The defining image of the Yankees’ Game 5 win over the Astros on Friday happened with two outs in the top of the sixth inning. Having just struck out Yordan Álvarez after walking Carlos Correa, Aaron Boone slowly came out of the dugout to have a talk with his starter. While it’s not clear what the entire conversation was, broadcast cameras captured Paxton muttering a phrase drenched in enough self-confidence to drive Boone back into the dugout with his pitcher ready to close out the inning.
Obviously, the biggest reason this moment has become so noteworthy is because of the end result after nine innings. New York defeated Houston 4-1, forcing the ALCS to return to Texas for at least one more game. This was in no small part thanks to the efforts of the Yankees’ bullpen. Tommy Kahnle, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman all put their poor Game 4 performances behind them to combine for three scoreless innings and top off Paxton’s dominant performance. But before the game had even reached the point where Paxton could come off the mound to the roaring cheers of the Bronx, the ceremonious rejection of his was nearly ruined just one pitch later.
This was nearly the moment that could have turned the game in Houston’s favor. Chirinos had flipped his bat, the crowd at Yankees Stadium had quieted, and Paxton looked on in disbelief at what very much looked like the dinger that would cut his team’s lead down to two. Instead, Brett Gardner made the easy catch at the warning track, and Paxton celebrated emphatically as he walked off the mound for the final time of the evening.
It was a moment that naturally left nearly every non-Yankees fan rather upset, and with good reason. MLB’s Statcast measured that Chirinos had hit the ball with an exit velocity of 100.4 mph and launch angle of 30 degrees. It’s hard to tell on the surface, but a fly-out result with both of those numbers is a bit of an anomaly. One quick search through Statcast’s archives of the 16 batted balls with an exit velocity ranging from 99-101 mph and launch angle ranging from 28-32 degrees to left field by right-handed batters at Yankee Stadium reveals that they’ve resulted in a home run in all but one occasion: Chirinos’s. (Hat-tip to Matthew Trueblood.)
Anyone paying attention to the conversation surrounding this sport as of late will know it’s been focused heavily on the baseballs themselves. While it’s up for debate whether the league consciously decided to change the kind of balls used in the postseason, what isn’t debatable is the empirically researched fact that baseballs have just not been flying as far this October. Chirinos’s near-homer is proof of the latter, and one might be inclined to believe the former as a result.
There are many legitimate reasons to be concerned about the possibility that baseball has intentionally manufactured a different game through, well, different manufacturing, but perhaps the most heinous crime that could possibly come out of this month of de-juiced balls is for yet another iconic moment in Yankees postseason history to be shoved in our faces for Octobers to come until the end of time. Even if New York rallies back in this series to force a do-or-die Game 7 in Houston, the lead up to that final game will be inundated with an endless cycle of sports programs showing Paxton telling Boone “let’s fucking go,” and it’ll be even worse if they end up completing the comeback and winning the pennant. If that were to happen, then all that will be separating the Yankees from a 28th World Series title is the Washington Nationals, and given that town’s propensity for heartbreak—as well as this world’s propensity for reminding us that we live in the most hellish of times—I fully expect that outcome to be realized.