Culture / Sporting Life

Aaron Judge & Gleyber Torres Live Large in Houston as Astros Stars Still Await Takeoff

Yankees Fans are Suddenly Everywhere as Bronx Bombers Punch First in Heavyweight ALCS

BY // 10.13.19

Aaron Judge walks down one of Minute Maid Park’s underground corridors, a beautiful brunette at his side. A stadium worker calls out, “Good hits, tonight” and Judge taps the worker’s extended fist with a bump of his own.

“Thank you very much,” Judge says as polite as could be.

Some nights, it’s very good to be a New York Yankee. This Saturday night opener of an American League Championship Series that somehow seems even bigger than a typical championship series is one of those nights. The Yankees roll to a 7-0 wipeout of the home team Astros — and find out they even have some fans in the bowels of Houston’s stadium.

You never know where closeted Yankee fans are hiding. It comes with the territory and all that old pinstriped mystique and aura.

“It’s great to play for the Yankees,” Gleyber Torres says in the interview room a few minutes after Judge’s stroll down the hall.

In truth, this is Torres’ night much more than Judge’s, no matter how much the spotlight naturally finds the 6-foot-7 Judge, the most recognizable star in baseball.

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Torres — the Yankees’ 22-year-old emerging superstar — plays like one. He drives in four of New York’s first five runs, hits a scorching double and a home run to left center. He becomes the youngest Yankee (a pretty good list) to ever drive in five runs in a playoff game.

Meanwhile, many of Houston’s stars are still awaiting October takeoff.

The Astros’ 25-year-old would be superstar Carlos Correa and runaway Rookie of the Year favorite Yordan Alvarez have yet to hit a home run in the playoffs. Neither has George Springer or Yuli Gurriel.

Alex Bregman has one.

“I don’t think we’ve really done anything offensively this postseason,” Bregman says, answering questions against the wall in the Astros’ clubhouse. “We need to string together some at-bats and pass the torch to the next guy.”

It’s a beyond small sample size (six playoff games), but in October the opportunities are fleeting. The moment’s either grabbed or not. You have about as many chances to escape your fate as Jesse does in that Breaking Bad El Camino movie.

This is a heavyweight American League Championship Series — and New York’s clearly struck the first body blow. The Yankees lost all four games at Minute Maid in that epic 2017 ALCS to lose the series in seven — now they already have a playoff win and much more confidence in Houston than they’ve had before.

“We don’t have any holes in our lineup either,” Astros reliever Ryan Pressly says when someone asks about the challenge of pitching to Judge, Torres and Co on a night when New York racks up 13 hits. “Really, it’s almost like playing ourselves.

“But for the most part, they showed up (in Game 1). And we didn’t.”

Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres Make Themselves at Home

These teams combined for 210 wins during the regular season, tracking each other from afar nearly the entire time. The Astros won four more games during the regular season to gain home field advantage in October. And the Yankees took it right back in Games 1 of the ALCS.

Now, the Astros must even the series against James Paxton, the Yankees’ most talented starter, on Sunday night or they’ll head to the Bronx in a devastating 0-2 hole. Nicknamed The Big Maple, the Canadian Paxton will offer no quick relief for an Astros lineup still finding its way into October.

You never know where closeted Yankee fans are hiding. It comes with the territory and all that old pinstriped mystique and aura.

Correa hasn’t recorded a hit in four games, going 0 for 14 after a nice start to the playoffs. The Astros have scored three runs or less in three of their last four games. This isn’t a pitching problem — Zack Greinke giving up five home runs in two playoff starts notwithstanding — as much as it’s a hitting dilemma.

Of course, these Astros have been in these spots before. And they know how quickly things can change in playoff baseball. Houston beat the Red Sox 7-2 in Game 1 of last year’s ALCS — and didn’t win another game in the series.

October can be full of illusions, too.

“We’ll grind out at-bats and see what happens,” says Springer, who knows a thing or two about dealing with postseason doubters. “… In the playoffs, it’s not about individual stats. It’s not about your numbers. It only matters if your team wins.”

Minute Maid Park is packed on this Saturday night in October. The 43,311 want to believe. They wave their orange towels and scream at every opportunity. But the Yankees are the ones who never let up.

Hinch leaves impressed by the Yankees’ defensive positioning. The entire New York organization’s obsession with the Astros pays off in Game 1.

Torres goes supernova. Mashahiro Tanaka plays slider magician. Judge uses every bit of his 6-foot-7 frame to rob Alvarez of a hit on another scorched shot from the rookie who’s been hitting rockets in October while he awaits that seemingly inevitable home run. Bregman gets doubled off first on the play.

“Should have remembered that he’s 6-9 and he’s really athletic,” Bregman says of Judge. “He made a heck of a play. And he’s got a great arm, too.

“Yeah, I thought it was over his head for sure.”

Aaron Judge Yankees
Aaron Judge brings plenty of power to the Yankees lineup.. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Oh to be larger than life — and a Yankee folk hero — at 27. Or 22 in the case of Torres.

“Smart. Confident,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone says of Torres. “And when you have talent that’s a really good combination.”

Torres gets the Yankees’ championship belt on this night — a faux wrestling ornament that the Yankees players award to their player of the game. Before first pitch, Torres vowed to Judge he’d be sporting it by night’s end.

When things are going well, it’s awfully good to be a Yankee. Now, the Astros need to flip the script and put some of that New York sized pressure back on their pinstriped foes.

“We don’t have time for frustration,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch says. “This is a series that you’ve just got to. . . they threw the first punch in Game 1. We can punch back (Sunday night in Game 2).”

There goes Judge marching down the hall, getting love as he walks. There is Torres seemingly very comfortable on the interview podium. The Yankees enjoy a hell of a Saturday night in Houston.

Now, the Astros just need to make sure it doesn’t become a whole damn Yankees weekend.

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