Stars front and center, the Yankees land in the background of another team's October moment

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·MLB columnist
·7 min read
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The swing of Mike Brosseau’s life ended with his arms fully extended, his front leg braced against the violence, his front foot rolled just slightly, as if every bit of him — 5 feet, 10 inches of resolve, of MLB drafts that ignored him, of coaches that loved him, of a game he would not and could not quit — had been launched against this single pitch and this single moment.

That pitch, from the hand of Aroldis Chapman, had arrived at 100 miles per hour, on a Friday night when all the baseball, all the season, all the ill will between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays, would be settled. It left five miles per hour faster than that.

The baseball grew smaller. Brosseau’s eyes grew wider.

And that is how it ended for the Yankees.

Once targeted in a game of dangerous retaliation by that very same fastball, Brosseau put a baseball into the left-field seats at Petco Park in the eighth inning of a game played on a whisper’s edge. The Rays would play on, into the American League Championship Series. The Yankees of Gerrit Cole, of Giancarlo Stanton, of Aaron Judge, of Brian Cashman, of Aaron Boone, of one World Series championship in a generation, of Brosseau treating a Chapman fastball just as Jose Altuve did a Chapman slider only a year ago, of seasons that do not match their reputation, expectations or economic might, went home.

The Yankees are not granted the same frailties as other franchises. They too suffered discouraging injuries to meaningful players. They endured a summer of baseball cut into the fringes of a pandemic, like the other 29. And then they did not play as most believed they would. They lost their division to the Rays and it was not particularly close. They could not advance past the Rays, some two weeks later, in October, just as they failed against the Houston Astros last year, the Boston Red Sox the year before that, the Astros before that, and now you’d have to go back 11 years for the only result that matters in the Bronx.

So, perhaps, they might ask themselves, why do they throw the pitches that result in the swings of a lifetime for someone else? Why must they stand in a batter’s box and watch someone else celebrate? How do they play themselves to a place where Brosseau can beat them with a single swing, like Altuve had, like others had, year after year? What has come of the Yankees when, at the very end, none of those moments can be theirs?

It comes on Cashman’s watch, this time in San Diego, in the same city where last winter he signed Cole to a $324 million contract, so Cole could pitch just this sort of game, and pitch it brilliantly. And have them all lose anyway, nine full wins short of a World Series title. That’s not close. Second place in the AL East and a Division Series washout is not close.

New York Yankees players watch from the dugout during the ninth inning in Game 5 of a baseball American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
New York Yankees players watch from the dugout during the ninth inning in Game 5 of a baseball American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

It comes on Boone’s watch, a few days after clumsily played pitching choices were at least curious, if not entirely his. But, it remains the Yankee manager’s responsibility to win championships, through roster holes and bad luck and a 60-game season that tested the spirit of every man in his clubhouse, himself included. Even Cole, asked about his first season as a Yankee, the team of his youth, went first to the trials of it.

“I think the first season, everybody’s going to think about coronavirus, right?” he said. “Like it’s just on the forefront of all our minds. … It would be hard for me to say I’m not pleased with, you know, how we went about it. There were a lot of challenges, dealing with a newborn, being across the country, I haven’t seen my family. I mean, it was really hard. It was really hard at times. I just did the best I could and, so, you know, I will try to get better. But it’s all out there.”

What happens then is the perfect game — Cole on three days’ rest plowing into the middle innings, the Rays countering with Tyler Glasnow on two days’ rest, each team squaring one ball of any significance for the better part of three hours — would require a perfect ending.

And it was the other guy who dared show up for it. Again. Not Stanton or Judge or Luke Voit or Aaron Hicks or Gary Sanchez or Chapman or any of them, but a former non-prospect named Mike Brosseau who maybe wasn’t ever supposed to be on a big-league field but appealed to the Rays, and who happened to be grinding the grand Chapman for 10 pitches — and extracting the most beautiful vengeance — when that perfect ending was going to have to come soon. It was Brosseau who found the daylight between the two teams, seeking the very pitch that made Chapman rich and famous.

On the eighth of those 10 pitches he’d fouled a slider. On the ninth, he’d fouled a fastball.

“I think after that slider,” he said, “I kind of got the barrel out to it, a little out in front. As a pitcher you don’t like to see that. And you definitely don’t want to throw that same pitch in the same spot again and have the hitter keep his hands in on it just a tick more. So after that slider I was kind of more locked in on the fastball, make sure to see it low because he’s got such incredible ride on his fastball. That’s what he got me out last night on, was that 3-2 high fastball. So after that happened, I really zoned in on a fastball, keep the release point low and tried [to] get the barrel out in front.”

The final score was 2-1, Rays, at the end of five games, just that much daylight.

An hour later, as the Rays squared off for dance contests, gleefully blared “New York, New York” and awaited the arrival of the Astros, one mopey Yankee after another politely tried and failed to explain where they’d gone wrong. It is a fact that baseball is a difficult game and another that the Rays were a little better at it this time. Also, it is a fact that someone had to lose. Maybe that explanation gets the Yankees past one October, helps them through two, soothes them through a third, but what’s 11 start to say?

“It’s, I mean, it’s awful,” Aaron Boone said. “The ending is cruel. It really is. … I feel like, in what’s been a real year of peaks and valleys for us, on the field too, I feel like in a lot of ways we’re playing our best baseball right now and we lost to a really good team that I thought played a really good game against us.”

It is, perhaps, all true. Boone said they’d cried together in the clubhouse afterward, mourning a season they’d expected so much more from. They’d played well enough to beat the Cleveland Indians in a best-of-three series. They’d won twice against the Rays in four games leading to Friday night. Maybe they were playing their best baseball.

And, well, that wouldn’t make any of those questions any easier, would it? If this was the best they had, and they are the Yankees, then why aren’t there any more games to play?

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