The Rangers’ closer is standing on the Yankee stadium mound, going through a series of fidgets and routines. He adjusts his hat, licks his fingertips, and wipes them on his pants before adjusting his hat again. He had come into the league under controversy, less than a year after being released from prison, 39 months into a 51-month sentence, the latter number now gracing his back. He had been thrown right into the fire when he arrived in the big leagues, facing the heart of the order against the Blue Jays, the team that had eliminated the Rangers the year before. In his second appearance, it was his fastball to the ribs that had preceded one of the most famous brawls in recent baseball history. He went from a Golden Corral parking lot to a postseason mound in one year, and none of it seemed to faze him.
Until this year.
The Rangers took an early lead in the Bronx, scoring three runs in the first inning when Delino DeShields’ double was eventually followed by an Elvis Andrus RBI single and an Adrian Beltre home run, the 448th of his career. Beltre is the third-leading home run hitter among active players. Not content with just a three-run lead, Texas repeated the feat in the second inning when Shin-Soo Choo’s 3-run blast made it 6-0. This was certainly a good indication that the series–tied at one apiece coming into the afternoon–was going to swing the Rangers’ way.
He has blown four saves this season, the last of which was just two days prior, in this very stadium, on this very mound. Every pitcher has these phases at some point, and Matt Bush had admitted after that most recent blown save that it was difficult. “I feel it,” he said “I feel the weight of those losses. It’s very tough.” Now here he is, with two outs and a one-run lead, facing the early favorite for AL MVP, Aaron Judge.
Drew Robinson is not likely to forget this day any time soon. In the fourth inning–after grounding out to Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda in his first at-bat–Robinson swung hard at the first pitch he saw from Pineda, and the ball soared over the right-centerfield fence and into the bullpen. It was Robinson’s first MLB hit, his first MLB RBI, and more obviously, his first MLB home run. It made the score 7-0, and at the time it felt like icing atop a blowout cake.
Judge fouls off a 100mph fastball, then Bush throws 98 in the zone for strike two. A curveball inside at 80 misses the plate, and another 100mph fastball is fouled off. The infield–Elvis Andrus, Adrian Beltre, and Jonathan Lucroy–all came to visit the mound after that pitch, ostensibly to remind Bush that 100mph fastballs up in the zone are a giant's favorite meal. Bush responds with another curveball, this one at 82, low and outside. More fidgeting, more adjusting of the cap.
Meanwhile, Nick Martinez continued his recent spate of success, following a pattern in each of the four innings that mirrored Austin Bibens-Dirkx’ of yesterday: allow one runner, and one runner only, in every inning. Get everyone else out. Through four innings, he had held the Yankees scoreless on 64 pitches. Only, in the fifth inning, with one out and two on, the pattern malfunctioned.
Martinez got the two-out strikeout on a filthy curveball. But it was too filthy. It bounced toward the first base dugout as Jonathan Lucroy looked for it on the third-base side. Austin Romine would be safe, and what transpired next was something of an unraveling. Judge singled to drive in the Yankees first run, and then Gary Sanchez drove in their second, third, and fourth with a home run to dead center field. It was 7-4.
Sometimes in baseball, the most mundane thing is the least expected. Given the history of the 2017 Rangers, it seems impossible for the Bush / Judge at-bat to end with anything but a game-ending strikeout or a game-tying home run. But the next curveball hangs a little bit, and Judge hits a simple bloop single to left field to extend the agony. Jeff Banister makes his way to the mound for a conversation with Bush, and he tells him this: “Look: this whole dugout, this entire team has a lot of confidence in you. Let’s slow it down a little bit, slow our mind down, and just focus on one single pitch at a time. Use your stuff. What got you here is going to be what’s best in this situation.” Banister leaves, and Bush breathes deep, and stands again at the top of the mound. Then he exhales.
7-4 became 7-6 in the seventh inning. Jose Leclerc allowed just his second home run of the season, this one to Ronald Torreyes, and then he walked two. Alex Claudio came on to face the left-handed-hitting Didi Gregorius, and the inning did end there, but not in the way Claudio wanted: Gregorius singled to right field, driving in one run. It was not Claudio who made the final throw of the inning, but Shin-Soo Choo, who picked up the single and hurled it to third base, where Adrian Betre caught it and made a brilliant catch-and-tag motion to get Sanchez at the bag. It was now a one-run game, but the throw-and-tag had eliminated the would-be tying run at third base to end the inning.
The eighth inning belonged to Keone Kela, who worked around a leadoff ground rule double with a groundout and two strikeouts to keep the score frozen at 7-6. After the Rangers struck out in order against Aroldis Chapman in the top of the inning (Napoli waving at 101, Robinson at 100, and DeShields at 102), it was time to call on Matt Bush once again. Bush got a quick strikeout of Brett Gardner, and got Romine to pop out. Now, with the score 7-6, with two outs, and with nobody on, it came down to Bush vs. Aaron Judge.
The first pitch to Sanchez is a ball. It will be the last ball of the game. A called strike, and two fouls later, Bush winds and throws. Sanchez starts his swing and changes his mind, but too late. After a 7-0 lead that looked to be unassailable, after a closer who looked to be on the rocks, after a power-on-power matchup that seemed to promise more than a simple single, the Game and the Closer had given us something better: