a large turtle as the freeway melts down into a molten substance. It can happen, maybe, but statistically speaking, it’s a silly reason to worry that you’ll be late to work.
But, at one point or another, we’re all late to work for silly reasons.
Chiz pinch hits for Robo.
Yankees bring in Chapman.
Yan pinch hits for Chiz.
Allen pinch runs for Brantley. pic.twitter.com/ZY9F2eqa3w
— AL Central champs! (@Indians) October 9, 2017
All of the tactical moves that Terry Francona made here were perfectly logical. You think you’ll be facing a righty, so you pinch-hit with a lefty. Said righty gets pulled for a lefty, so you pinch-hit with a righty instead. But the lefty is Aroldis Chapman and this is the bottom of your lineup and you have literally one guy left on the bench and it’s Erik Gonzalez, so what are you going to do now, really, anyway. All you can do is your best, and this is what that looks like.
All of these decisions are good! But that doesn’t stop the lure of what if. Everything made sense and looked good on paper, sure. But what if Francona hadn’t been so smart, what if he’d just let it ride, what if things had been different? Things couldn’t really have been much worse. So what if they were different, and what if they were better? The first two pitches that Chapman threw to Urshela were 101 mph fastballs, one of which was mercifully just a bit outside and called as a ball. The fourth one was a 102 mph fastball. (Of the 30 fastballs he threw last night, 29 hit triple digits.) But the third pitch? It was a slider that he hung, right over the plate, and Urshela just stared at it. What if he’d swung? What if it hadn’t been Urshela at the plate at all? What if Chapman threw that same pitch, but in the ninth inning instead of the eighth?
You can play this forever—tease out a hypothetical space where Gary Sanchez can’t block a ball in the dirt, or where Aaron Judge is half an inch shorter. There are infinite theoretical games at be played at every inflection point. But none of them are real, and so now there’s a Game 4 to play, too.