ALCS Game 5: The New York Yankees are actually likable

Jeff Passan
MLB columnist

NEW YORK – Nobody wants to accuse the New York Yankees of being likable, because they’re the New York Yankees, and if ever Congress saw fit to add to the Constitution, surely the 28th Amendment would be: “The First Amendment protects all right to free speech – except in the case of the New York Yankees, who are overpaid, self-absorbed, carpet-bagging, mercenary bums and cannot be classified otherwise without penalty.”

So long as it’s still legal, though, and not punishable by prison time – or even worse, being forced to watch the Houston Astros’ offense in the American League Championship Series – let it be said: Damn, is this Yankees team a joy to watch. Odd though that may be to read, and odder though it is to type, denying as much would be whitewashing one of the great stories of baseball’s 2017 postseason, in which the New York Yankees look a lot more Rebel Alliance than Evil Empire.

The latest illustration revealed itself Wednesday evening, when Game 5 of the ALCS brought full circle one of the redemptive arcs that dot this Yankees roster. In May, when the Houston Astros shelled Masahiro Tanaka for eight runs on Derek Jeter Day, Yankee Stadium bathed him in boos. Five months later, as he strutted into the dugout with his seventh shutout inning in the rearview and an eventual 5-0 Yankees victory and three-games-to-two series lead ahead of him, the team left in Tanaka’s wake was the very same Houston Astros. Only this time, as their ALCS batting average lingered at .147, their slugging percentage at .207 and their embarrassment over both at 1.000, the Astros were acknowledging what the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians already had this fall: Forget the precociousness, forget the youth, forget it all. The Yankees are good.

And never mind that this is merely a preview, that Gleyber Torres, arguably the best prospect in the minor leagues, will be a Yankee next season, and that an accumulation of young talent will join him soon thereafter, and that because of relative austerity measures in recent years, the Yankees soon will have somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million in payroll flexibility. That will be then, whereas this is now, a season with moderate expectations turning into the sort of kid-fueled joyride unseen since Ferris Bueller conned poor Cameron.

At its core, this idea that a New York Yankees team now one win from the World Series consists of the discarded, the doubted and the forgotten seems specious. And it’s true: So many players in baseball, in every sport, really, subjugated doubts, conquered mountains, rose above adversity, clichéd the cliché’s cliché. Which doesn’t make the Yankees any more special, per se, than the Astros or, for that matter, the Twins or Indians or every other good team.

Oct 18, 2017; Bronx, NY, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks (31) and right fielder Aaron Judge (99) celebrates after beating the Houston Astros in game five of the 2017 ALCS playoff baseball series at Yankee Stadium. (USA TODAY Sports)

Because of the Yankees’ history, and because their rosters since the end of the late ’90s dynasty often confirmed the very worst thoughts about them, and because they’ve literally spent billions of dollars over the last decade chasing a championship they claimed just once, making an argument in favor of the Yankees being underdogs of any variety is akin to fighting a jaywalking ticket when a camera caught every step. The optics aren’t good. But sometimes the context tells a larger story.

The larger story Wednesday was Tanaka. Unlike in Game 1, when Astros starter Dallas Keuchel outdueled him, Tanaka’s splitter was splitting, his slider sliding, his fastball feasting. Not that the Astros offense has mustered any answer all series – its hit total, by game, goes six, five, four, three, four – but Tanaka in Game 5 was the best of all the Yankees starters. He struck out eight, allowed just three hits and joined Roger Clemens and Whitey Ford, among others, to throw at least two outings of seven-plus shutout innings in the same postseason.

“You go out there and you fight and you empty the tank,” Tanaka said, and that could just as well serve as the motto for the Yankees this postseason. They were distinct long shots against the 102-win Indians, and they entered the ALCS the same against the 101-win Astros, and even if Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez are hitting like they’re hitting – and, finally, they’re hitting – the role wouldn’t be reversed against the 104-win Los Angeles Dodgers, either.

The idea that this makes the Yankees what they are – that they’re somehow parlaying this status into motivation to win – is silly. No, this is something instead that’s embedded in them, that for years has motivated them, because so many on the Yankees roster found themselves at a nadir similar to Tanaka’s in May.

For Greg Bird, who missed most of the season with an injury after missing all of the previous season with an injury, it was: Could he stay healthy? He was Wednesday, and he drew first blood on Keuchel, who had entered the game with a career 1.09 ERA against the Yankees, with an RBI single in the third inning.

For Judge, first it was the horror of last season, when in his major league debut he struck out in half his at-bats, and then, after an MVP-type season this year, the clowns that conflated a week’s worth of postseason struggles with an inability to perform in October. It was dumb then, and Judge proved in dumber in the third inning, when he doubled home Brett Gardner to hand the Yankees a 2-0 lead.

For Sanchez, it was down in the minor leagues, where he had stagnated and his prospect luster had dimmed. Scouts never doubted his talent. They did wonder whether he would fulfill it. As his RBI single in the fifth that helped chase Keuchel and his solo home run in the seventh that provided the Yankees’ final run attested: Yes. Yes he would.

It’s easy to highlight those three, seeing as they’re still pups, none older than 25, each having worked out his kinks at a formative enough point in his career that these were more speed bumps than road blocks. And that’s a fair point to make. Except it’s not just them. It’s Didi Gregorius, who wasn’t ever going to be Derek Jeter and instead has been merely excellent. And it’s Starlin Castro, whom the Yankees acquired because the Cubs wanted to dump his contract. And it’s Luis Severino, who, after last season, seemed destined for a role in the bullpen and now gets to oppose Justin Verlander in Game 6 coming off a season even better than Verlander’s. And it’s CC Sabathia, the old warhorse whose reinvention defied even the greatest expectations, and on whom the Yankees happily will hang their hopes if Houston forces a Game 7.

“We can’t worry if we’re supposed to be here,” Sabathia said. “We are here.”

They are here, all right, turning Yankee Stadium back into a place where 49,647 screamed themselves hoarse and left the Astros scrambling to get out of the Bronx ASAP. They are, as Bird said, “just a bunch of kids playing baseball,” something that resonates among old generations of Yankees fans that still revere the Core Four along with a new generation of Yankees fans just beginning to understand what the organization’s 27 championships mean.

There are things to dislike. Aroldis Chapman, the closer with the history of alleged domestic abuse. The corporate vibe that permeates the stadium. The knowledge that rooting for the Yankees opens anyone up to a broadside of insults, some of which, in truth, are probably fair. The best riposte to it is: Look at everything else, though.

Because in New York these days, life is good. Over the summer, as Tanaka’s ERA ballooned even higher, the fear was that he would not opt out of his contract this winter and would saddle the Yankees with three more years of mediocrity. On Wednesday, he exited the Yankees’ clubhouse a hero, carrying a framed version of a lineup card, shaking the hands of admirers, the toast of the town. Nights like this were why he came here, why he turned down the hundred million-plus dollars offers elsewhere to join the New York Yankees, even if they were the bad guys.

Not anymore, at least not yet. Perhaps eventually they’ll return to the bloated, odious villain they’ve always been – large market happy to squash the small ones, narcissistic behemoth that believes the baseball world exists only if embellished with frieze. In the meantime, enjoy the respite. The New York Yankees are likable. It’s worth saying because it’s true.