NEW YORK – The postseason is not the time to try and become something you’re not. And that, above all, is why the Houston Astros’ 2-0 advantage over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series feels even more mountainous, beyond the roughly four out of five times a team that takes such a lead closes out a best-of-seven series.
The Astros have been the AL’s best team since July, wresting that title from the Yankees on their way to 106 wins while New York tailed off and “only” won 99. And the second-half fortunes of both clubs were on display as the Astros claimed both games in Houston, by 4-2 and 3-2 scores that partly belie Houston’s level of control.
As the series shifts to Yankee Stadium for Saturday night’s Game 3 (5:07 ET, TBS), a look at three reasons why the Astros retain a significant upper hand in this ALCS:
Crack of the bat
Why does it seem the Astros are in command, even if they’re outscoring the Yankees a mere 7-4 in the aggregate?
Well, the bigger tale is the 30 strikeouts by Yankees batters compared to just eight by Houston, and that difference is reflected in the clubs’ DNA.
Not that the Bronx Bombers, mind you, are some wail-and-bail outfit fronted by slugger Aaron Judge’s record-setting 62 home runs. Yet their 1,391 regular season strikeouts put them 18th in the majors at making contact, while their .241 batting average ranked at the midpoint in the AL and the majors.
And which teams struck out the least?
Atop the list are the Cleveland Guardians, a team inferior talent-wise to the Yankees that nonetheless forced them into two win-or-go-home AL Division Series games. And they are followed by the Astros.
“It’s mostly who they are, but a lot of it has to do with sheer determination and enjoying competing,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of his team’s contact skills before Game 2. “Our staff stresses to be a tough out and put the ball in play. If you put the ball in play, you got a chance. If you don’t put the ball in play, you have no chance.
“You put the ball in play, especially nowadays that they have a lot of guys playing out of position on certain teams because they’re counting on the strikeout, defense isn’t as important if you’re depending on the strikeout. But the guy on the other team, he has to catch it, and then he has to throw it, and then somebody on the other end got to catch it too. So there’s a possibility of three mistakes by putting the ball in play.”
His own pitcher, Framber Valdez, later proved that point when he fielded an innocuous tapper from the Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton and then dropped the ball, slipped, and threw wildly, credited with two errors on the play.
As if to prove the point of postseason baseball, Stanton’s tapper produced two unearned runs, the only time New York scored in Game 2.
Afterward, Stanton noted that the Yankees could stand to shorten up a bit, put the ball in play, pressure the Astros more. Manager Aaron Boone picked up that theme during a news briefing on Friday’s off day, both urging his squad on and, in a sense, bemoaning what he doesn’t have.
“Elite contact skills is a valued thing,” says Boone. “I would love to have everyone be .300 hitters and 30 homer guys. That’s what you’re chasing, you’re chasing a perfect, great offense. And as we’ve struggled to put the ball in play consistently these first two games, one thing yesterday is when we needed the ball in play, that’s what allowed us to get our two runs. So that was at least encouraging.
“Now we got to find a way against a great pitching staff. I still think it’s very important that we put a premium on controlling the strike zone because making really good swing decisions is always important. It’s really important in the postseason because when you start chasing, you start leaving the strike zone against elite pitching and you’re in trouble.”
Yet what Boone wants, Baker already has. Rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña has been a revelation this postseason, with four hits in eight at-bats this ALCS and with three hits that preceded go-ahead or game-winning home runs by Yordan Alvarez (twice) in the ALDS and Alex Bregman’s winning three-run blast in Game 2. Catcher and No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado has reached base four times in six plate appearances; Yankees catchers Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino have struck out five times in eight at-bats.
These are lineup wounds the Yankees likely can’t triage overnight.
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Before the ALCS began, Boone strongly intimated ace Gerrit Cole would start a Game 7 on three days’ rest; Baker indicated, more or less, that the Astros would worry about Game 7 if Game 7 ever arrived, a point he reiterated Friday. That has as much to do with the candidates to pitch on short rest as it does a desire to end the series early. Game 1 starter Justin Verlander (calf) and Game 4 starter Lance McCullers Jr. (flexor tendon recovery) are still a little tender, and no off day between Games 5 and 6 limits several options.
McCullers’ status was complicated when his elbow took a bop from a teammate lugging a champagne bottle through the haze of the Astros’ ALDS celebration in Seattle, necessitating a Friday bullpen session that checked out OK.
So, the Astros in Game 3 will have to start….the guy who pitched seven no-hit innings against the Yankees in June.
Cristian Javier is ostensibly kicking off something of a bullpen game for the Astros, but the reality is he’ll probably go as long as he looks strong. Such is the depth of Houston’s pitching that they can afford to toggle Javier – who struck out 190 in 148 ⅔ innings this year – between rotation and bullpen. Same with Luis Garcia, the 2021 playoff stalwart who came out of the bullpen for five scoreless innings in Houston’s 18-inning clincher at Seattle.
The Yankees? They are pleased Cole and Nestor Cortes are starting Games 3 and 4, the crucial ingredients to a series comeback. But beyond that? They’ll have to run Jameson Taillon back in Game 5, one start after he struck out exactly zero Astros to begin the series, and hope Luis Severino can avoid the one big mistake – Bregman turning on an inside fastball – that sunk him in Game 2 if they’re alive to see a Game 6.
It’s a steep climb when the Yankees must win three out of five games. Meanwhile, it seems like the Astros would be just as comfortable in a best-of-nine.
More in the tank
We’ll say it again: The Astros are halfway home while getting nothing from postseason legends Jose Altuve – now a record-setting 0 for 23 this postseason – and Yordan Alvarez, who’s produced a harmless single as the Yankees have pitched him very carefully.
Yet the venerable Yuli Gurriel is 9 for 22 in the playoffs. Peña and Chas McCormick have come up big this series. And Bregman, at 28, has the advantage of being in his physical prime with nearly 300 career playoff at-bats under his belt.
The Yankees are nowhere near peak performance, but it’s also hard to envision them getting untracked now. Judge is not off by much; he nearly turned Game 2 around with a home run and has been on pitches, far more encouraging outcomes than his 11-strikeout rut before a late breakout in the ALDS.
But the Yankees are in a funny spot. Josh Donaldson, 36, has been befuddled by Astros pitching and his lineup presence increasingly questioned by the New York news media. Meanwhile, promising youngsters Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera are still mere weeks from their big league debuts. Seeing Nos. 91 and 95 on the diamond might evoke memories of Tampa in March, not the Bronx in October.
That’s not to say they, and other Yankees, can’t turn it around at the plate, and Peraza showed extremely well in his playoff debut at shortstop. But they are not peaking, and few are in their prime.
You can’t say the same about the Astros.