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HOUSTON – When the New York Yankees come swaggering in here on Saturday for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, vapor from Gerrit Cole‘s dominance will still be fogging the air inside Minute Maid Park.
Justin Verlander will be snorting at the gate, eager to erase his AL Division Series Game 4 clunker at Tampa Bay. Alex Bregman will have a giant chip on his shoulder because, well, just because. That’s Bregman. Nobody lives to win more than him.
For the first time ever, four 100-win teams signed into the playoffs this autumn, and now just two are left standing: the Houston Astros, who eliminated Tampa Bay in a tidy 6-1 Game 5 Division Series thrashing Thursday night, and the Yankees.
So now come the Yankees and the Astros, the matchup everybody wants to see (except for the bitter people, but really, there’s little we can do about them, is there?). It’s the heavyweight fight, the titanic tussle, the Classic Made in Minute Maid or Bustin’ in the Bronx. Call it what you will.
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It is the duel that’s been anticipated since pitchers and catchers reported under the palm trees in February. Astros manager AJ Hinch, soaked in champagne late Thursday night, allowed that yes, he’s been asked about it for seemingly forever.
“Probably the first day of spring training, the way the teams were aligned and the moves that were made to set up the teams,” Hinch said.
“It’s going to be a battle,” Bregman said. “They’ve got a great team. They hit the ball out of the ballpark. They’ve got good pitching. It’s very similar to our team….
“It’s going to be fun, man. It’s going to be a blast.”
It’s destined to be a classic.
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The last time the Yankees spent a postseason evening here, it was Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, and Lance McCullers Jr. sent them spinning into oblivion by snapping off an unheard-of 24 consecutive curveballs to retire the final five hitters and punch Houston’s 4-0 World Series ticket.
Shortly afterward, then-Yankees manager Joe Girardi walked over to the Astros clubhouse to congratulate Hinch, then walked somberly in solitude through the tunnel toward an early winter. Five days later, the Yankees fired him.
Now New York is under the direction of a younger, hipper manager who thrives on interpersonal relationships with Millenials and philosophizing on savages. After his second season in charge, Aaron Boone will likely be named AL Manager of the Year next month.
Judge, general manager Brian Cashman and others unspooled similar answers when asked whether they’d rather face the Astros or Rays in the ALCS (on the night the Yankees clinched, Houston led its series two games to one): Wouldn’t it be great if Astros-Rays went the distance, five games, so whoever won limped into the ALCS with a fatigued pitching staff?
Well, the Yankees got their wish. But because Cole again was masterpiece pretty, going eight innings Thursday, the Astros bullpen will be fresh as newly washed bed sheets. Their rotation isn’t exactly in shambles, either.
Though Hinch said late Thursday he wouldn’t get around to naming his ALCS rotation until Friday, logic—based especially on who’s rested and who’s not—dictates that Houston will probably go with Zack Greinke in Game 1, followed by Verlander, Cole and, perhaps, rookie right-hander Jose Urquidy in Game 4 before rolling back around to Greinke and, in Games 6 and 7, Verlander and Cole.
Due to their steamrolling of the Twins, Boone and the Yankees have far more flexibility in their choices with a fully rested staff. Though they started lefty James Paxton in Game 1 against Minnesota, they could go with either of right-handers Masahiro Tanaka or Luis Severino in Game 1 against Houston—or Paxton again.
“This team has a lot of resiliency, but in terms of what’s going to make it unique, it’s going to have to climb the final few mountains to be able to compare it to some of the other teams [in Yankees history],” Cashman said. “But it’s definitely got a big heart and a lot of talent.
“That’s been enough to carry us through Minnesota. Will it be enough to carry us through our next opponent? We’ll see.”
That 2017 ALCS loss to Houston stung enough that Judge, who was a rookie that season, has referenced it on a handful of occasions this year.
“I’ve mentioned it as something to fuel us,” he admitted the other night. “We’re just going to continue to play our game, and if we do that, we’ll be where we want to be.”
While the Astros used their victory over the Yankees in 2017 as the launching pad toward their first World Series title, New York was bounced in the ALDS by Boston last fall before reshaping its club in important ways this winter. Signing DJ LeMahieu as a free agent went under the radar at the time, but he responded with a sensational season, hitting .327/.375/.518 with 26 homers and 102 RBI.
More important than sheer numbers, LeMahieu helped the Yankees improve in two areas in which they were lacking last year: contact rate (third in the AL in strikeouts in 2018, the Yanks moved in the right direction this summer, ranking seventh) and defense.
Meantime, the Bronx Bombers continue to live up to their billing, their 306 homers this season ranking second in the game. Starting on Aug. 1, the Yankees’ 126 homers led the majors…and Houston’s 111 ranked second.
The Yankees went 20-0-3 in their last 23 home series this year, while Houston went 60-21 overall at home, becoming just the 13th team in MLB history to win 60 or more games at home. The Astros went 32-8 at home to finish the season and then won all three of their games against Tampa Bay in Minute Maid Park.
So, yes, earning that home-field advantage over New York matters.
“This is why we fought all year for 162 games,” Cole said. “They come out in droves all year to support us. They’re a baseball-savvy town. They understand big pitches. They understand big plays. And they love to bring the energy.
“I mean, we’re baseball players, we have to go to work. But when it all boils down, we’re just a bunch of kids out there having fun and trying to entertain people.”
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For six months, they’ve done a marvelous job with that. Especially Cole, who likely will be appearing in Rays nightmares all winter long. On a night during which there was zero margin for error, Cole responded as he has all season: eight economical innings, two hits, one run, 10 strikeouts.
And for all of those who say starting pitcher wins don’t matter given the way today’s game is played and the way relievers stack up the innings, chew on this: Cole has now won 18 decisions in a row, finishing the regular season 16-0 with a 1.78 ERA and going 2-0 with a 0.57 ERA against the Rays.
Think that doesn’t set the tone?
“We know how to win,” Hinch said. “This is a team that doesn’t scare off. The moment’s never too big. I think that will pay off for us.”
One enormous path to many victories in Houston this year has been the fact that the Astros became the first team in history for which the pitchers had the most strikeouts in the majors while the hitters had the fewest.
The Astros are also stocked with players who love the game. Maybe that sounds strange, but there are plenty of players who prefer to do other things when they leave the park. The Astros are mostly baseball rats, to the point that Hinch and Bregman were texting each other during the Dodgers’ stunning Game 5 loss to the Nationals on Wednesday night, walking their way through various strategic options.
But it certainly doesn’t mean the Astros are invincible—not any more than the Yankees are.
“I’ll tell you when I was driving to the ballpark, I was with my dad and I was nervous as hell,” Bregman admitted. “But when I walked in the clubhouse door, it was game time and everybody was fired up and we were loose and having a good time, doing what we normally do. …
“The reason we’re special is because different guys step up every single night. Yeah, if one guy goes off, we’re probably going to win. Gerrit went off twice in this series.”
Michael Wyke/Associated Press
The Yankees’ job will now be to prevent Cole—or Verlander, or Bregman, or Jose Altuve, or…—from going off too many times during these next several days. And the Astros will look to do the same with Judge, Tanaka, Severino, LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres and the rest of the pinstriped collection of All-Stars.
As Hinch said late Thursday, buckle up.
Or, as Bregman said, this is going to be a blast.
Either way, game on.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.