ALCS Game 3: Aaron Judge, Yankees rebound at home vs. Astros

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

NEW YORK – At 8:08 p.m. ET, the first synth beat of “Big Poppa” leaked through the speakers at Yankee Stadium and CC Sabathia started his long walk toward the pitcher’s mound. At 37 years old, he moves with the calculated lethargy of a man who has been there before and need not hurry. He will stand 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. He will throw a fastball, cutter, slider and changeup. He will grind and churn with the strain of a man who is not what he once was.

That, Sabathia understands, does not mean he cannot do what he once did. Because in a must-win Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros on Monday night, Sabathia took those 34 steps from the New York Yankees’ dugout to the mound, dug in and turned in his best postseason performance in ages. Buoyed by Sabathia’s six shutout innings and invigorated by Aaron Judge’s first home run since the wild card game, the Yankees blunted the Astros in an 8-1 victory in front of 49,373.

After a pair of 2-1 losses in the series’ first two games, the Yankees can tie the series in Tuesday’s Game 5, which starts at 5:08 p.m. ET. Though relegated to the championship-series undercard by the Dodgers-Cubs matchup, the Yankees and Astros suddenly have a series, thanks to the arm of Sabathia and the bats that had been held dormant.

In what could be his swan song as a Yankee, Sabathia became the first 37-plus pitcher to throw at least six shutout innings in the postseason since Pedro Martinez for the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies. He was sharp early, punching out a pair in each of his first two innings, and worked around trouble all the way through the sixth inning. Sabathia looked prime to go five until his teammates offered a cushion in the bottom of the fourth due to both their bats and the uncharacteristic sloppiness of the Astros.

On the inning’s first play, Yankees first baseman Greg Bird sliced a ball down the left-field line. Feet from it, left fielder Cameron Maybin stopped running, and the ball bounced fair and into the stands for a ground-rule double. Astros starter Charlie Morton then recorded a pair or quick outs before walking Todd Frazier. Chase Headley followed with the first hit from a Yankees designated hitter in 29 at-bats this postseason to drive in Bird. Morton hit Brett Gardner to load the bases, and manager A.J. Hinch yanked him.

That didn’t help. Reliever Will Harris uncorked a wild pitch at which catcher Evan Gattis stabbed with all the deftness of a dog pawing for food. Frazier dashed home to bump the Yankees’ lead to 5-0. Three pitches later, Judge turned on an up-and-in 93-mph fastball and sent it over the left-field fence, a much-needed hit after earlier in the game setting the single-season playoff record for strikeouts while barely into the championship-series round.

New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge hits a three-run home run during the fourth inning of Game 3 of baseball’s American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros Monday, Oct. 16, 2017, in New York. (AP)

The Yankees led 8-0, and between the home run and a pair of sparkling defensive plays in right – the first of which ended with Judge robbing Yuli Gurriel of a hit while crashing into a PlayStation ad that said GREATNESS AWAITS just before hitting his home run – he finally turned in a game representative of his regular season.

Sabathia last threw six shutout innings in July, and while he has been a grand surprise for the Yankees, this was beyond anyone’s best hopes. While the Astros haven’t hit in the ALCS, they boast a fearsome top-to-bottom lineup. Though Sabathia can pump his fastball up to 92 mph, his best days are long past, and he is best at creating and exploiting weaknesses rather than imposing his will – and stuff – on hitters.

After allowing a leadoff single in the sixth, he got two outs and should’ve had a third on a groundball that shortstop Didi Gregorius almost threw into the stands. Yankees manager Joe Girardi came to the mound to visit Sabathia and returned to the dugout almost as quickly. Chants of “Let’s go, CC!” resonated throughout the inning. On his 99th pitch, Sabathia retired Josh Reddick on a weak comebacker, then exited the field F-bombing Reddick on his way back to the dugout, a fitting capper.

The Yankees spent nearly the whole evening rubbing it in the Astros’ face. Perhaps the lowest individual moment was in the second inning, when a Morton fastball ran low and over the outside corner. Frazier, in a swing that can be described only as defensive and feeble, somehow barreled the ball well enough for it to fly. And fly. And fly over the right-field fence for a three-run home run that gave New York a 3-0 lead. The only others aside from Yankees fans enthralled with the Frazier home run were juiced-ball conspiracy theorists who had perhaps the best evidence yet in favor of one.

Houston got on the board with one run in the ninth inning, which struggling Yankees reliever Dellin Betances started with a pair of walks before getting pulled. It was way too little and too late, though. This was the night of Frazier and Judge and especially Big Poppa, who knew exactly what he needed to do.