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Gleyber Torres, the People’s Champion

The Yankees won Game 1 of the ALCS behind a strong start from Masahiro Tanaka and five RBIs from their 22-year-old second baseman, who is poised to leap to a new level of stardom

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Photo by Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees’ 7-0 win in Game 1 of the ALCS felt even more dominant than the score would indicate. This is largely the doing of Masahiro Tanaka, who in 68 pitches through six scoreless innings allowed two base runners and saw both erased on double plays. From there, the game proceeded as one would expect given that one offense was allowed to operate under more or less normal conditions while the other was having its face dunked in a toilet.

But the other memorable thread from Game 1 was the continued emergence of Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres, not just as the Yankees’ star of the future, but as a genuine full-fledged star of the present. Torres, 22, is in his second season in the big leagues, and was named an All-Star for the second season in a row as he hit .278/.337/.535 with 38 home runs, which makes him the second middle infielder that young to hit that many home runs in a season. The first was Alex Rodriguez in 1998.

Even so, Torres is not necessarily a household name. His 38 regular-season home runs come with a bit of an asterisk, not just because this season’s spring-loaded baseball used this regular season led to record-setting home run totals across the league, but because 13 of those dingers came against the woebegone Baltimore Orioles. Moreover, the Yankees feature former MVP Giancarlo Stanton, former MVP runner-up Aaron Judge, future Hall of Famer CC Sabathia, postseason heroes Tanaka and Didi Gregorius, and numerous other players with bigger names and—considering the Yankees’ policy of signing only players who look like they could arm wrestle a backhoe—bigger bodies than the 6-foot-1 Torres.

But come October, Torres has been the best player on the Yankees, and perhaps the best position player on any team through two rounds and change of the playoffs. Between Game 1, in which he went 3-for-5 and drove in five of the Yankees’ seven runs, and the three-game ALDS sweep of Minnesota, Torres is 8-for-17 with nine RBIs, six extra-base hits, and only two strikeouts.

Almost every postseason features a breakout star: a good young player who goes from a favorite among team partisans and MLB.tv power users to global prominence because of a combination of well-timed on-field heroics and exposure on nationwide basic cable five nights a week. In 2016, that player was Cubs infielder Javier Báez, who slugged, pirouetted, and grinned his way into the hearts of millions en route to his club’s first World Series title in 108 years.

At the time, the Cubs had their infield locked down between Báez, shortstop Addison Russell, and third baseman Kris Bryant. Veteran Ben Zobrist was also capable of playing second base, with 2015 first-rounder Ian Happ set to come up and replace Zobrist when he aged out of his super-utility role. That depth allowed the Cubs to trade Torres, then a 19-year-old A-ball shortstop, to the Yankees in the controversial Aroldis Chapman deal in July 2016.

That trade continues to hang over the Yankees. The club bought low on Chapman while he was facing a domestic violence suspension, sold high on him seven months later, and then reacquired him the following winter in free agency. And the inability to find moral and ethical clarity in a situation that stands out for the principals’ refusal to consider morals or ethics further troubled a trade that was already complicated from a strictly on-field perspective.

But as the timer is running down on the Cubs team that acquired Chapman to get over the hump, Torres is coming into his own as a Yankee, and if the Bronx Bombers advance past the favored Astros to win their first pennant in a decade—or even if they put up a good fight and fall in the ALCS—Torres is poised to become the singular breakout star of this postseason.

As recently as a few hours ago, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman seemed to have one hand on that title, particularly after a regular season in which he put up numbers to challenge Mike Trout for AL MVP and a spectacular third-inning snag of a scalded line drive. In the seventh inning, Bregman came up with two men on and one out against Adam Ottavino, and the Astros looked like they were finally finding some kind of offensive handle after Tanaka had been lifted from the game.

Bregman grounded into a double play to end the inning, and was barely out at first base after a nifty turn and strong throw by Torres at the keystone. It felt like a passing of the torch, as Torres had just singled to make it 5-0 in the top of the seventh, and Bregman had killed another rally with a fifth-inning baserunning mistake. Now it’s Torres with one hand on the title of people’s champion, and the Yankees with a leg up in the ALCS.