The Yankees are a year ahead of schedule and the Astros are right on schedule as they meet in the American League Championship Series. The Yankees weren't supposed to make the playoffs. They weren't supposed to beat the Indians, especially after losing the first two games of the AL Division Series. And now they are winning for Joe Girardi, their recently embattled manager, who might not be back next year -- he's unsigned after this season.
The Astros were supposed to win their division, which they did easily. They were supposed to beat the Red Sox, which they did rather easily. And this is the year they're supposed to win the World Series for the first time in franchise history. They are Houston Strong and are playing for a Greater Houston area crushed by recent flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey. And they are playing for all those Astros -- Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and the rest -- who never won it all. So much is lined up here, yet like this crazy, marvelous postseason, anything can happen.
Here are five questions:
How good is the Astros lineup?
It is the best in baseball, no doubt. In the ALDS against the Red Sox, the Astros had an OPS of .974, the third-highest by any team in any postseason series in history. The Astros pounded all the Red Sox starters, including Chris Sale, and they knocked around Boston's nearly unhittable closer, Craig Kimbrel, in the clinching Game 4. Second baseman Jose Altuve, the likely AL MVP winner, was devastating. There was no way to pitch him, and he became the ninth different player to hit three home runs in a postseason game, supporting the claim of one Astros coach who said, "Pound for pound, Altuve is the strongest player in the game.''
There is no end to their lineup. Third baseman Alex Bregman is a really good hitter, but he's just another guy in that lineup, and he hit two homers off Sale in the ALDS. The Astros' bench is also good; Carlos Beltran started only one of the four games in the ALDS, but he's one of the greatest postseason players ever, and he delivered a big hit in Game 4. The Astros put the ball in play more than most teams, and they led the league in productive outs. There's nothing about this lineup that suggests it can be stopped.
How do Yankees pitchers match up against that offense?
It is a big challenge, of course, but the Yankees outpitched the Indians to win the ALDS. In six postseason games, Yankees pitchers have averaged 11.89 strikeouts per nine innings. Starters Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino and CC Sabathia were really good in the ALDS, better than Cleveland's starters, and the Yankees bullpen has been terrific throughout the postseason.
That pen has a half-dozen guys with explosive stuff, notably the threesome of closer Aroldis Chapman (who has not allowed a run in the last 15 games he has pitched), David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle. Those three have thrown 19 2/3 innings in this postseason, allowing nine hits, one run and five walks while notching 29 strikeouts. If the Yankees can get Dellin Betances straightened out in this series (not likely), the pen will be even mightier. This is the distinct advantage the Yankees have over Houston: a deep, versatile, power bullpen.
What should we make of the Astros' bullpen?
If there is a weak link -- and it is minor -- on this team, it might be the group of relievers that brings the ball to closer Ken Giles. The Astros' bullpen ERA was 4.27 this year, while the league average was 4.10, and the Indians' bullpen ERA was 2.89. Chris Devenski and Will Harris (33 walks and 152 strikeouts combined) were terrific in 2017, but not as good toward the end of the year, nor was Luke Gregerson. The lack of trust in middle relief led Astros manager A.J. Hinch to go to his Game 5 starter, Justin Verlander, in Game 4, a surprising move since Verlander had never pitched in relief after 402 starts (regular season and postseason) in the big leagues. "I don't remember ever pitching in relief in my life,'' he said. It worked out, but when the situation comes up again, that pen must be better for the Astros to win the ALCS.
It will be interesting to see the role Lance McCullers plays in the series. Giles, who had two two-inning saves during the regular season, got one in Game 4 of the ALDS. There was a question of whether he was ready for the pressure of the postseason, but he has dominant stuff, and he looked relaxed in the eighth and ninth innings at Fenway.
How much will Aaron Judge's ALDS struggles affect him and the Yankees in the ALCS?
He went 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts, the most strikeouts by any player in any postseason series in history (Joe DiMaggio struck out 13 times, and hit 30 homers, during the entire 1941 season). Judge had three four-strikeout games: No one in history has had three four-strikeout games in a postseason career. Judge had three in five games. But he has proved this year that he can struggle terribly and then work his way through it, which he did by winning the AL Player of the Month in September after a horrendous 44-day slump. And he has lots of help in that lineup.
The Yankees can hurt you in so many ways, from 1-to-9. Didi Gregorius had been hitless in his last 13 at-bats against Indians starter Corey Kluber entering the ALDS, and then hit two homers off him in the deciding Game 5. Greg Bird was a nonfactor most of the season, but he got healthy in September, played well down the stretch, and then hit a home run to win Game 3 against Cleveland 1-0. That series was Bird and Magic.
What is the status of the Astros' rotation?
It is still in good shape, even with Verlander not starting until Game 2 because of his relief appearance in Game 4 of the ALDS. Dallas Keuchel will start Game 1. He was very good his final three starts of the regular season, and gave up only three hits and one run in 5 2/3 innings to win Game 2 of the ALDS. And his career numbers against the Yankees are outrageous: 1.41 ERA in 44 2/3 innings. Including Keuchel's dominant six innings against the Yankees in the 2015 AL wild-card game, he has not allowed a homer to the Yankees in 50 2/3 innings.
Brad Peacock (13-2 this year) labored in Game 3, but he was 8-0 on the road this year, and the Astros averaged 7.5 runs per start for him. Charlie Morton did a nice job in Game 4. Of all pitchers who made 20 starts this year, Morton is the only one who pitched five-plus innings in every start. He didn't in Game 4 as he was taken out after 4 1/3 innings and replaced by Verlander, but you can a lot worse than Morton as your No. 4.
Prediction: Astros in seven.
ALCS questions: Is it possible to shut down the best offense in baseball?
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