While the NL chose to mix things up, the AL decided to go pure chalk. The Astros and Yankees are at it again, facing off in October for the third time in five years. Houston has won the first two rounds, the Wild Card game in 2015 and then an epic seven-game 2017 ALCS. Can the third time be a charm for the Bronx Bombers?
Let’s dig a little deeper in this clash of the titans in the Junior Circuit:
Where do we start with all the accolades? We’ve got a team that hit an absurd 306 home runs this year… and didn’t even lead baseball in that category. We’ve got a team that casually put up three games scoring 20 runs this year, boasting the likely AL Rookie of the Year and possible AL MVP. To me, the difference lies in winning the battle of one letter: “K.” Can the Yankees cut down on their strikeouts enough to apply constant pressure to the ‘Stros star-studded pitching staff? That was a problem for them in 2017, especially in the games played in Houston. The addition of D.J. LeMahieu is enormous in that he not only had an MVP-caliber season, and not only sets the table at the top of the lineup, but he is, frankly, one tough son of a gun to strike out, much like Alex Bregman for the Astros. That levels the playing field, and the Yankees are getting much more out of guys like Gleyber Torres and Brett Gardner than they did in the 2017 ALCS. This is so close, because the Astros not only hit, but they run the bases. If the Yankees can keep getting contributions from their bench as they have all year, they can flat-out outscore the Astros if need be. Edge: Even.
Well, this one seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yes, the Astros have the edge because the Astros have the two best pitchers in the game right now. But Zack Greinke was terrible against the Rays, and there is no viable No. 4 starter the Astros can trot out there right now. Luis Severino looked great in Game 3, and Houston had no answer for Masahiro Tanaka in the previous postseason series between these clubs. James Paxton is enigmatic but capable of shutting down anyone, but it will be interesting to see where Aaron Boone goes at No. 4. Does CC Sabathia find his way onto the ALCS roster? Does Chad Green serve as an opener? That will be a big key to the Yankees not being overmatched in this area. Edge: Astros.
We all know the Yankees have a dominant bullpen, but do you remember who was the game’s best reliever for the first two months of the season? It was Ryan Pressly, who has certainly come back to earth since. Roberto Osuna is shaky as the closer right now, and the last thing the ‘Stros need is to start feeling about their ‘pen like they did in 2017. Josh James is an X-factor and we could even see him start in this series. The Bombers have a bevy of power arms, even without the services of Dellin Betances. Adam Ottavino was a brilliant free-agent pickup, and Zach Britton is as good a setup man as any. Aroldis Chapman, with more sliders than ever before, has been close to unhittable lately. This is where the Yankees can even the scales despite an apparent disavantage in starting pitching. Edge: Yankees.
Both of these teams are outstanding defensively. Alex Bregman and Gio Urshela can be human highlight reels at third. Torres has his moments but can also be a stud defensively, and Didi Gregorius is as good as it gets a short. The Yankees have both speed (Gardner) and height (Aaron Judge) in the outfield, although don’t sleep on Josh Reddick as a defensive star in right. One area where the Yankees could hold an edge is at catcher, where the once-shaky Gary Sanchez is as proficient at throwing out baserunners as anyone (maybe he just needed Joe Girardi to stop looking over his shoulder?). Edge: Even.
Don’t be fooled by what I just said, because I was a big Girardi fan and felt like he got a raw deal after bringing this young team along so quickly in 2017. But give credit to Aaron Boone for navigating through an unheard-of amount of injuries in 2019 and keeping team chemistry strong. His counterpart, A.J. Hinch, is – quietly, it seems – one of the best, and least-scrutinized, managers in baseball. Hinch became the first manager ever to not issue a single intentional walk the entire season. In terms of momentum and intangibles, I give the Yankees an edge because they’ve had time to rest and lineup their rotation, while Houston was pushed to the limit by the pesky Rays and will be without either of its two aces for Game 1, giving New York a chance to seize the early momentum on the road. I also just feel, as I have all season, that this is the just the Yankees’ year, overcoming all the injuries and thriving in the face of adversity for six-plus months. Edge: Yankees.
Again, I’m sticking to my preseason pick with the Yankees, because I do believe this team is as mentally tough as any Yankees club we’ve seen in years. That will serve them well two years after coming up just short against the ‘Stros. It will also wipe out all the good vibes of 2017 for Houston, when it became the first team to ever beat both Evil Empires, the Red Sox and Yankees, in the same postseason. The Astros then lost to the Red Sox in last year’s ALCS and will have done the same against the Yankees this year (call it “The Empires Strike Back,” perhaps?). Pick: Yankees in 6.