The empire strikes back: Yankees remind everyone why they're here
Mike Stobe / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Throughout the nightmarish triptych that followed their American League Championship Series-opening victory against the Houston Astros, it was easy to forget that the New York Yankees looked almost unstoppable less than a week ago.

They were virtually unrecognizable, after all, as they flailed and fumbled their way into a seemingly insurmountable 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven series, squandering opportunities, giving away outs, and generally self-immolating within an inch of their lives. If there existed a team that could overcome such improbable odds against these Astros, it certainly wasn't these Yankees, whoever they were. This team couldn't get a timely hit to save its life. This team couldn't sufficiently quiet Houston's mighty lineup. Hell, this team couldn't even turn routine grounders into outs. This team, it seemed, in the wake of a humiliating 8-3 defeat in Game 4, simply had its mojo - one that propelled the Yankees to their most regular-season wins since 2002 (103) and an effortless sweep of the Minnesota Twins in the American League Division Series - zapped at the least opportune time.

With their season on the line Friday in the Bronx, though, the Yankees got their mojo back, if only for one night, securing a series-extending 4-1 victory that reminded everyone why they're here, a step away from their first pennant in a decade.

First and foremost, these Yankees are here because they score a lot of runs and hit a lot of homers. (They finished first and second in the majors, respectively, in those categories in the regular season.) And while a matchup with Justin Verlander - who held them to two runs over 6 2/3 innings in Game 2 and is essentially the franchise's postseason kryptonite - isn't exactly a boon for a floundering offense, the Yankees nevertheless snapped their three-game slump in dramatic fashion in Game 5, with DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks going deep in a four-run first inning. The early onslaught carried a few notable distinctions: It marked the first time that the Yankees had put up four runs or more in the first inning of a postseason since Game 5 of the 2000 ALDS, and it was also the most disastrous inning of Verlander's illustrious playoff career.

Never before, moreover, had the Yankees hit two homers in the first inning of a playoff game. And while it'd be disingenuous not to acknowledge that homers are more abundant now than they've ever been, this feat - which eluded Gehrig and Ruth, and Maris and Mantle, and A-Rod and Teixeira - is still a reflection of the fact that this lineup, at full strength, is positively lethal. And now, with Hicks back in the lineup after missing the entire division series and the ALCS opener, along with Giancarlo Stanton, who hadn't played since Game 1 against Houston due to a right quad issue, the Yankees' lineup is just about at full strength.

As such, even though the Yankees didn't muster any offense after their first-inning blitz, the restored lineup and early bombardment - which produced as many runs as they had scored over their previous two games - helped erase the sour taste borne of New York's putrid performances at the plate through the first four games of the ALCS. With runners in scoring position, for instance, they had gone 4-for-27 (.148) with 11 strikeouts. In their 16 at-bats in "late and close" situations, they had managed just one hit (.063). And, after the sixth inning, they went 7-for-47 (.149). Those numbers became irrelevant Friday night. With two swings moments apart, LeMahieu and Hicks reminded everyone what these Yankees are capable of, how they can mash their way out of trouble. After all, the Yankees hit multiple homers in a game 85 times during the regular season; they went 71-14 in those contests.

A prolific offense, however, didn't by itself nudge the Yankees into the ALCS. Their bullpen - a hilariously deep assemblage of bat-missing velocity monsters - was also integral to their success in 2019, accruing more WAR than every bullpen except the Tampa Bay Rays'. New York's relief corps put up a redemptive performance Friday after a shaky outing in Game 4. Handed a three-run lead with nine outs to get following a masterful six-inning, one-run outing from James Paxton, the Yankees' late-inning triumvirate was nearly flawless, with Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman retiring eight straight batters after Tommy Kahnle put runners on first and second with one out in the seventh. They dominated, in other words, and in conjunction with the offense reaffirmed a truth that had become lost over the previous three games: The Yankees don't even need elite starting pitching to win games; their offense is good enough and their bullpen is deep enough to propel them to victory so long as they capitalize on their opportunities and minimize their mistakes afield.

Of course, even if they play as sharply as they did in Game 5 moving forward, the odds are still against the Yankees. The series will now shift back to Houston, where the Astros went 60-21 during the regular season, and a matchup against Gerrit Cole - who hasn't pitched in a losing effort since July 12 - awaits in Game 7, if necessary. Three of New York's key relievers, meanwhile, will presumably be asked to pitch again Saturday in a "bullpen game" after working Friday, their effectiveness likely compromised at least a little bit. The Yankees have dug themselves into a hole, and they probably won't be able to dig themselves out.

To discount such an overwhelmingly talented - and increasingly healthy - team, however, would be a mistake. When you're as good as the Yankees are, to borrow franchise legend Yogi Berra's aphorism, it ain't over 'til it's over.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

The empire strikes back: Yankees remind everyone why they're here
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