Two years ago, the Yankees faced the Astros in a do-or-die, American League wild-card game at Yankee Stadium, the only other time the two clubs have met in the postseason before Friday’s start of the ALCS. Astros southpaw Dallas Keuchel took care of the business that night, surrendering just three hits and no runs, before turning the ball over to three Astros relievers, who each twirled one scoreless inning. Houston advanced after that 3-0 victory, while the Bombers limped off into the winter.
What a difference a youth movement will do for your playoff chances. The 2017 Yankees are riding on a wave of Baby Bomber momentum after booting the Twins in the wild-card game last week, and then surpassing that achievement with a thrilling comeback series victory over Cleveland in the divisional round, after being down 0-2. Didi Gregorius, Luis Severino, Greg Bird, Gary Sanchez and AL MVP candidate Aaron Judge – all of whom are 27 or younger – made significant ALDS contributions, despite Judge’s 16 strikeouts (!) in the five-game series. Houston has its own young studs in Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve, not to mention former Yankees Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran – both veterans were on that 2015 Yankee playoff team. The Astros won 101 games during this past season, and will be the favorites to win the AL pennant. Then again, that’s what most everyone thought about the Indians too, before the start of the ALDS. Here is how the two ALCS teams stack up on the field and in the dugout.
Gary Sanchez’s batting average for the ALDS was a paltry .174 and included 10 whiffs, and the Yankee backstop still has his issues with passed balls. “That first game Sanchez played in Cleveland, it seemed more balls got by him than he caught,” said an NL scout who watched the Yankees-Indians series. “But he got better as the series went on, and he can certainly hit. That’s why he’s in the lineup.” Yes, there is no denying the 24-year-old Kraken’s pop in his right-handed bat, and Sanchez did slug two homers against Cleveland pitching. Former Bomber Brian McCann, meanwhile, had a worse batting average in the other ALDS than Sanchez’s. The lefty-swinging McCann, 33, batted .125 in the four-game series against Boston and had just two RBI. Of the Yankee starters now, McCann has the best numbers against Sonny Gray (4-for-12, 1HR, 2BB, 2K). McCann has more years of playoff experience, but Sanchez’s overall talent and ceiling potential give him the nod.
Cuban import Yuli Gurriel is 33 and didn’t start his major league career until last year, but he showed in the ALDS that he can still hit, just maybe not to the same degree of power as in 2006, when he was the heralded Cuban talent in the World Baseball Classic. The righty-hitting Gurriel batted a gaudy .529 (9-for-17) in the ALDS against the Red Sox, but scored one run and had no RBI. Yankees first baseman Greg Bird, 24, rebounded from an injury-riddled season to make a powerful impact in the ALDS. He socked a solo homer in Game 3 – the game’s only run – and the lefty-swinging Bird also has a solid glove on defense.
Starlin Castro had a productive ALDS against the Indians, batting .273, and the 27-year-old Dominican has plenty of range on defense, whether it’s leaping to grab a Francisco Lindor liner in Game 4 of the ALDS, or turning double-plays with Didi Gregorius. But there is Castro, and then there is Jose Altuve, who whacked three homers in Game 1 of the ALDS against Boston, and who batted .533 (8-for-15) in the four-game series. Altuve, a 27-year-old Venezuelan, is one of the Astros’ cornerstones and one of the best at his position in the majors.
Mr. October, Mr. November and now, Sir October. Sir Didi Gregorius, the Knighted Yankee shortstop, made his stamp on the ALDS with a Game 5 for the ages – a 3-for-4 performance including two home runs, three RBI and two runs scored. He also had the key three-run homer in the wild-card game to tie the score. Houston’s Carlos Correa, a 23-year-old Puerto Rican, like Altuve is another of the Astros’ young, homegrown stars, and despite missing a big chunk of the regular season with a torn ligament in his left thumb, Correa was dynamic in the ALDS. He batted .235 but socked two homers in the series and knocked in six runs. “Both of them together, you’ve got quite a shortstop duo to watch,” said the scout. “Didi stepped up big time (in Game 5 of ALDS). Having a guy like (Didi) going in to replace (Derek) Jeter (in 2015), you never know what direction they’re going to go in. But I think he was the perfect fit for the Yankees. He’s got that temperament. And he’s coming off a huge game.”
Thumbs down for the deadline trade that brought Toms River, NJ product Todd Frazier to the Bombers from the White Sox – and we mean that in every way positive. Frazier may not have the slugging power or the speed of teammates Aaron Judge and Brett Gardner respectively, but the 31-year-old Little League legend delivered a key hit in Game 4 of the ALDS and is a steady defensive infielder. Alex Bregman, eight years Frazier’s junior, was the No. 2 pick overall in the 2015 draft and in his first full season with Houston he put up solid numbers: .284 average, 19 homers, 71 RBI. Bregman was sturdy on defense as well, and committed just 10 errors at third this past season. Bregman only had four hits in the ALDS but two were homers.
This is what Indians reliever Cody Allen had to say about Brett Gardner after the Yankee left fielder’s epic, ninth-inning, 12-pitch at-bat Wednesday night that culminated with a two-run single to give the Bombers some cushion en route to their series-clinching victory: “Every team in baseball could use a Brett Gardner.” Gardner is one of three current Yankees who was on the 2009 World Series championship team, and he brings all the old-school, bust-your-tail mentality and approach that makes him an invaluable cog on Joe Girardi’s roster. Marwin Gonzalez has been playing left for Houston in the playoffs, and played all four infield positions at various points during the regular season. But in this matchup, Gardner is the clear favorite.
George Springer batted .412 in the ALDS against Boston and struck out (4) a quarter of the times that Yankee rookie Aaron Judge whiffed. Springer had 34 homers in 140 games for Houston this past season while posting a slash line of .283/.367/.522. Aaron Hicks spent most of September on the DL with an oblique strain, but played well in the ALDS, batting .316 with a homer and four RBI. And Hicks’ defense has produced several highlight-reel heists.
Remember that two-run double Aaron Judge had in Game 4? That was the rookie outfielder’s lone hit of the division series, where he had a postseason record 16 strikeouts. “It’s no secret there are holes in Judge’s swing, but my God, if you make a mistake, he’s going to make you pay,” said the scout. “He’s going to learn to lay off pitches, but anything with spin gives him a hard time, especially if it starts in the zone like a slider. But he keeps an even keel, doesn’t show his emotions.” Judge showed his talents on defense, robbing Lindor of a two-run homer in Game 3 with a leaping grab at the Stadium wall. Houston’s Josh Reddick is five inches shorter than Judge, but the lefty-swinging Reddick had a decent ALDS, batting .375 with two strikeouts. There’s no denying Judge’s talents and long ball power, but if his strikeouts continue, that could have a huge impact on the Bombers’ chances.
Where have you gone Matt Holliday? One of the Yankees’ primary offseason acquisitions has languished on the bench during the entire Yankee ‘17 postseason, while Jacoby Ellsbury and Chase Headley have traded turns at DH. “I’d like to be out there,” Holliday told the Daily News before Game 4 of the ALDS, when he sat again. Ellsbury and Headley went a combined 0-for-16 with eight strikeouts in the ALDS. Former Yankee (and Met) Carlos Beltran is 40, a switch-hitter and can still do damage all these years after he left a bat on his shoulder to end the 2006 NLCS. Evan Gattis has been Houston’s primary DH and is equally productive.
After a dreadful wild-card outing, Luis Severino shined brightly in the Game 4 Yankee win in the ALDS, while Masahiro Tanaka (who will start Game 1 of the ALCS) was brilliant in his lone start and CC Sabathia proved he still has gas in the tank. “Tanaka was as good as I’ve ever seen him (in Game 3). He really stepped up. To me, he’s still the go-to guy. Severino was super impressive (in Game 4). All those guys are battle-tested enough to be able to beat Houston. I don’t think it’s going to be easy, but I would expect the Yankees to come through this,” said the scout. “They got through the toughest team. I thought Cleveland was going to win this thing. I thought it wasn’t going to be close.” Houston has Keuchel, veteran ace Justin Verlander (acquired in a trade) and Charlie Morton. Keuchel and Verlander are both former Cy Young Award winners.
Any number of Yankee relievers – with maybe the exception of Dellin Betances – showed up big during the ALDS: David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green and flame-throwing lefty Aroldis Chapman, who finished off the Indians in Game 5. But Houston has its own set of elite bullpen cogs, including Ken Giles, who had 34 saves and a 2.30 ERA in 2017.
It was a tale of two Joe Girardis – the Yankee manager who brilliantly guided the Yankees to the wild-card win by using an assortment of relievers after Severino bombed. Then there was the Girardi with the brain cramp in Game 2 of the ALDS, and everyone knows how that ended. Finally, there was the Girardi who managed the team to a series victory after they climbed out of a 0-2 hole. In his third season with the Astros, A.J. Hinch took his team to the top of the AL West before Houston flattened the Red Sox. With the exception of bringing Verlander into Game 4 as a reliever, Hinch’s playoff decisions have been solid.