The speedster's daring head-first dive produced an infield hit that set an epic rally into motion as the Yankees stormed back from five runs down to stun the Rangers, 6-5, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday night.
Having produced a Major League-leading 48 come-from-behind victories in the regular season, New York saw its final touch on the Texas masterpiece come off the broken bat of designated hitter Marcus Thames, who dunked a run-scoring line drive into left field that completed the long claw back. The five-run eighth inning also marked the fifth time in ALCS play that the Yankees have scored five or more runs in one frame from the seventh inning on.
"Our guys grind out their at-bats," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "They put good at-bats against pitchers, and we have guys that have come up with some really big hits this year. If you keep putting people on, you're eventually going to get some runs."
The big win marked the Yankees' 10th consecutive playoff win against the Rangers, a streak dating back to 1996 that is now the second-longest streak of its kind in postseason history. Teams that have won Game 1 of the ALCS have gone on to win the series 24 of the previous 40 times, and the winners of the first LCS game -- both leagues combined -- have won 52 of the 80 series. The Yankees in particular, are now 10-4 all-time in Game 1 of the ALCS, and the only time a Game 1 victory did not lead to a pennant was the well-documented collapse against the Red Sox in 2004.
"It's tops up there for this season," Thames said. "It felt great. We never quit, and that's what it's going to take for us. I heard a couple of guys say, 'We stole one tonight.' That's huge for us."
On a night when CC Sabathia couldn't find his stuff and left after four innings, the victory march began in the seventh, as Robinson Cano homered to interrupt a shutout bid from lefty C.J. Wilson. New York would bat around in a five-run eighth inning to take the lead, as the Rangers searched in vain for assistance from their bullpen.
"Anything's possible," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. "You only get one at a time. You don't think we're going to get five runs in the inning, but if we get some guys on base, anything can happen."
Gardner started the eighth with a daring dive, knowing he'd beaten the play at first when Wilson stepped on his hand instead of the base. In the bullpen, Kerry Wood leaned over to Mariano Rivera and, with Jeter approaching home plate, whispered, "This is the biggest at-bat of the game."
With Rivera nodding in agreement, Jeter laced a run-scoring double down the left-field line to chase Wilson. Reliever Darren Oliver issued walks to both Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira to load the bases, and Alex Rodriguez greeted Darren O'Day with a sharp single that rocketed past third baseman Michael Young, driving home two runs.
Simply the best
"That's a hitter's dream -- bases loaded, no outs and nowhere to put you," A-Rod said. "I felt if I could just get a good pitch to hit, I'd just hit it hard somewhere."
Cano tied the game with a run-scoring single off Clay Rapada to set up Thames, who also hit a two-run homer in the Yankees' decisive Game 3 win in the AL Division Series against the Twins. Once again, Thames came through with a big hit, clapping his hands with glee as he trotted down the first-base line, silencing what began as a frenzied, towel-waving crowd of 50,930.
"It's surprising, especially at this time of the season," Sabathia said. "You always know this team can do that, and we battled pretty much the whole year. To see it come in Game 1 of the ALCS was awesome."
The late drive took Sabathia off the hook from a shaky start that left him apologetic, as the ace huddled in the clubhouse with Jorge Posada, telling his catcher, "I'm sorry, dude."
An eight-day layoff after Sabathia's start in Game 1 of the ALDS proved disastrous, as Sabathia couldn't shake his rust and was knocked out after four innings and five runs allowed.
"I just had no command," Sabathia said. "I couldn't execute a game plan because I couldn't throw the ball over the plate. I was just trying to battle to throw a strike."
Seven of Sabathia's first eight pitches sailed out of the zone, and after opening the first with a walk and a hit, Sabathia hung a slider that Josh Hamilton slugged to right for a three-run homer.
Loading the bases with two outs, Sabathia was able to escape thanks to a fortunate bounce, as a wild pitch ricocheted off a brick wall and came back to Posada, who flipped underhand to Sabathia just in time for the hurler to slap a tag on the left shoulder of the sliding Nelson Cruz.
Needing 36 pitches to get through that first inning, Sabathia settled down until the fourth, when Young connected for a two-out, two-run double, bringing home the Rangers' fourth and fifth runs. Sabathia allowed six hits, walked four and struck out three, raising his ERA to 5.83 in five postseason starts in which he has six days of rest or more.
"That's the thing with [Sabathia] when he has a lot of rest -- he's overly strong," pitching coach Dave Eiland said. "He collapses on his back leg, and his front shoulder flies open and gets up underneath the ball. I was fearful of that tonight. He knew it, and he got back on track for a little while, but he just couldn't consistently do it. He left one too many balls up -- it was un-CC-like."
|1.||Mariano Rivera||137 2/3||0.72|
|2.||Harry Brecheen||32 2/3||0.83|
|4.||Sherry Smith||30 1/3||0.89|
|6.||Christy Mathewson||101 2/3||0.97|
|7.||Monte Pearson||35 2/3||1.01|
|8.||Blue Moon Odom||39 2/3||1.13|
|9.||Eddie Plank||54 2/3||1.32|
|10.||Bill Hallahan||39 2/3||1.36|
The unsung heroes of the evening came out of New York's bullpen, holding the fort to allow the comeback to percolate. Joba Chamberlain hurled a scoreless fifth inning and Dustin Moseley set down the Rangers for six outs before the rally triggered Wood and Rivera to record the final six outs.
"Some might feel we're fortunate to come out with a win tonight," Girardi said. "But I thought our club played hard and kept playing and playing. And you try to build on it tomorrow."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.