TORONTO — They deserved their champagne and beer baths Tuesday night, no doubt about it. The Yankees did not quite build the magical season they threatened to build when they held a 15 ½-game divisional lead, or when they invited early comparisons to that pinstriped powerhouse from 1998.
But they sure earned their Rogers Centre celebration for being a lot better than the Blue Jays, Rays, Orioles and Red Sox over their first 154 games. It isn’t easy winning a division title in baseball, a thought notarized by the fact that the Yankees have won just two over the last 10 years.
So in the most humbling team sport of all, they had every right to throw on goggles, grab their iced alcoholic beverages of choice, and go absolutely nuts in the visitors’ clubhouse.
“This is a special group,” said Aaron Judge, soaked from division title cap to toe after his teammates doused him while dancing in his glow. “We went out there, playing in the toughest division in baseball, and won our division. I like our chances that’s for sure.”
The Yankees will be the two seed in the American League tournament, meaning they will get to spend the first round on the couch. Asked if the bye gives his team the best chance to win the whole thing, Judge said: “I like the bye. … I think putting ourselves in this position to let our competition play against each other, beat up on each other, before they play us, hopefully will help us out a little bit.”
Judge was walked four times in five plate appearances Tuesday, all on full-count pitches, and he failed to hit a home run for the seventh straight game. Yet for once, his continued pursuit of Roger Maris wasn’t worthy of being the lead story. The big man has consistently maintained he wants the focus to remain on all team-centric goals, and after this clinching 5-2 victory over the Blue Jays, he sure got his wish.
“I’ll take four walks for a win every single day,” Judge said.
Soon enough, Nestor Cortes decided the slugger had been interviewed long enough, and started blasting reporters (including this one) with a two-fisted Budweiser attack. Good for him. Good for the Yankees.
“You guys were the best team in the best division this year,” manager Aaron Boone shouted at his giddy players in the locker room. “We took everyone’s punches. … This deserves to be celebrated.”
One hundred percent. Outlasting the competition over six months is the hard part. Now, given the organization’s mission statement, comes the harder part:
The Yankees have to figure out a way over the next three weeks to become a better baseball team than the Astros.
They can’t talk about that for public consumption, because the conversation would disrespect the opponents in front of them and presume that the Yankees will definitely survive the AL Division Series round and advance to the AL Championship Series. But back in July, after the Astros swept his team in a doubleheader in Houston, Boone conceded, “Ultimately, we have to slay the dragon, right?”
That dragon is still breathing fire, and lurking around the October bend.
We all know anything can happen in sports, especially in baseball. The Astros could lose their first playoff series to the wild-card winner they’ll face. The Yankees could lose their first playoff series to any of their most likely opponents — Cleveland, Seattle or Tampa Bay.
But it’s not likely. Though the Guardians, Mariners and Rays would all concern the two seed from The Bronx — for what it’s worth, the Mariners beat the Yankees four out of six in the regular season this year — the best-of-five division series format gives the better team more margin for error than the best-of-three format in the wild-card round. And the Yankees are clearly better than Cleveland, Seattle and Tampa Bay.
Just as the Astros are clearly better than the world-famous opponent they have eliminated from the playoffs three times in the last seven years.
So much has changed about both franchises, including the dirty-tricks campaign the Astros once used to topple the Yankees and everybody else. But with so many different methods and main actors now defining both casts, one thing hasn’t changed: The Astros still have the Yankees’ number.
Houston has 102 victories, and now the Yankees have 95. Dusty Baker’s team completely controlled Boone’s this year, winning five out of seven and allowing the Yankees to hold the lead (via walk-off scores) at the end of only two of the 64 innings they played. Houston will surely clinch home-field advantage on the AL side, meaning the Yankees would almost certainly have to win a Game 6 or Game 7 at Minute Maid Park — not a comforting thought — to reach the World Series.
“If it comes to October, the proof will be in the pudding,” Boone said in Houston in July. “Do we get it done? … The narrative’s not gonna change ’til you beat them in the playoffs, if that day comes. … It’s not gonna matter ’til October. If we happen to come back here in October, we’re gonna show up. We’re gonna expect to win.”
Judge alone isn’t going to bludgeon the Astros into submission in a potential ALCS, not that anyone wanted to discuss that Tuesday night. Judge and friends had earned their keg party in the clubhouse, and their delirious team photo-op on the field.
But in the end, this franchise isn’t about division titles. If the Yankees want to win it all for the first time since 2009, they will have to slay the dragon first.