Let me confess bias. I adore watching a dominant ace, one of those pitchers who in the flower of his power and guile imposes his will on a powerful adversary.
So I sat to watch the Astros’ ace of aces, Gerrit Cole, take on the Yankees, and their fearsome, stuffed to the gills power lineup. For an inning it appeared Cole’s day would end early.
The Yankees first baseman, the .327 hitting magician D.J. LeMahieu, stroked a 99 mile per hour fastball to center. Then Aaron Judge hit a cue shot of a single.
Up came Gleyber Torres, the Yankees 22-year-old man-child. As a kid, he had honed his craft hitting darting bottle caps in the twilight streets of Caracas and he has become a .400 hitting terror this postseason.
Cole moved his pitches inside and out, nibbling, trying to entice Gleyber into an unwise swing. Gleyber walked to load the bases. The thought occurred that Cole planned it that way.
That, he later acknowledged, was so.
“You put some pressure on him and if he doesn’t bite, whatever,” Cole said of Torres. “You’ve got to move on.”
Cole promptly tossed an effortless looking 100 m.p.h. fastball and induced Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius to ground out and end the inning.
None of this should suggest fan boy rapture for the Astros. My ancestral baseball loyalties lie crosstown in Flushing and the National League. The Yankees and the Astros are dominant American League teams, and I root mostly for a long, sweaty embrace of a series.
The two teams share offenses of abundance — the Yankees hit 306 home runs and averaged 5.8 runs and the Astros hit 280 homers and averaged 5.6 runs — but their pitching approaches radically diverge into schools New and Old.
The Yankees favor the current preference for tight pitch counts for starters followed by a March of Relievers, one broad-shouldered 98 m.p.h throwing dude after another. The Yankees feature two of the best in their pen: Zack Britton, the setup man, and Aroldis Chapman, the 103 m.p.h closer executioner.
The Astros offer a trio of Cy Young Award-winning aces: Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke, all of whom threw more than 200 innings and won between 18 and 21 games. Just two Yankee starters exceeded 160 inning this season.
The Astros will go as far as that absurd abundance takes them. Which is why the Yankees failure to capitalize on Cole’s first inning struggles loomed as important. As is true of most aces, he is at his worst in the first inning, with a 3.55 E.R.A. this season.
If Cole, however, survives into late innings, the end is nigh.
“That’s old school, right?” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch. “We like when the starter gets to pitch a little bit.”
This playoff struggle for the American League pennant was in some ways a typical Yankee affair, which is to say that the crowd was loud and fired up, even as thousands of fans remained stuck outside on interminable security lines, leaving many seats empty for the first pitch. (Credit is due the Yankee bleacher bums, however. At game time the fancy seats were half-empty but the bleachers were overflowing).
This being New York, rumors of celebrity sightings snaked through the crowd. Would Trump consigliere Rudy Giuliani take his usual seat behind the plate? Or would the prospect of overeager congressional subpoena process servers prompt Hizzoner to take refuge in the fastness of his condo?
The Yankee starter, Luis Severino, 25, is splendidly talented but he looked like a starter on a hot tin roof through the first innings. On his third pitch, Severino had the misfortune to throw to 5 foot 6 Jose Altuve.
Altuve unleashed his mighty mite, cave man swing and the ball landed in the Astros bullpen. In batting practice he had been a relaxed cat, cracking jokes, standing in the blue autumnal shadows, wagging his bat and lining shots to all fields. After the game, Altuve answered question in a white T-shirt and bomber jacket.
Tell us, a reporter, asked, about your approach before your home run. He shook his head. No particular approach. “I don’t like to waste much time at the plate,” he said.
Severino threw 56 pitches in the first two inning. To his credit, he discovered a Zen place and pulled back from death’s precipice, throwing near-five credible innings.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone acknowledged growing twitchy. Did you think of yanking him? Boone nodded. “Yeah, 36 pitches there in the first inning, he’s a hitter away.”
It’s a measure of the Yankees determination that they survived a crippling, season-long run of injuries. (Severino was among the wounded, pitching just 12 innings this season). But in this game, regulars faltered. Catcher Gary Sanchez has looked befuddled, a powerful wizard swinging a weak wand of a bat. Brett Gardner is a fine outfielder but his feather arm calls to mind 1970s Yankee stalwart Mickey Rivers, who could run the ball in faster than he could throw it in.
As it happens, in this game a fly ball went to Gardner who did not attempt to throw out a runner at the plate. By the end of the seventh inning the Astros led by four runs and the Yankee fans, rarely forgiving of trespasses, offered a boo shower for their Yankees.
There’s no reason to think this band will not rebound. This night they simply could not squeeze past Cole. I mentioned that Cole is weakest in the first inning. He dominates the seventh inning, posting an E.R.A. of 1.12 this season. And when he throws more than 100 pitches, his E.R.A. is 0.59.
On Tuesday in the seventh inning he threw eight pitchers and laid down the top of the Yankee order.
Torres hit an eighth inning home run off an Astro reliever but that was that. A long series seems to remain in the offing. If there is reason to worry, it was to be found in this sentence from Cole about his seven shutout innings.
“Next time out, I’m pretty confident I’ll be better.”