We are reminded once again of an old lyric by Jim Morrison and an old song by The Doors that hints at what makes baseball — for all its warts, for all its foibles and blemishes, and in spite of a commissioner who seems to alienate two-thirds of his sport’s fans every time he opens his mouth — still the greatest, grandest game of all.
“No one here gets out alive.”
Even the Yankees, see. Even the Yankees, who won more than two out of every three times they took the field in the first half of the season. Even the Yankees, who seemed downright invincible for weeks at a time, who lapped the rest of the AL East, who have no obvious weaknesses. Even the Yankees are forced to sweat a little bit.
The Astros make the Yankees sweat.
(And not just because it’s 103 degrees in the shade in Houston.)
Thursday, in case anyone had forgotten about this, the Astros reminded the Yankees that there is still an absolute motivation for running through the tape this year, no matter how big their lead in the East is, no matter how gaudy their winning percentage, whether they go the distance with the fellows presently on the roster or add bonus surnames like Castillo or — and? — Soto.
They played twice. The Astros won twice, 3-2 and 7-5. The Astros won the season series, 5-2. The Astros may not live in the Yankees’ heads. But the Yankees know where they are. And don’t have to look too far over their shoulders anymore.
These teams spend a lot of their time playing games that involve the bottom of the ninth inning — something that even seemed possible in the nightcap, the Yankees entering the ninth down five and ultimately bringing the tying run to the plate. The four games the teams played at Yankee Stadium last month, the Yankees didn’t lead in any of the 37 innings they played but two — one bottom of the ninth, one bottom of the 10th.
They were there again Thursday afternoon at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, first game of the post-All-Star-break doubleheader, after the Yankees tied the game in the top half on an Isiah Kiner-Falafa single. Then Michael King loaded the bases in the bottom, nearly wormed his way out, but J.J. Matijevic — hitting all of a buck-fifty on the year — nudged one just to the right of IKF, and his desperate toss to second bounced harmlessly away when nobody was covering the bag.
Astros 3, Yankees 2.
Another Yankees-Astros game that not only felt like an old-school heavyweight fight but went the old-school heavyweight distance. Fifteen rounds. Nine innings. The margin between these teams is razor thin. Good luck to the team who has to play Games 6 and 7 of an AL Championship Series on the road.
“It seems like it’s always the very same kind of game,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after the opener. “It always comes down to this for these two teams. You know it’s going to be a battle every time.”
That Astros win sliced the Yankees lead to 2 ½ games with the sweep and, more important, clinched the season series. So the Yankees have to win at least one more game than the Astros by the end of the year, and since the Yankees suddenly play in a division where everyone believes they are wild-card contenders, and the Astros have a surplus of games against the Angels, Athletics and Rangers …
Well, look. The Yankees should be able to finish in front of the Astros, even if they cool off to, say, a 106-win pace instead of 112.
And, sure, the Yankees could beat the Astros in Minute Maid if the whole season’s on the line.
But it sure would be nice, having home field in their back pockets. Better to have last licks. In this series, in this rivalry, last licks aren’t everything, they’re the only thing.
And the players know it.
“It’s an advantage going into the playoffs,” acknowledged Jordan Montgomery, another hard-luck no-decision to his credit after 6 ¹/₃ strong innings.
Said Giancarlo Stanton: “We have to stay ahead of them. Every game is important.”
Lots of season left, sure. Though it sure looks like we’re speeding toward Yankees-Astros, Chapter 3. And if we are … well. We all know where you’d rather be if there’s a Game 7.