As we all know, the Astros won home field advantage in the playoffs by virtue of having the best record in the major leagues. By beating the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS, 3-2, they won the right to play the Yankees, who waltzed over the Twins in a three-game sweep. Yankee bats were bashing, whereas the Astros squeaked in by virtue of two historically magnificent starts by Gerrit Cole, and another by Justin Verlander.
What are the keys to this upcoming showdown of the two best teams in the American League?
The Starting Nine:
I actually got some borderline hate mail for asking the question in an earlier post whether the Zack Greinke trade was a big mistake. Admittedly, coming right after his terrible meltdown in Game 3, even the suggestion might have been a bit of a hot take. Hopefully Greinke just had one bad game.
But we’ve seen sudden, inexplicable and precipitous declines in pitchers twice this year, Colin McHugh and Wade Miley, so forgive me my sudden onslaught of PTSD. (not really, of course).
The key to this series is Zack Greinke keeping the Astros in the games he starts, ostensibly game 1 and game 5, with the Astros winning at least one. Game 4 is a long shot for the Astros, seeing as how the Astros have NO qualified fourth starter, and a thin bullpen. If Greinke can’t win one game, then the team must win every game Verlander and Cole start, a tall order even for them. Especially as the Yankees come into the series with mostly hot bats, and the Astros with four starters hitting under OPS .700, and three under .400, in the DS
Postseason baseball is both a blessing that we should never take for granted and an outright dastardly curse. The latest ALDS against the Rays only serve to cement this thought in my head. But that series is in the past now and the ALCS now represents another kind of challenge for the Astros. The Yankees, who are undoubtedly licking their chops at revenge for 2017, still boast one of the best rosters in the game today.
The key to this series, in my opinion, will hinge on how well Houston’s pitching staff holds up against the second-best offense in baseball this year. The Twins, who had a respectable pitching staff, allowed 23 runs in only three games against New York. Sure, Minnesota wasn’t in the same league as the Rays or even the Astros in terms of pitching, but the results are difficult to ignore. For the Astros, they’ll need at least a respectable performance from each and every one of their “Big Three” starters: Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander, and Zack Greinke. The former Diamondback, Greinke, in particular, needs a strong series to help justify the hefty price that Houston paid at the trade deadline for his services. If he doesn’t fare well, then the Astros have a significant challenge in front of them. The bullpen will also need a strong series, especially with the inconsistent performance of Game 1 and 2 of this recent ALDS still fresh in our memory. With a bullpen game looming as a possible scenario in Game 4 this series, Houston can’t afford the same level of poor performances that doomed them in last year’s ALCS against the Red Sox.
On the other side of the coin, we also have an Astros lineup that had their fair share of difficulty against a very talented Rays pitching staff. The offense as a collective unit started to show more signs of life during Game 5 on Thursday night, but more will be needed across multiple games against a Yankees squad that can also change the tide of a game with a single swing. For a lineup with an .848 OPS on the season, which was the best in the majors, a .700 OPS in the ALDS repeat against the Yankees likely won’t do. Here is one item to remember, though: The Astros, in four regular season games, finished with a .638 OPS at Tropicana Field. In four games at Yankee Stadium this year, Houston has a .927 OPS. While those numbers won’t guarantee that the Astros will actually hit against the Yankees, it does provide some hope that the offensive woes were only temporary.
First off I’d like to say that I feel like too much is being made about the Yankees’ sweep of the Twins. While I won’t say that they weren’t a good team after winning 101 games this season, Minnesota’s pitching was probably the weakest of the AL teams in the playoffs. At the end of the day it was exposed when they matched up with an elite offense in the form of the Yankees. Astros’ pitching is much more capable of showing up against a lineup like the New York’s, especially the top three in their rotation. The 4th starter position may turn out to be pivotal in this series though, so it’ll be interesting to see what AJ does with the tools in his box.
I’m also not so concerned with the Astros’ offensive performance against the Rays. Tampa’s pitching has been the best in the league as a group this season. A few people made a big deal about the idea of possibly being knocked off by the Rays, but Tampa was hardly your average WC team. They certainly didn’t play like a bunch of pushovers the way the Twins did. Meanwhile, while the Yankees’ bullpen is a strength to be sure, their starting pitching has been suspect at times this season. If the Astros can jump on the starters early they will have the chance to force Aaron Boone to use some of his bullets before he’s ready and possibly get to some of the less dominant arms in the pen.
Basically I just think that Houston needs to stay within themselves, let the moment come to them, and play the same good baseball they’ve been playing all year. They didn’t do anything wrong by going to Game 5 against a good Tampa Bay squad and shouldn’t feel remorse about that series. At the same time, the Yankees didn’t really prove anything by beating up on the Twins, a team they have had no problem handling all season.
I still believe that Houston is the more complete team and have a solid shot of jumping ahead in the series at home. This should be a good ALCS, but if the Astros can go up 2-0 before heading off to New York I don’t think the series returns to Houston like it did in 2017.
A lot has been made of the Yankees’ rotation as a relative weakness when comparing them to the Astros. Certainly there is no Verlander on their staff, and it’s beginning to seem as if even Sandy Koufax was no 2019 Cole, but the Yankees’ rotation should not be underestimated. James Paxton has made a career in Seattle of getting the best of Astros’ bats, and while the Astros are no longer subjected to facing him multiple times as an intradivisional rival, they have to face him in October, which is less optimal. Tanaka always seems to perform adequately at the very least in the postseason, and Severino is the Yankees’ preseason ace who didn’t make his debut until September due to injury. There are still questions, but he hasn’t done anything thus far to question whether his ability has changed.
The Rays pitching staff may have been the best the Astros have encountered all year, but the Yankees won’t be throwing batting practice. Despite six runs in game 5, the Astros bats have not woken up. There were four runs on tipped pitches in the first and then six innings of silence, followed by two solo shots in the eighth.
The Astros offense cannot afford to hit the snooze button any more times. You can bet that the likes of Judge, Stanton, Gleyber, Lemahieu and Sanchez are not going to go as quietly at the plate as the Rays.
I agree with Hatter: The Astros offense needs to get it going. For me, that starts with George Springer setting the tone.
He singled to center to open Game 5 and the Astros proceeded to score four runs in the inning. Springer didn’t log another hit and there weren’t really any sustained rallies (outside of the back-to-back homers by Brantley & Altuve in the eighth), That obviously isn’t all on him, but George sparks the offense not only as a baserunner, but also because his energy is infectious. His big smile and the trademark thumbs-up he flashes after getting a hit are beloved by both teammates and fans, alike.
Hopefully, we will see George start to go the other way again and set the table for the top of the Astros’ lineup.
Also, Carlos Correa. Please quit failing behind 0-2 without so much as a swing.
Brian Cohn (HH):
It's the series we've all been waiting for, a clash of the titans. While their season records ended up very close, their ease of schedule masked a myriad of injuries and gaps/weaknesses.
Less meausrable options but important ones for me include, the Astros luck, and the time off for the yankees. In a seven game series, the BABIP dragon can be king, and the worst team in baseball could take a series from the best. We can only hope being off for a few days throws off their timing even to the slightest extent.
But on a more measurable note, if we can get the post-season MVP George Springer that we're used to, our offense will suddenly feel much deeper and like one that can go toe to toe with the Bronx Bombers.
In his career, Springer has had a .285/.361/.570 triple slash compared to his paltry .143/.182/.143 line in the ALDS this year.
Looking forward to Hinch adding to his legacy as our greatest manager of all time
I have a few friends who are Yankee fans, and after the 2017 ALCS I remember telling some of them that I couldn’t wait for the rematch. That series was so hard fought, and the teams so young, that a round two seemed inevitable- I couldn’t be more excited that it’s here. While I’ve said that the Astros and Rays were, in my mind, the two best teams in the AL if not MLB this season, the Yankees are a force to be reckoned with, and come equipped with their best offense in years.
In the past I’ve opined that the Yankees lack of low-strikeout hitters was problematic for the postseason, additions like DJ LeMahieu have changed the complexion of their lineup and brought their offense up a notch. Their bullpen remains deep- if a bit inconsistent- and the return of Luis Severino gives their rotation an entirely different feel. These clubs are both stacked, and they’ve made it to this point mostly healthy. It promises to be an outstanding series, and I expect at least six games.
As scary as the Yankees are, I think the Astros have to be considered a solid favorite in this series. Home field advantage is a nice boost, but more importantly, Houston showed well against an incredibly tough Tampa team, and Game 5 felt like the start of some postseason momentum. George Springer looked much more comfortable at the plate, Michael Brantley broke out of his short skid to open the series, and Roberto Osuna righted the ship with a sterling ninth after a shaky performance earlier in the series. I’d like to see Kyle Tucker take over as the primary right fielder in this series, as I just don’t think you have much to lose by benching Reddick, and I hope to see a young live arm added to the pen, but the Astros seem to be playing to their potential right now, and I’d pick them to beat anybody. Astros in 6.