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Aaron Judge Sucker Punches the Astros with Surprise Smarts: A.J. Hinch's Team is Wobbling in a Wild, Bronx Zoo - PaperCity Magazine
Culture / Sporting Life

Aaron Judge Sucker Punches the Astros with Surprise Smarts

A.J. Hinch’s Team is Wobbling in a Wild, Bronx Zoo

BY // 10.18.17

NEW YORK — Lance McCullers pitches the game of his life and it’s not enough. Yuli Gurriel delivers the hit of his life and it’s not enough. The Astros take a 4-0 lead into the seventh inning and it’s not enough.

Nine outs from a 3-1 series lead and a stranglehold on this American League Championship Series, it all unravels. To a cheering, jeering, laugh track of New Yorkers.

The Astros cannot hold on and their grip on the second World Series berth in Houston history is suddenly looser than a TV preacher’s morals. One more loss in New York and it will all be slipping away.

“Three to nothing, we’ve got a great chance,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa says. “Especially with the way Lance was pitching.”

But Astros manager A.J. Hinch takes the ball away from McCullers after Yankees He-Man Aaron Judge homers (only the second hit McCullers has given up and only his 81st pitch of the night) and goes with the lefty matchups — and the suddenly shaky Chris Devenski — and it all snowballs away. The Yankees score six runs in a two-inning span, 36-minute span transforming that 4-0 Astros lead into a 6-4 New York win.

Nine outs away. All yanked away.

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As playoff gut punches go, it doesn’t get much worse than this.

“This series wasn’t over after two games,” Hinch says. “And it certainly isn’t over after four.”

“Now it’s 2-2, zero-zero again,” Astros closer Ken Giles says. “We’re going out there like it’s Game 1 again.”

That’s not exactly the position you want to be in after taking the first two games of the series.

It all sent Yankee Stadium into pure Judge Mania. And you thought Justin Bieber was annoying?

The Astros have surrendered every bit of their advantage and now must rely on the Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander one-two punch again.

These Astros have delivered all season. It’d be foolish to doubt them now. But this young core has never been in this type of situation before either. There is no simulating Yankee Stadium come alive. There is simulating a hulking, goofy 6-foot-7 New York folk hero named Aaron Judge who outsmarts Giles in the eighth and finally hits a breaking ball for a series-shifting hit.

Mystique and Aura Return?

It’s like all of Gotham is smelling blood. Even when the Yanks have been one hit by McCullers through six, it only takes one long Judge fly ball to change everything. Yankee Stadium is jumping, seemingly breathing down these young Astros’ necks.

“There’s no doubt the crowd has an effect,” says Carlos Beltran, the Astros veteran Yoda sage.

“This is the loudest it’s been,” the Yankees’ own old man pitching professor CC Sabathia says. “…It feels like the old (Yankee) Stadium. It makes a huge difference. It’s intimidating to come here and play.”

The Astro relievers seem to unravel under the pressure of the New York playoff party. The second straight unseasonably chilled October evening in New York turns into a mosh pit of screaming, thumping, delirious New Yorkers.

The Yankees have scored 14 runs in two Bronx games and it’s Keuchel or bust now for Houston.

Nine outs away. All yanked away.

“I let my team down,” Giles says after giving up the tying and go-ahead runs. “I let Lance down. A great start by him… I hate to sacrifice a great start like that.”

The Yankees are starting to believe they’re the team of destiny. Down 2-0 to invincible Cleveland, win three straight. Down 2-0 to mighty Houston, win two straight… and counting?

McCullers Deserves Better (and To Go Longer)

McCullers gives the Astros everything they could have hoped for and more, putting up six zeroes, pushing Houston within nine outs of a 3-1 series stranglehold. But those last nine outs somehow always seem even harder to get against the Yankees in the Bronx.

When Judge hits that home run to lead off the bottom of the seventh against McCullers and Didi Gregorius follows by tripling off Devinski, you can literally feel the upper levels of Yankee Stadium shaking. The New York crowd senses another moment, another bit of pinstripe magic to add to the lore. When Yankees pinch hitter Chase Headley falls on his face between first and second — and the Astros still can’t get him out — in the bottom of the eighth, it almost looks the fates are conspiring against Houston too.

This is that Yankees’ mystique and aura that Curt Schilling once infamously mocked.

Moments later, Judge ties things at 4 with a double off the wall in his bit of smart hitting against Giles, sending Yankee Stadium into pure Judge Mania. And you thought Justin Bieber was annoying?

The Yankees score four runs in the eighth in all, six in a two-inning spree that turns the Astros 4-0 lead into a 6-4 deficit. This is how you rip a team’s heart out. Judge and Company think they’re doing this to the Astros. It’s up to Jose Altuve and Company to respond in Game 5 Wednesday afternoon, to ensure they don’t stumble home to Houston on the brink of elimination.

It’s so bad for Houston in New York that Altuve cannot even get to his locker after Game 4. With a media horde surrounding his locker neighbor Correa, Altuve must pick his way through the reporters to get dressed like he’s navigating Midtown Tunnel traffic at rush hour.

Small indignities, a big loss.

Nine outs away. All yanked away.

Nobody said getting to the World Series was easy. Even if it looked like it might be when the crazy win streak Indians went down in the first round.

The Astros are in a real fight for survival now. They’re answered every test so far. Now, comes the ultimate exam.

“I believe in my guys,” Altuve says.

Altuve’s wearing a shirt with panthers on it after this latest lost New York evening. These Astros will need to channel a wild animal to survive this Bronx Zoo.

Nine outs away. All yanked away. One more chance to shut up New York.

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