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Mound duel hails postseason return to Bronx, which didn't last long

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts after the Houston Astros centerfielder Carlos Gomez hit a home run in the fourth inning of the American League wild-card game at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. Photo Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

Underdogs? These $220-million Yankees, playing at home in the Bronx? We've given them plenty of credit this season for blowing past expectations, but that's one label that doesn't go with pinstripes. Not since the '96 champs, anyway.

And yet here the Yankees were, forced to battle for their October lives in Tuesday's wild-card matchup, which ended with barely a whimper as the visitors from Houston won, 3-0. with the Bombers only able to scavenge three hits off four Astros pitchers.

"We didn't win our division," Joe Girardi said Tuesday. "We didn't have the best record in the American League. So I think those teams are usually the favorites. But in any one game, anything can happen."

Even if it was Alex Rodriguez, of all people, to drop the underdog title on the Yankees a few days earlier, no one seemed to be buying into it. Despite gloomy predictions of the Stadium possibly being less than full for Tuesday night, there didn't appear to be an extra inch of empty space, and the crowd was louder than any other day this season.

After a two-year absence, playoff baseball was back in the Bronx, and it took that long for everyone to realize what they had taken for granted over the past two decades. From the first inning, however, the fans remembered their roles. With each two-strike count for Masahiro Tanaka, the packed house stood in anticipation, and the duel with Astros' ace Dallas Kuechel began as expected.

The Yankees knew the importance of luring Keuchel away from Minute Maid Park, where he was 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA, but tried to downplay his overall dominance publicly. Keuchel is the favorite to win the AL Cy Young Award, and facing him in this win-or-go-home setting, even on short rest, was not an ideal assignment.

"This time of year, they're all brand names," Rodriguez said days earlier. "You have to beat them all, one by one."

The same held true for the Astros regarding Tanaka, who built his legend in Japan by refusing to yield in the biggest games. Tanaka once threw 160 pitches for the Rakuten Eagles in a Game 6 loss during the 2013 Japan Series, then returned to throw 15 more for the clinching save in Game 7.

That history was among the reasons the Yankees believed Tanaka was worth $175 million, and situations like Tuesday night Tanaka put off Tommy John surgery for this opportunity and did not disguise his desire to save the Yankees' postseason. Despite his earlier flop against the Astros, who drilled three homers off him in Houston, Tanaka said: "This time around, it's going to be different."

Well, it wasn't exactly the same. But Tanaka did surrender a pair of home runs to Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez in a game that he could not afford even minimal damage. Not with Kuechel doing what he did, and that was disarm a Yankees' lineup that hadn't been a threat for what felt like weeks.

Girardi, no doubt feeling desperate for offense, made the controversial decision of sitting Jacoby Ellsbury and starting Chris Young instead. "Obviously, I did what I thought was best," Girardi said before the game. "The other guy makes a substantial amount of money, too, if you go there."

Girardi was referring to Brett Gardner, whose contract ($53 million) is a third of Ellsbury's. But the manager had to play somebody, and the Yankees' slumping roster hasn't provided many good options lately. Girardi also went with the righty-hitting Rob Refsnyder at second base, after the Yankees chose to leave him at Triple-A Scranton for most of this season and even played him sparingly in September.

By the time the Astros rolled into the Bronx, the Yankees didn't seem to know what they were anymore. Other than just hoping for the best, which wasn't nearly enough.


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