ALCS Game 4: Yankees playing like it's 1999

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

NEW YORK — Tonight, tomorrow, days and weeks and years from now, the 48,804 people who filled Yankee Stadium on Tuesday evening are going to try to describe the atmosphere here for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. They will fumble over their words and gesticulate with their hands and contort their faces and still struggle to properly quantify what they saw, not just this comeback from the New York Yankees but the sense that something long dormant was reanimating in real time. That on Oct. 17, 2017, there was an awakening.

“That ballpark,” Aaron Judge said, “is alive.”

This city, this team, this place – they all lend themselves to hyperbole. Yankee Stadium is a building made of limestone and steel and tax dollars. If it is alive, it should be jailed for how much it charges for beer. And yet nobody could stop with the personification, because what had just happened – a come-from-behind 6-4 victory against the Houston Astros to even the ALCS at two games apiece – conjured memories of Yankees teams of recent past and titillated those who dared to think: What if it’s happening again?

Nights like this, wins like that, supercharge the mind and send it to places of grandeur and excitement – places that the Yankees, with their 27 championships, own and simply sublet between dynasties. The burgeoning one in place now saw its greatest triumph yet in Game 4, when it rallied back from a 4-0 deficit with hit after big hit after big hit. And should this run from the 2017 Yankees manifest itself in a World Series appearance, or perhaps more, this will join all those other nights that live on in lore and fill montages.

What makes this so memorable won’t be Judge’s home run or Didi Gregorius‘ triple or Chase Headley‘s trip and fall or Judge’s game-tying double or Gary Sanchez‘s go-ahead gapper. Those are the moments. The feelings – those are what live on and swell the moments themselves into something bigger. And the feelings for this Yankees team – more than any of the mercenary crews that have populated a decade’s worth of rosters, including that of the 2009 championship – have reinvigorated those who grew tired of the organization and enraptured an entire new generation that gives this new building the sensation, and sound, of the old one.

“I just feel like the fans are back,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “And I see things that I haven’t seen in a while and it reminds me a lot when I was playing here. So it’s been fun to watch.”

Until 7:36 p.m., it had been anything but fun for Girardi. Houston first baseman Yuli Gurriel had cleared the bases with a double, and the Astros had tacked on another run, and with a 4-0 advantage, DH Carlos Beltran said: “We thought that was going to be enough to win the ballgame.

“It wasn’t.”

Aaron Judge hits a home run during the seventh inning of Game 4 of the ALCS. (AP)

At 7:36, Judge stepped to the plate to face Lance McCullers Jr., who had held the Yankees to one hit over six feckless innings. After allowing a home run to Judge in Game 3, the Astros had neutralized him in Game 4 with a flurry of curveballs from McCullers, whose 89-mph version is the fastest of any starter in the major leagues. His first pitch to Judge looped in at 84 mph, and Judge deposited it 427 feet away in center field. The murmurs turned to roars. It was 4-1.

Over the next hour, as manager A.J. Hinch tried to stanch the Astros’ bleeding with tourniquets made of tissue paper, the Yankees unleashed an onslaught that exposed Houston’s bullpen. Hinch yanked McCullers, who gave way to Chris Devenski, who immediately allowed a Gregorius triple, a hard-hit Sanchez sacrifice fly and a Greg Bird walk before an unceremonious exit. In came Joe Musgrove, who recorded the last two outs he’d get.

Musgrove started the eighth inning, the one people will remember, the one that will live on in videos from the stands uploaded to YouTube and the designation of the underwear worn during the game as forever lucky and the number of babies born nine months from now named Todd or Chase or Aaron or Didi or Gary.

“We just couldn’t get the inning to end,” Hinch said, and if it felt interminable to him, it was something those wearing pinstripes wished would go on forever.

Todd Frazier, born in Jersey, raised a Yankees fan, started with a single. Headley, pinch hitting, laced a ball into the left-center-field gap. Frazier easily reached third. Headley, not exactly the most graceful sort – he plods more than he runs – slipped halfway between first and second.

“Panic,” Headley said. “There’s bad words being thought. Just, ‘Oh, no, this really just happened.’ ”

Left fielder Marwin Gonzalez threw the ball to shortstop Carlos Correa. Instead of running the ball in or heaving it to second, Correa threw to first base, giving Headley the chance to dig for second. His fingertips just beat Jose Altuve‘s tag, and with runners on second and third and no outs, Hinch again summoned his bullpen, this time closer Ken Giles, he of the 100-mph fastball and power slider. Brett Gardner grounded out to plate one run.

Up came Judge. The stadium didn’t buzz; it palpitated. He stood toward the back of the batter’s box, 6-foot-7, 282 pounds, a specimen unlike any baseball ever has seen. His greatest vulnerability is the slider. It is Giles’ best pitch. He hung the first one. Judge fouled it off. The second and third came in low. Giles went fastball on the fourth, 100 mph on the dot, and Judge spoiled it. Giles’ fifth pitch wasn’t terrible: low in the zone, where Judge is vulnerable, and with late tilt. He extended his long arms and connected barrel with ball and watched it bang off the left-field wall, just out of the reach of an overzealous fan suffering from a premature case of apoplexy that arrested most of the 48,803 others at the stadium. The game was tied.

Gregorius followed with a single, which put runners on first and third with one out, and next up was Sanchez, who was 0 for the entire ALCS and 0 for his last 18 dating back to the division series. At 24, he’s even younger than Judge, and it’s the two of them and the cache of other homegrown players that make this team as likeable as it is. When Giles missed two sliders to start the at-bat, Sanchez sat fastball, and Giles fed him a gimme, or at least as much of a gimme as a 99-mph fastball can be. He turned around a 113-mph rocket into the right-center gap, and with Gregorius running, the Yankees had scored four in the inning and six unanswered.

“It just kept getting louder and louder,” Frazier said. “That double by Sanchez – I thought my head was gonna explode. I’m looking in the crowd and going crazy. It was just spectacular.”

Giles walked off amid a torrent of cheers that didn’t want to end. The disappointment of losses to aces Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in the series’ first two games had yielded to a new reality: The ALCS is now a three-game series, and the first to two wins.

“The series wasn’t over after two games,” Hinch said. “It’s certainly not over after four.”

Gary Sanchez reacts after hitting a two-run scoring double during the eighth inning of Game 4 of the ALCS. (AP)

He spoke like a manager of a team that just got slugged in the jaw should. Because remember: Keuchel goes in Game 5, and then the Astros return home for Game 6 with Verlander on the mound. And just as the Yankees anticipated Judge would slough off his slump and Sanchez emerge from his, the Astros figure they’re due as well. At the same time, the series has reached that inflection point of confidence, where now Gregorius, when asked about the challenge of facing Keuchel, who shut the Yankees out for seven innings in Game 1, responded: “Why is it a tough challenge?”

That’s New York right there. That’s someone who knows he’s good and gives not a single, solitary damn about anyone who doesn’t share his blood, his neighborhood or, in this case, his uniform. That’s what the 48,000 here and the millions others spread out about the five boroughs and the tri-state area and the 50 states and the hundreds of countries where someone owns a Yankees hat and an Internet connection love.

They felt something Tuesday, and in a moment where everything in baseball from the speed of a runner to the revolutions of a curveball to the arc of a tobacco spittle stream is measured, there’s beauty in that which can’t be quantified. No decibel meter could gauge what happened here. Over time, words will struggle just the same.

Maybe they’ll remember Judge getting caught off first base on a fly ball, then missing second as he tried to hustle back, then attempting to steal second so the Astros could challenge it, and ultimately getting caught. Or how when they were struggling, second baseman Starlin Castro fielded a ground ball, lost his feet and fell backward, like a boxer stunned by a liver shot. The moments that caused groans.

They made the rest of the night that much more euphoric – and reminiscent of what once was. This isn’t a dynasty yet, not close. Too many things can derail it. The talent, though, here now and on its way, and the money, ever present in New York, and the bright minds in charge – they’re a formidable package. And when it turns into something like Game 4 – well, no wonder there was an awakening. It would’ve been a shame to miss it.