HOUSTON — The task at hand was simple in theory, difficult in practice:
Get one. Grab one. Steal one. Figure out a way to win one of these first two games of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park. The Yankees had made a clear, if unspoken, concession in the final days of the regular season. The Astros, on the way to 107 victories, probably weren’t going to be caught.
Fair enough. That meant if the teams met in the ALCS, the Astros would get the extra home game. They would have home-field advantage. Two years ago, that was the only reason it was the Astros advancing to the World Series against the Dodgers instead of the Yankees: they won all four home games. This week, it was the only reason the Astros still had a season left: they won all three home games against the Rays in the ALDS.
Daunting, sure, if you look at it in the big picture.
Smaller, though? All the Yankees needed to turn home field from Houston to New York was one win. Saturday, Sunday, didn’t matter. Saturday made the most sense, since they would be taking aim at Zack Greinke, the Astros’ No. 3 starter. That was the penalty the Astros paid for playing five games against the Rays. Gerrit Cole pitched Game 5. He won’t see the Yankees until Tuesday.
Get one. Grab one. Steal one.
A perfect game wasn’t required, but for 6 ½ innings they played to virtual perfection. Masahiro Tanaka faced the minimum 18 batters through six dominant innings, allowing a walk and two hits, all three of which were erased thanks to double plays. Meanwhile, the Yankees offense was grinding out five runs — four of them thanks to a single, double and homer by Gleyber Torres, reinforcing his October bona fides.
Minute Maid Park, begging for a reason to pounce all night, was muffled and muted. The Astros, who believe they are bulletproof here, were cut down like Sonny Corleone at the Causeway toll booth. The final score was 7-0, and it gives the Yankees a 1-0 lead in this best-of-seven series, and it keeps them undefeated in October 2019.
All of those things are nice.
This is best: home field is theirs now. All they need to do is hold serve, and they will be back in the World Series for the first time since 2009. Nothing about that will be easy, of course. They will still see Cole and Justin Verlander four times if they let the series get that far, starting with Verlander on Sunday night in Game 2.
If the series goes seven, it means Cole will be waiting for them here a week from Sunday. So there is still work to be done, plenty of it. You don’t win a series in one game, no matter how feel-good that game may be. In a lot of ways, the ’19 Yankees will play this ALCS the way another old New York team, the ’86 Mets, played that NLCS against the Astros: avoid Game 7 at all costs.
Then, it meant Mike Scott. In 2019, Cole is every bit as unhittable as ’86 Scott was. For now there is no need to worry about that. The Yankees get the win they need, they get a foot up in this series, they get to face Verlander with house money spilling out of their pockets.
They got a gem from Tanaka, and another chapter in Torres’ growing postseason legacy. They got another terrific defensive gem from Aaron Judge, who speared a line drive from Yordan Alvarez and doubled Alex Bregman off first at a time when it was still but a 1-0 game, and it felt like someone had kicked a plug out of the wall at Minute Maid.
They also got a booming home run from Giancarlo Stanton, a nice reminder that if, as is rumored, MLB went back to the non-juiced baseball, Stanton has a distinct value because he could hit an overripe orange 450 feet if he connected just right.
All of that converged for a couple of hours Saturday night in Houston, where 43,311 locals had gathered for a big old party, and left with a big old case of indigestion instead. The Yankees got one. They grabbed one. They stole one.
Now it is officially Game On.