Gary Sanchez’s tough series compounded by Astros’ final run
Gary Sanchez gulped as reporters crept in to crowd him at his locker. Several television cameras formed a spotlight on his face bright enough for open-heart surgery, which is what scrutiny over the final play resembled.
Sanchez, the Yankees’ second-year catcher known for inflicting pain on pitchers but still learning from his own behind the plate, allowed Astros second baseman Jose Altuve to score the winning run on Saturday by bobbling a ball that had arrived in time for a sure tag-out.
The Yankees lost 2-1 to the Astros, who have won the first two games in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
Pitchers ruled the game. Astros starter Justin Verlander dominated for nine innings. The Yankees’ hard-throwing combination of starter Luis Severino - who exited the game after the fourth inning because he was hit by a comebacker - and three relievers matched.
With the score tied at one in the bottom of the ninth, Altuve singled on the first pitch he saw from Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman.
‘I dropped the ball’
Altuve has propelled wins this postseason with home runs, diving plays, stolen bases and hard hits to all fields, but he was headed for a blunder, were it not for Sanchez.
After Altuve’s single, Carlos Correa lined a double to right-center. Right fielder Aaron Judge cut off the hit at the lip of the warning track, planted his size-17 cleat in the final row of grass and threw the ball on a bounce to shortstop Didi Gregorius, who was positioned near second base.
Altuve broke from first without slowing his stride. He turned for home, and Gregorius spun around for a relay to Sanchez.
The throw was low and drew Sanchez to his left, but a clean catch had Altuve nabbed. Instead, Sanchez mishandled the soft short-hop.
As the ball bounced out of Sanchez’s grasp, Altuve’s helmet flew off, and he flew in. He touched home plate on an unobstructed slide to detonate the bottled-up sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park.
“Obviously, the short hop helped us at the end, and Altuve’s safe,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said.
Altuve sprang off the dirt with his arms raised, pulled up his jersey and wheeled around the batter’s circle in celebration, while Sanchez watched the ball roll farther away. He did not bother to pick it up.
“That’s a play that I’m used to making,” Sanchez said. “The bottom line is if I catch that ball, he’s going to be out. I dropped the ball.”
Sanchez was not exclusively responsible for a play that could have been made easier by his teammates.
Judge had to make a long throw to reach Gregorius in the infield.
“We were playing pretty deep on Correa,” Judge said. “We don’t want anything to get behind us, especially with Altuve at first. If that ball gets to the wall, he’s scoring easy. Off the bat, I’m just trying to get it into Didi. Because I know if I get it to Didi, we’ll have a play at the plate.”
Handling the criticism
Gregorius said he “probably” would be the cutoff man were Judge intending a throw toward home plate. Instead, Gregarious seemed tethered to second base, despite Correa’s run not mattering.
Although Gregorius said Correa, on his slide into second, got in the way of the relay “just a little bit,” Gregorius - like all the Yankees interviewed after the game - believed Altuve would not beat the throw home.
“Judge threw the ball right where he’s supposed to,” Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier said. “Hit the cutoff man. We threw it home, and we had an out.”
Despite missing most of April with strained right biceps, Sanchez drove in 90 runs and set a single-season franchise record for a catcher with 33 home runs. He also led the majors with 16 passed balls.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi had briefly benched Sanchez in August for his poor defense. Sanchez handled the discipline maturely.
Now in October, when a teaching moment cannot compensate for a mistake, Sanchez must handle more. He is in a 1-for-16 slump with eight strikeouts.
Standing with his hands in his pockets and a translator by his side, Sanchez withstood needling questions in two languages for more than 10 minutes. He sutured his own wounds by taking accountability.
And he sounded more like a Yankees postseason veteran than a 24-year-old who let the game slip away.
“We lost these two games, but to win the series, you’ve got to win four games,” he said. “That’s the mentality: You win four games, and you move on. The series is not over yet.”