When Gary Sanchez came to the plate in the top of the 11th for the Yankees, with the score tied at two and runners on first and second with two outs, it felt like a safe bet the slumping New York catcher was either going to smash a three-run shot or strike out horrifically against Astros reliever Josh James. And in fact, though Sanchez took some enormous hacks as he tried to be the hero of Game 2 in the ALCS, his 10-pitch, eight-minute at-bat ended with a backwards K. How it all happened, though—and how the Yankees missed their chance at taking a 2–0 series lead—has to go down as one of the most bizarre plate appearances of the year, even if Carlos Correa very quickly overshadowed the moment with a walk-off dong.
Here’s the whole thing, first of all:
The AB started predictably. James fired a pair of 98-mph fastballs high and out of the zone, and Sanchez, hitting .125 in the postseason, chased them with big-boy swings for foul balls to go down 0–2. Then it got weird. On the next pitch, Sanchez skied another high fastball—one that initially looked like it could be caught for a popout, but instead got so much altitude it hit a girder in foul territory. By the quirk of Houston’s ceiling, Sanchez stayed alive.
“Unbelievable,” John Smoltz commented on the broadcast. Little did he know what would come next.
The ensuing three pitches were uneventful: fastball outside for a ball, another high fastball fouled off, then an outside breaking pitch Sanchez fought off. Then, with the count 1–2, Sanchez hit another foul right off the mask of Robinson Chirinos, stunning the Houston catcher in a very scary way.
Chirinos walked it off, and Sanchez fouled the next 99-mph fastball to prolong the at-bat further. Then it all went screwy. A wild breaking ball from James somehow got Sanchez to swing, even though it bounced way off the plate, for an apparent strike three. However, perhaps because it’s hard to wrap your mind around the idea of a major leaguer swinging at a pitch so off-target, umpire Cory Blaser saw this as a foul tip from Sanchez.
Though this is a league where umps can double-check to see if a runner’s leg moved off the base for a fraction of a second during a tag, this particular play wasn’t reviewable. So Sanchez got another opportunity. But this time, on a fastball that landed clearly outside, Blaser came with the make-up call to end New York’s threat.
Sanchez, though he saw no need to correct the umpire’s mistaken call of the foul tip, was frustrated about the punchout:
“Definitely you’ve got to be mad about a call like that, especially at that time in the game,” Sanchez said. “I’m trying to contribute. I’m trying to find a way to help the team. The game is 2-2 and to get a call like that, you’re not going to like it.
“A hundred percent that was a ball there. (Blaser) called that and I don’t know how he called it. I definitely knew it was a ball.”
I guess, in its own sloppy way, justice was served? But god, imagine the endless fury from all the world’s Yankee-haters if Sanchez had survived and rallied to lift another pitch out of the park and give the Yanks a pair of wins in Houston. That ridiculous swing and miss would have dominated the rest of the series, and maybe the season if the Yankees kept winning. But instead, it’s a footnote to Correa’s subsequent heroics—a small reminder to those watching that the more playoff baseball you play, the more chaos reigns over all involved.