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Aaron Judge Cracks the Astros’ Code

The rookie superstar overcame his postseason struggles, powering a Yankees comeback that tied the ALCS at 2-2

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Four Getty Images

Throughout this postseason, Aaron Judge’s opponents have had a plan: Throw him breaking balls, and aim low and away. For the most part, the plan has worked. Although Judge has produced big hits and potentially series-saving catches this month, he also went 2-for-27 with 19 strikeouts in seven games from the start of the ALDS through ALCS Game 2. He wasn’t the only Yankees starter to struggle over that span, but he was, as always, the most noticed, an inevitable byproduct of his size and regular-season success.

On Monday, Judge homered to supply three of the Yankees’ eight runs in a Game 3 rout, but although that hit snapped his slump, Judge didn’t defeat the plan; instead, he capitalized on a deviation from it, when Astros reliever Will Harris risked a two-strike fastball up and in. Until Judge beat the book on him and did damage on a breaking ball down, no team would reconsider its strategy. And even in the late innings on Monday, the plan proved sound: In his last at-bat of Game 3, Judge went down whiffing on a slider, low and away. At the beginning of Game 4, the Astros’ approach paid off again, as Judge struck out on a down-and-out knuckle curve from Astros starter Lance McCullers.

But in the late innings on Tuesday, the plan at last stopped working, and an ALCS distinguished by thrilling endings added another. In his final two at-bats of Game 4, Judge conquered his October bugaboo and delivered two of the big blows that helped the Yankees complete their comeback from a 4–0 deficit in the game and a 2–0 deficit in the series, which now stands at 2–2 after Tuesday’s 6–4 win.

It was Judge who ended McCullers’s outing with a 427-foot drive to dead center to lead off the seventh. Up until that blow, which brought the Yankees within three runs, McCullers had looked like the leading man in another Astros win. An All-Star in the first half, the righty hadn’t made a strong start since June, missing much of the second half because of back pain and allowing an 8.03 ERA over his last eight games leading up to a three-inning, two-run outing in the ALDS. On Sunday, McCullers retweeted a message from Marcus Stroman that said, “Everybody has on [sic] opinion … opinions don’t matter,” perhaps signaling his own opinion of the position expressed by some pundits that McCullers didn’t deserve a postseason start. The Astros sided with his stuff and his first-half success, and their faith was rewarded with six scoreless innings to begin the game. McCullers wasn’t dominant, earning only three strikeouts and allowing two walks, but he worked quickly and got most of his outs on the ground.

Although this hasn’t been a pattern in previous seasons, McCullers has been burned by his third time through the order this year: His OPS allowed rose from .536 to .664 to 1.004 with each trip through the lineup during the regular season. Despite that track record and a long top half of the seventh, in which the Astros scored their fourth unanswered run, Astros manager A.J. Hinch said that he and his dugout helpers had “zero discussion” about pulling McCullers with the right-handed Judge due up in the bottom of the inning. And on the first pitch of the frame, McCullers made one of his only mistakes, hanging a curve that Judge launched into Monument Park for only his fifth home run on a curveball this year. Judge finally beat a breaking ball, although this one wasn’t buried. “They’ve thrown a lot of sliders down [in] the zone,” Judge said after the game, adding that he’d spent “the whole series trying to wait and be patient and get one up in the zone I can do some damage on and be able to do that.”

“I thought Aaron’s home run lit a little spark,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. We can’t test that contention, but we can note that the homer knocked McCullers out of the game and forced Hinch to dip into a part of his pen that he’d seemed reluctant to reach for earlier in the series — and which he’d largely been able to avoid, thanks to the 16 combined innings he got from games 1 and 2 starters Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander. What followed either condemned Hinch’s decision not to get Chris Devenski and Joe Musgrove more work in games 1–3, or supported his preference not to.

Didi Gregorius, who followed Judge, tripled on the second pitch he saw from Devenski, who’d pitched once and faced only two batters in the first three games of the series combined after Boston hit him hard in the ALDS. Gregorius scored on a sac fly by Gary Sánchez, and a walk to Greg Bird convinced Hinch to pass the baton to Musgrove, who got out of the seventh with a two-run lead.

That lead wouldn’t survive the eighth. After a 1–2–3 top of the inning from Yankees reliever Chad Green, who held the line for two innings just as he had in the wild-card game, Musgrove allowed back-to-back singles to Todd Frazier and pinch-hitter Chase Headley to start the bottom half. With two on and none out, Hinch summoned closer Ken Giles for a six-out save that he couldn’t record. Brett Gardner drove in the Yankees’ third run with a grounder to second, and up came Judge with the tying run on third.

Judge fouled off a slider, took two more for balls, and fouled off a triple-digit fastball to take the count to 2–2. Predictably, Giles then went with The Plan, almost perfectly executed: a slider, low and away. And this time, The Plan played right into Judge’s hands. His bat struck the ball, and that meeting of power and power produced a game-tying double off the wall in left, unlocking the full force of the throngs and the songs at a no-longer-so-new and no-longer-so-silent Yankee Stadium, perhaps the only public place in the country where “The Vengabus” remains in heavy rotation at celebratory times.

“[Judge] did a good job going down to get a slider,” Girardi said. “And that says a lot about him. Because during the two series that we played, or three, he’s missed some of those pitches. He’s chased. But he went down and got it, made an adjustment, and it’s a great at-bat.”

Before the resulting roar could subside, Gregorius singled, and Sánchez, who came in even colder than Judge, doubled to right-center to score two and put the Astros one Aroldis Chapman inning away from the end. As is often the way with late turnarounds, the more recent heroics overshadowed the events that once seemed most seminal: five effective innings from Sonny Gray, who hadn’t started since October 5; a comical baserunning sequence by Judge, whom a replay review revealed had dived safely back to first only after missing second; two errors by Starlin Castro, one of which led to a run; and what for a few innings appeared to be the pivotal hit for the Astros, a bases-loaded (and bases-clearing) double by Yuli Gurriel off of David Robertson, who on this day couldn’t disappear his inherited runners.

For Sánchez — who DH’d for the first time this October, enabling Girardi to pair Gray with more compatible backup catcher Austin Romine — the double broke an 18-at-bat hitless streak. This month, we’ve seen some teams succumb when their offensive mainstays slump for a series: the Indians’ Francisco Lindor and José Ramírez in the ALDS, for instance, or the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the NLCS so far. The Yankees were weak when they got oh-fers from Judge and Sánchez, but their lineup looks potent now that those bats are back.

Although the Yankees out-whiffed the contact-king Astros 27–9 in the first two games of the series, the Yankees fought to a one-strikeout edge on Monday, and on Tuesday the ’Stros tripled the Yankees’ strikeout total, 9–3. Putting balls in play is not normally New York’s game, but for one night, the Yankees’ lineup resoundingly out-Astros’d the Astros, putting pressure on Houston’s defense and advancing runners even on outs. More predictably, given the way the Yankees’ relief corps outpitched its competitors down the stretch and declared its supremacy in the wild-card game, the Bombers out-bullpenned their opponent: New York’s postseason bullpen ERA now sits at 2.14, compared to Houston’s 6.20.

The Astros, owners of the best offense that anyone younger than Roger Angell remembers, have scored only nine runs through the first four games of the ALCS, one more than their lowest total in any previous four-game span this season. And the Yankees, who have yet to lose a home game this postseason, have continued to demonstrate their resilience, pulling even again after falling behind in the wild-card game, the ALDS, and the ALCS. As Hinch reminded reporters after the game, though, “the series wasn’t over after two games; it’s certainly not over after four.”

To win the pennant and pull off a second consecutive series upset, the Yankees will have to take two of the next three, including at least one game in Houston — and, more daunting than that, at least one game started by either Keuchel or Verlander, the dual Astros aces who dominated them last week. The struggle resumes on Wednesday afternoon, which will feature a rematch of Game 1’s Keuchel–Masahiro Tanaka matchup. But this time around, when Judge stalks to the plate, Astros pitchers might need a new plan.