NEW YORK — Chas McCormick swung hard at the pitch and then blacked out, in a sense, the way athletes do in the fire of competition and particularly when stinging a 98-mph fastball off the barrel of your bat.
He initially thought his second-inning swing against Gerrit Cole was a foul ball, but when he came to, noticed New York Yankees first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s back to him and his massive shoulders slumping. And then the ball kept carrying, 330 feet to right field and more than enough to clear the wall positioned just 314 feet from home plate, not long after 47,000 fans settled into their Yankee Stadium seats on a late Saturday afternoon.
McCormick had staked his club to a two-run lead in a go-for-the kill Game 3 of this American League Championship Series, a game they’d win 5-0 and set up a Sunday shot at a second consecutive trip to the World Series
And then the game slowed down for McCormick, just as it has throughout this season.
As he rounded the bases, he suddenly remembered the dozen or so family and friends, including his twin brother, Jason, and his girlfriend in the audience. He waved to them, like an old pro would, before encountering teammates who regaled him with the “Chas Chomp,” an exaggerated gesture that looks as it sounds and has gained prominence in Houston.
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With every plate appearance, McCormick is looking more and more comfortable in his role – just like several players starting to command more of the spotlight in this, the franchise’s sixth consecutive trip to the ALCS.
And there is nothing like that first star turn.
“Against Gerrit Cole, too? One of the best pitchers in the game? I was super happy,” McCormick recalled after the Astros pushed the Yankees to the brink of elimination for the third time in the past five ALCS. “There’s nothing like hitting a home run in the postseason.
“It’s hard to put into words.”
We’ll try: Coming into Game 3, McCormick had just one career plate appearance in Yankee Stadium. He had just four plate appearances in the 2021 World Series, and not until the trades of Myles Straw and Jose Siri and continued injury hurdles faced by Jake Meyers did he have a lock on center field in Houston.
Now, he has two big home runs in this ALCS, the first a key insurance run in a 4-2 Game 1 victory.
Yet McCormick looks like a postseason vet compared to Trey Mancini, who never played a postseason game in six seasons in Baltimore and, worst yet, had been struggling mightily since Houston acquired him in August. He’d batted .176 with a .258 on-base percentage (compared to .270, .334 with the Orioles), and he was 0-for-6 against Seattle in the ALDS.
But Mancini had been hitting into bad luck in addition to his rough adjustment period and Astros manager Dusty Baker had him penciled for a DH turn at Yankee Stadium all week.
He did not disappoint, hitting a 400-foot shot off Cole in his first at-bat that went for a flyout, an outcome Yankees manager Aaron Boone acknowledged went into his thought process when yanking Cole with the bases loaded and Mancini due in the sixth.
That decision may sit poorly all winter in New York, largely because Mancini delivered a sacrifice fly that pushed Houston’s lead to 3-0. And after Yuli Gurriel deftly moved from first to second on the fly to left, catcher Christian Vazquez’s single that followed essentially iced the game at 5-0.
Like Mancini, Vazquez was a beloved piece of a middling AL East contender that Houston scooped up at the trade deadline. And Vazquez’s biggest contribution might have come behind the plate, when he nailed Harrison Bader trying to steal second base after otherwise dominant starter Cristian Javier started the fifth inning throwing seven balls in his first eight pitches.
Now, they are part of a group that, 1 through 26, seems intent on suffocating the opposition.
“I felt like myself for the first time in a while,” says Mancini. “This group has been together, by and large, a really long time. You try to learn from them and see what makes them successful and they’ve been absolutely incredible to be around this whole time. It’s been special to be a part of this group.
“This is a different animal than what I’ve played in my career. It’s what we dream of. This is why we all play baseball our whole lives. You’d be remiss not to enjoy it and go about it the right way rather than be overly nervous or not want the spotlight.
“This team certainly doesn’t mind being in the spotlight.”
Even if the protagonists shift a bit. Oh, All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman, in this mix since 2017, singled and doubled and enjoyed what Cole termed “a fantastic night.” Yet the mix has been refreshed.
Javier pitched into the sixth, allowing the lone hit the Yankees would produce until two outs in the ninth. The bullpen lowered its postseason ERA to 0.62, with 39 strikeouts in 29 innings. And it is all gelling far better than GM James Click could have imagined when he tinkered with this AL powerhouse at the deadline.
That’s enabled them to overcome Jose Altuve’s startling 0-for-25 start to the postseason, finally broken when he dumped a double off Cole into right field. And to keep pounding when slugger and ALDS hero Yordan Alvarez went quiet in this ALCS, with just one single in 10 at-bats.
“Now we have young guys starting to strive a bit,” says McCormick. “(Game 2 starter) Framber (Valdez), Cristian Javier, (outfielder Kyle) Tucker, Alvarez. I think that’s why we’re a really good team.”
That’s on the verge of making history yet again, even if the faces change a bit.
“Every postseason win is awesome,” says Vazquez, a 2018 World Series champion with the Red Sox. “We’re one win away to a World Series and we can’t be more happy than to be here and play with this team.”