Yankees lose 1st battle to Red Sox on the October health front

BOSTON — Baseball’s biggest house of cards can be described in two words: October health.

You can catch every break and rest every ailment in September to put your contender in optimal condition for the postseason. Alas, winning the championship requires the playing of games, and folks oftentimes get hurt in those games.

Hence this long-awaited return to Yankees-Red Sox postseason action kicked off with a notable diversion of fortunes:

Chris Sale looked healthy, and Aaron Hicks didn’t.

Sale shut down the Yankees, the underrated Hicks departed with right hamstring tightness and the Red Sox bullpen bent without breaking as the Yankees lost American League Division Series Game 1 by a 5-4 margin Friday night at Fenway Park, falling into a 1-0 hole in this best-of-five cage match.

If the Yankees can’t even this up Saturday night against old pal David Price … well, they did overcome a 2-0 ALDS deficit last year against the Indians, but do they really want to attempt that high-wire act again?

The Red Sox’s ace Sale had registered just 17 innings pitched in the last two months due to left shoulder issues, and in his last appearance, Sept. 26, he set off alarms with his diminished velocity, his fastball hovering at about 90 miles per hour. He silenced the alarms this time, his fastball jumping up to the 95-96 mph neighborhood — a vast improvement, if short of his season peak of 99 — as he limited the Yankees to a pair of runs over 5 ¹/₃ innings, scattering five hits while walking two and striking out eight.

“There’s no holding back now,” Sale said. “It’s everything on the table. Everything you’ve got.”

“I’m pleased with what I saw: 96, good command,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “… It really didn’t matter if it was 91 or 99. We knew he was going to compete. But that was good.”

Said Yankees manager Aaron Boone: “I thought he was good. You know, not his dominant self necessarily, but I thought he did a really nice job of mixing his pitches, changing speeds.”

Hicks started the fourth inning by lining a single to right field, and then he went down in a more unusual circumstance, as he aggravated the hammy taking off on a Giancarlo Stanton grounder that went foul. Veteran Brett Gardner pinch-ran for Hicks and stayed in the game to patrol center field.

“Before the game, it started cramping up a little bit,” said Hicks. “It sucks have to come out of this game.”

He added, “I feel good right now,” yet the MRI exam he undergoes on Saturday morning will determine his fate.

Just a few hours earlier, before first pitch, both Boone and Cora were expressing their appreciation for their team’s physical soundness and strong confidence.

“I feel like our club is as healthy and as whole as we’ve been throughout the year,” Boone said. “I feel like we finished the season playing well, and we [were] able to carry it into the first game of the postseason.”

Said Cora: “We are healthy, that’s the most important thing. We’re rested. That’s one of the topics throughout the season, to give these guys enough rest that when October started, we were right where we want to be.’’

It can take so little for that positive feng shui to get thrown off. Sometimes it’s obvious, like with last year’s Yankees, whose Kryptonite was playing at home. Sometimes less so, like when John Olerud’s left foot injury in 2004 AL Championship Series Game 3 kept him out of the Yankees’ subsequent starting lineups and, in the view of players from both sides, changed the tone of the series as the Red Sox recorded a historic comeback.

Here in 2018, the Yankees have suffered the first bad break. They know that negativity can snowball quickly in these short series. Can they restore their house of cards in time, especially knowing that a restored Sale awaits them in the potential Game 5?

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