Yankees Postgame Notebook: With the dragon slain, the next mission is the pennant
Prior to the game, manager Joe Girardi said Keuchel "doesn't lay many eggs, and when he does, you have to take advantage," and did they ever. Keuchel retired the first five in a row to run his postseason scoreless streak against the Yankees to 15 2/3 innings, and that's where it ended; Starlin Castro doubled off the left-center field wall, Greg Bird followed with a liner into the right-field corner, and the Yankees had their first-ever October run against the former Cy Young Award winner.
"Getting on a great pitcher like that early is key," Bird said. "You try to take advantage of those situations, and Starlin getting on there and getting into scoring position puts pressure on him early and doesn't let him settle in. That's a big spot."
Any time you're able to score off a starter early, especially one you haven't scored off of at all, I think it does feel bigger, and makes you think you can break through," Girardi added. "I thought we swung the bats pretty good tonight, and I give our guys credit for how resilient they are."
Aaron Judge's one-out double just inside the third-base line in the third scored a hustling Brett Gardner all the way from first to make it 2-0, and two innings later, the Yankees took advantage of Alex Bregman's throwing error, rallying with two outs on a Judge walk, a Gary Sanchez RBI single, and a Didi Gregorius RBI single that ended Keuchel's night.
"Everybody was able to make adjustments; he still struck out a few guys, including me a couple times, but we waited for him to be more o the plate, and that's when we got to him," Gregorius said of facing Keuchel. "It was good to get to him,
"You have to just try to hit the mistakes; he makes very few of them, so we tried to have a patient approach up there, work the count, and get one over the plate," Judge added of the offensive approach. "You have to get him early when you can, because if he gets in a groove, he's unhittable."
Sanchez added the exclamation point with a solo homer in the seventh, his third hit in his last five at-bats after an 0-for-18 slide, and it was all over but the shouting - a little of which came courtesy of Tommy Kahnle, who let out an audible "whoo!" at the end of his first of two scoreless innings.
"The feeling was incredible; I was just trying to get outs and get us to the next day," Kahnle said. "I just try to block everything out when I'm on the mound so I don't get too emotional, but after I get a couple big outs, I'll show a little emotion."
Oh, and as for that Tanaka guy? All he did, for his part, was dominate the Astros over seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits and one walk while striking out eight over 103 pitches. He was only ever in one jam, putting two on with one out in the fifth, but he struck out George Springer and Josh Reddick back-to-back to bring the 49,647 at Yankee Stadium to a frenzy.
"I'm really glad how everything turned out," Tanaka said through his interpreter. "Our offense collectively did a great job of scoring runs, and I was just keeping it simple and executing out there. As a starter you want the ball as long as possible, and you go out there and fight and empty the tank."
"He was special again; his three starts in the playoffs have been special, and we needed this," Girardi said. "I think (Tanaka) understands that he needs to raise his game against stiff competition. He's raised it as high as I've seen in the playoffs."
The Yankees have overcome every obstacle, misplay, and negative narrative so far this October, and they are 6-0 at Yankee Stadium. They're just 1-4 on the road in the playoffs, but that one was the only one they needed, and they have two chances to do that once again in Houston.
The 1996 Yankees had Mariano Duncan's memorable mantra, the 2017 Yankees have one like it: "Win today." If they do that on the next today, or the one after that, their 41st American League pennant awaits - and the captain of the infield, Sir October, will be right there reminding them to seize the now.
"You still have to play to win today, so just focus on what we need to do, not overthink and try to do too much. We just have to play one game at a time, and just relax."
A few more notes and quotes from a wild Wednesday in the Bronx:
-Bird is having a strong postseason, and he isn't taking this experience for granted: "I appreciate playing baseball every day, I don't take it for granted at all. I like coming out with these guys and playing, and I feel like having that experience under my belt is good for me. I'm just enjoying it one day at a time."
-Judge isn't terribly impressed by Bird's performance, but for good reason: "That's Greg Bird. That's what I expect out of him, what he's shown me throughout our careers. He's a fantastic hitter, maybe our best hitter, and he's proving it right now in the postseason."
-Chase Headley had a two-hit night and was on base three times, and after his heroics the last two nights as well, he's thrilled to have the narrative of the DH struggles behind the team: "I think you just have to keep in mind that sometimes, in 15 at-bats, things aren't going to go your way. The last four or five at-bats before (his Game 3 hit) I had some better at-bats, so I just tried to stick with the plan and trust results were going to come. We've struggled all over at times, but there's never been any panic."
-Here's Girardi on Headley in particular: "It's great. He's had I think five hits the last few nights, which is big. When you get in these types of series, you don't know where the runs will come from, you just need production. So, it's great for him and us."
-Kahnle has allowed just two hits and two walks in 10 scoreless innings this postseason, and it's all thanks to a simple approach: "I feel great, confident, staying cool, calm, and collected. I'm just going pitch-to-pitch and getting ahead, and that's huge - it is during the regular season, but definitely more in the playoffs, because it seems hitters are a little more selective and looking for pitches they can drive, so getting ahead has allowed me to work on finishing them off."
-The normally reserved Tanaka also showed a lot of emotion tonight on the mound, and Kahnle has an idea of where that came from: "He's been absolutely incredible for the last month, but this was a huge game for us and a huge moment for him, and I think he let that out."
-Last word has to be about the Yankee Stadium fans (who else?), and while there are many choice quotes of praise, we'll give this one to Headley: "They're unbelievable. I haven't seen anything like it in Major League Baseball since I've been here. Reminds me of college football games. They're going crazy the entire game. It's a huge advantage for us, and makes a tremendous environment to play in."