Inside wild Yankees roller coaster that ended it all

HOUSTON — It took exactly 30 minutes. There were 44 pitches thrown. It flanked both sides of midnight on the East Coast, cast a schizophrenic spell on the 43,357 inside Minute Maid Park, from elation to depression, back again.

When Roberto Osuna threw the first pitch of the ninth inning of ALCS Game 6 Saturday, a 98 mph four-seam fastball that brushed Gio Urshela back, hitting Martin Maldonado’s glove up near his eyes, it was 11:47 p.m. Eastern Time, and it didn’t look like the Yankees season would reach midnight. They were down, 4-2, and the crowd was already chanting, “THREE! MORE! OUTS!”

Two pitches later Urshela — unofficial captain of the Irregulars who’d filled in so ably for the Yankees all season — rifled a 97 mph heater to left. It was Urshela’s third hit of the night. He had also made his usual assortment of terrific plays at third.

The crowd quieted. The tying run was at the plate. Osuna ran an 0-1 cutter that ducked over Gardner’s hand and under his shoulder. Did it hit him? The park quieted again, anxious, tortured. The umpires took a look to see if the ball glanced off Gardner. It hadn’t. The crowd cheered as Gardner stayed in the box.

Two pitches later, he fanned on a changeup. The chant resumed.

“TWO! MORE! OUTS!”

Up stepped DJ LeMahieu.

What followed was among the most epic at-bats you will ever see. Osuna threw 10 pitches, almost all of them filthy. LeMahieu had a couple of great takes. He spoiled a few others. With each pitch, the locals kept expecting something good to happen, their pitch rising and falling from release point to plate.

DJ LeMahieu; Jose Altuve; Aaron Judge
DJ LeMahieu; Jose Altuve; Aaron JudgeAnthony J. Causi, Getty, Charles Wenzelberg

In order, it went this way: Cutter, 95 mph, ball 1; four-seamer, 98, foul; four-seamer, 98, foul; slider, 90, ball 2; four-seamer, 97, foul; four-seamer, 98, foul; changeup, 85, foul; four-seamer, 99, foul; four-seamer, 98, ball 3.

And then: cutter, 94 mph. LeMahieu swung.

Osuna, immediately turned, bent at the waist, both arms on his knees. He knew before anyone. In right field, George Springer retreated, spotted the ball, leapt, believing he had a shot; it landed maybe a foot beyond his reach, into a pile of disbelieving fans, most wearing Astros gear, one sporting an old-school Phillies jersey.

Springer fell into a catcher’s crouch, his back against the wall, the shared dejection of 43,357 etched on his face. In the sudden, shocking silence, you could hear the Yankees dugout going berserk. On the basepaths, LeMahieu jogged, expressionless, as if he’d just hit one through wind in Clearwater in mid-March.

“I knew he was going to put the ball in play somewhere,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “And sure enough, he did.”

It took 5 minutes, 24 seconds, first pitch to last. It seemed incidental when Osuna recovered, struck out Aaron Judge, induced Gleyber Torres to fly to right. The Yankees had kneecapped the Astros, but hadn’t finished them. The crowd exhaled.

Aroldis Chapman took the mound and at 12:05 a.m. ET he threw a 97-mph BB that Maldonado barely saw as he swung through it; he struck out on a 1-and-2 pitch, a filthy slider. Josh Reddick, next up, battled through a five-pitch at-bat — three of them sharp-tilting sliders, before popping out to Urshela.

On television, John Smoltz said: “That slider’s become a nasty pitch for Chapman. He doesn’t have to throw every pitch 101.”

Up stepped Springer. The crowd — and everyone else across baseball America — began mentally preparing for extra innings. Springer walked on five pitches — three more sliders, two 98-mph blazers. The crowd — more wishful than optimistic — stirred louder. Jose Altuve was up. In the Yankees outfield Gardner, Aaron Hicks, and Boone played with their heels nearly tickling the warning track. Nothing cheap would get by them for a double.

Chapman threw two fastballs to Altuve. Neither came close.

Smoltz — and 10 million Yankees fans simultaneously — said, “Jake Marisnick is on deck, you still have a base open if you’re Chapman and [Gary] Sanchez. You can’t forget about it. You cannot let this guy with a 2-0 count beat you.”

Chapman threw a get-me-over slider. Altuve’s eyes grew wide as satellite dishes as he let it slide past. It was 2-and-1.

It was 12:17 a.m. when Chapman delivered the next pitch. It was another slider.

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