There's little celebrating for the Yankees as they move on to the ALCS. The Astros are waiting. Again

NEW YORK — At 7:18 p.m. the last division series of the 2022 postseason was finally decided. Less than half an hour later, clubhouse attendants began closing down the celebration in the winning clubhouse. Players, their shirts sticky with champagne but with unnecessary goggles perched on their foreheads, stood on shrinking icebergs of protective tarp as it was pulled down from the walls and up from the carpets around them. There was little time to bask in revelry, the New York Yankees had a plane to catch, their reward for a 5-1 victory over the Cleveland Guardians.

Waiting for them in Houston is an Astros team that spent Tuesday watching their soon-to-be foes from a workout day, their fifth without a game in just over a week since the start of the ALDS.

Only one of the four division series this season came down to a winner-take-all Game 5, and it just happened to be the one that also weathered two rainouts that took an already wonky schedule — with a new playoff format this year, there was a scheduled off day between Games 1 and 2 — and introduced even more uncertainty.

Monday might have been the worst of it. After losing a travel day to an earlier rainout, the two clubs showed up to Yankee Stadium ready to play the decisive game — and stayed ready, eye black on and intensity amped up — until it was finally postponed at 9:30 p.m., 2½ hours after it was scheduled to start.

“I would not call it a rest day,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said about ending up without a game Monday. “I would say it's probably anything but a restful day for both teams.”

But the Yankees didn’t look all that tired when they leapt out to an early lead Tuesday afternoon under sunny skies in the Bronx.

The assumption was always that Guardians starter Aaron Civale wouldn't last especially long. Everyone is available in a must-win game, even would-be ALCS Game 1 starter Shane Bieber if they really, really needed him. But Francona must've hoped to get at least an inning before going to the 'pen. Instead, a walk, a hit by pitch, a three-run blast by Giancarlo Stanton, and finally a single from Josh Donaldson ended Civale's outing before he could record more than a single out. The only Yankee he successfully retired was Aaron Judge, who entered the game 2 for 16 with nine strikeouts and then added one more in his first at bat. If you started arguing then about whether the fanbase's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitude toward their likely MVP was misplaced, you wouldn't get very far. The next inning, he hit a 394-foot solo shot to put the Yankees up 4-0.

And while Cleveland opted not to see the silver lining in the rain clouds Monday night by changing out its starting pitching plans, the Yankees used the extra day to give the ball to Nestor Cortes on short rest.

He admitted after the game that it was “a lot of pressure.”

“I was a little nervous because I knew the fans and everybody was waiting for our victory,” he said. But that didn’t show, either. He gave them five innings of one-run ball before three relievers combined to close it out.

On a different day perhaps Oscar González, the hero in so many Guardians' wins already this October, would have gotten a two-out hit to start a rally in the top of the eighth inning. That kind of thing is possible when you boast the lowest team strikeout rate in the regular season. Instead, Clay Holmes, proving why it was so confounding that he never got the chance to pitch in Game 3, got him swinging for an 1-2-3 inning. When it mattered most, New York was able to neutralize Cleveland's contact-based offense.

In Game 3, the Guardians demonstrated their death-by-a-thousand cuts strategy, beating the Yankees with a barrage of singles in the bottom of the ninth. It's a strategy that lends itself well to David-and-Goliath analogies when it works. But if sports gambling had been a thing back then, the smart money would never have been on David. And in the decisive Game 5, the Yankees proved that sometimes (sometimes!!! not always!!!) the better team with the +240 regular-season run differential (compared to the Guardians' +64) and the big boppers big-bop their way right into the ALCS.

Lest you think the New York Yankees take anything for granted or let their vaunted history lull them into a false sense of easy superiority, Gerrit Cole, the $300 million ace who sent the series back to New York with a stellar performance Sunday in Cleveland, spent the ninth inning of Game 5 of the American League Division Series warming in the bullpen.

Five batters later, Gleyber Torres mimed rocking a babyinitially a Josh Naylor-specific taunt that had gone team-wide as victory became imminent — after recording the final out at second base and Cole and the rest of the relievers ran in from the bullpen to celebrate. Briefly.

Despite all the consternation of 100+-win teams getting eliminated too early in October, now the ALCS will feature a matchup of two division winners with plenty of experience playing on that stage. When Jameson Taillon takes the ball against Justin Verlander on Wednesday, it’ll be the third time in the six years that the Yankees and Astros meet in the ALCS: a chance to settle long-simmering animosity or else stoke it further. A referendum on the rust-versus-rest question or else a study in randomness. A showdown between the Yankees’ powerful lineup and the Astros’ endless pitching. Although even that erases how many strengths they share.

It’ll also be the sixth time in six years that the Astros compete for a pennant. Even when the Yankees missed the ALCS, Houston has been there. In a way, the Astros are always waiting.

“Everybody knows, we know, the whole world knows what kind of an Astros team they are,” Cortes said. “They run well. They hit well. They pitch well. They are a complete team. And I like to say that we are, too.”

“It’s definitely going to be a fun series,” Judge said. “We just gotta stay ready.”