Unlike the other major sports, baseball, as we well know, is not a game that adheres to a clock. Time may pass quickly or, as is often the case with the Yankees, games can slow to a crawl as batters take pitch after pitch. All told, the Yankees played over 507 hours worth of baseball in 2011 and ended the season with the same 162-game schedule as the Mariners who posted just 447 hours.
The currency of baseball then is the out. The Tigers and the Yankees each have 27 outs, divided into groups of three, in which to score or stop the other team from doing so. For one of those teams, all they have left in the season after 166 previous games, are those 27 outs. Outscore your opponent after those outs and play the Rangers; lose and dig in for a long winter of maybes.
For Yankee fans, a do-or-die, best-of-one scenario isn’t entirely a rarity. The Yanks have played in 31 previous postseason series since baseball added the Wild Card, and eight of those have gone the distance. (Mike charted the ALDS earlier on Wednesday while Larry Koestler at The Yankee Analysts added the ALCS and World Series Game 7s to the list.) Of those eight, the Yanks have won three and lost five.
Game 5 (or 7) for me has always been about counting down outs. The 1995 loss to the Mariners is a fleeting one in my memory. I was young and just thrilled that the Yanks had made it to the playoffs for the first time in my life. The loss in 1997, too, is a blur. As I got older, though, the Game 5s grew more and more tense. In 2000, the Yanks made us all feel better pretty quickly, but the A’s inched back in it. It was a comeback that never happened.
A year later, and just a month removed from September 11, the Yanks and A’s would square off again in Game 5, and this time, the Yanks seemed like a team of destiny. Thanks to a play from Derek Jeter than will live in infamy and one of the most overlooked pitching performances in Mike Mussina’s Yankee tenure, the team overcame a 2-0 lead to oust the A’s. I was at Yankee Stadium for that game, and the atmosphere, as it always is during potential clinching games, was electric. The crowd would not let the Yankees lose.
In 2003, it took a few extra outs as 27 would not be enough. With just five of their own offensive outs remaining, the Yanks staged an improbable comeback, and Aaron Boone added the exclamation point. A year later….well, we know how that ended. In 2005, the Yanks, maybe feeling the pressure of living down the previous year’s collapse, fell apart defensively. Those were 27 outs to forget.
And so we’re back with just 27 outs separating us and the team with which we live and die from their destiny. If everything goes according to plan, 15-18 of those outs are Ivan Nova’s and the remaining 9-12 belong to Rafael Soriano, David Robertson and, of course, Mariano Rivera who has thrown just three pitches during the ALDS. You can’t watch the outs melt away until the game starts, but Rivera looms, as sure a thing as there is in baseball. Some of those outs might just be easier to get than others because of him.
Whenever these do-or-die games come along, I find the waiting to be the hardest part. We have 20 hours to go before the Yanks and Tigers start their march toward the ninth inning. When it does, I’ll be ticking off the outs, hoping the 27 we need to move on and live for another series come easier than those the Tigers need. I’m not ready for the season to end yet. I’d like another day, another game, another series, another 27 outs.