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A Rays-Yankees Classic Ended With the Most Unlikely Hero

Aroldis Chapman allowed another crucial playoff homer, and Tampa Bay is back in the ALCS for the first time since 2008

Division Series - New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Mike Brosseau went undrafted. There were 1,216 amateurs picked across 40 rounds in the 2016 MLB draft, but the Oakland University senior wasn’t one of them. Instead, he signed a free-agent deal with the Rays and went to the lowest minor-league level in the professional ranks.

But Brosseau hit in rookie ball, and he hit in Low-A and High-A and Double-A and Triple-A. Three years after every team skipped his name in the draft, Brosseau debuted for the Rays—and 16 months after that, he hit a series-winning home run off Aroldis Chapman, sending the top-seeded Rays to their first ALCS since 2008.

Game 5 between the Yankees and Rays—the only winner-take-all game in the divisional round—was a pitching masterpiece on both sides, a prime exhibition of the near-impossible task that is hitting at the MLB level. Forget runners in scoring position—in the entire game, neither team collected a single hit with a runner on base. And the 2-1 Rays win, which featured three solo home runs, might well have had zero runs if the Petco Park fences were a dozen feet deeper.

The night began with a duel between Gerrit Cole, starting for the first time ever on short rest, and an assortment of hard-throwing Rays right-handers. Cole and Tyler Glasnow, Tampa’s starter pitching on two days of rest, became the first pair of starting pitchers to reach triple digits with their fastballs since … Cole and Glasnow in last season’s playoffs, when the latter’s pitch-tipping staked Cole’s Astros to a victory.

There were no easy runs on Friday. Cole survived a bout of wildness in the first inning—two walks and a hit by pitch—to last 5 1/3, not allowing his first hit until Austin Meadows homered in the sixth inning. He left with nine strikeouts and one run allowed on 94 pitches, precisely the performance the Yankees envisioned when they made him the highest-paid pitcher in the history of the sport.

But the Rays matched Cole out for out, as Kevin Cash essentially let his pitchers navigate the Yankees’ lineup once each before departing for a fresher arm. Glasnow, Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks, and Diego Castillo combined for 11 strikeouts, three hits, and just one run, an opposite-field shot from Aaron Judge off Anderson, only the second hit the indomitable reliever had allowed to a right-handed hitter all year.

Both pitching staffs found their way into trouble a few times, and both pitching staffs escaped with high heat and darting breakers. Four of the seven pitchers who appeared in the game hit 100 miles per hour at least once; all seven cleared 95 mph; the average fastball in the game left the pitchers’ hands at 97.2. Against that kind of consistent pitch quality, even sluggers like Giancarlo Stanton, Randy Arozarena, and 2020 home run champion Luke Voit couldn’t do much at all.

Until, that is, the man with the most consistent triple-digit fastball in MLB history entered. Chapman relieved Zack Britton with one man on in the seventh inning—a bit early for a closer to appear, but the right managerial move to ensure that the Yankees’ top reliever would pitch meaningful innings in their most important game.

Chapman froze Brandon Lowe with a fastball to end the inning, but in the eighth, he encountered Brosseau, a new personal foe who had entered as a pinch-hitter earlier in the game. In September, the two clubs engaged in a war of words after Chapman buzzed Brosseau’s head with a fastball; the next day, the Tampa infielder grabbed some measure of revenge by knocking two home runs. But he saved his greatest blow for the playoffs, battling Chapman after falling behind 0-2 with four foul balls, and finally a 375-foot explosion on a 100-mph pitch down and in. It was the fastest pitch turned for a homer all season.

Despite Chapman’s pedigree—six All-Star appearances, career 2.25 ERA, highest career strikeout rate—this was something of a familiar position for the closer. He allowed Rajai Davis’s game-tying home run in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, only for his Cubs to eke out an extra-inning win. Last year, he threw the final pitch of the Yankees’ season as José Altuve sent the Astros to the World Series with a walkoff blast. In 21 playoff innings with the Yankees, Chapman has now allowed as many home runs (two) as Mariano Rivera allowed in his entire 141-inning postseason career.

For the Yankees, another season ends in heartbreak. A team with (perhaps) the most raw talent in the American League—these Rays are darn good—has lost a close playoff series four years in a row, and the winningest franchise in the sport’s history is still searching for its first World Series appearance since 2009. They have crucial actions to take this offseason, from re-signing pending free agent DJ LeMahieu to figuring out the structure of the pitching staff with James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and (probably) J.A. Happ destined for free agency as well. (Luis Severino, returning from Tommy John surgery, and Domingo Germán, returning from a domestic violence suspension, could backfill two vacated rotation spots.)

And for the Rays, a season that saw them sprint to a division title and the best record in the AL thanks to an elite starting pitching trio, versatile bullpen, and deep lineup continues, now with a rematch against every baseball fan’s favorite villain, the Houston Astros. Last year, the Astros edged past the Rays in a five-game ALDS. But the 2020 Rays have already eliminated Cole, who won two of those games for Houston, and if any team has the arms to quiet the suddenly lively Astros bats, it’s Tampa’s stable (in Cash’s words) of guys who throw 98.

They threw 98 on Friday, and so did the Yankees, turning an elimination game into a classic of the genre. Neither team could string even two hits together. It’s a good thing for Tampa, and its undrafted hero, that all it took was one late knock to advance.