Three Reasons Why Yankees Hole vs. Astros feels deeper

NEW YORK – The late season is not the time to try to become something you are not. And that’s largely why the Houston Astros’ 2-0 lead over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series feels even more mountainous, aside from roughly four times out of five that a team that takes such a lead will a best-of-seven series.

The Astros have been the top team in the AL since July, winning that title from the Yankees on their way to 106 wins, while New York dwindled to win “only” 99. And both clubs’ fortunes in the second half were on display as the Astros claimed both games in Houston, with 4-2 and 3-2 scores that partially 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 the Astros maintain a significant upper hand in this ALCS:

Astros shortstop Jeremy Pena points to the sky after hitting a home run in Game 1.Crack of the bat

Why does it seem like the Astros are in charge even if they beat the Yankees just 7-4 in total?

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Well, the bigger story is the 30 strikeouts by Yankees batters compared to just eight by Houston, and that difference is reflected in the DNA of the clubs.

Not that the Bronx Bombers, mind you, are some pity-and-bail outfit fronted by batter Aaron Judge’s record-breaking 62 home runs. But their 1,391 regular season strikeouts put them 18th in the majors on contact, while their .241 batting average was in the middle of the AL and the majors.

And which teams stood out the least?

Topping the list are the Cleveland Guardians, a team inferior in talent to the Yankees, who nonetheless forced them to 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 the competition,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker of his team’s contact skills for Game 2 in-game. If you put the ball in play, you have a chance. If you don’t put the ball into play, you don’t stand a chance.

“You bring the ball into play, especially these days because some teams have a lot of guys out of position because they’re counting on the strikeout. Defense isn’t that important if you’re relying on the strikeout. But the guy from the other team, he has to catch it, and then he has to throw it, and then someone on the other side has to catch it too. So there is a chance of three fouls by putting the ball into play.”

His own pitcher, Framber Valdez, later proved that point when he finished off an innocent tapper by Giancarlo Stanton of the Yankees and then dropped the ball, slipped and threw wild, giving up two errors on the game.

As if to prove the point of post-season baseball, Stanton’s tapper produced two unearned runs, the only time New York scored in Game 2.

After that, Stanton noted that the Yankees could stand to shorten some, put the ball in play, and put more pressure on the Astros. Manager Aaron Boone picked up on that theme at a Friday day off press conference, urging his team on and, in a way, bemoaning what he doesn’t have.

“Elite contact skills are a prized thing,” says Boone. “I’d like everyone to be .300 batters and 30 homer boys. That’s what you’re chasing, you’re chasing a perfect, major offense. And as we struggled to get the ball into play consistently in the first two games, one thing yesterday was that we needed the ball in play, which allowed us to score our two runs. So at least that was encouraging.

“Now we have to find a way against a great pitching staff. I still think it’s really important that we put a premium on hitting zone control because it’s always important to make really good swing decisions. It’s really important in the post-season because when you start chasing, you start to leave the strike zone against elite pitchers and you’re going to be in trouble.”

But what Boone wants, Baker already has. Rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña was a revelation this postseason, with four hits in eight at bats in this ALCS and three hits predating go-ahead or game-winning homeruns by Yordan Alvarez (twice ) in the ALDS and Alex Bregman’s winning three-run blast in Game 2. Catcher and number 9 batter Martin Maldonado has reached base four times in six at bats; Yankees catchers Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino struckout five in eight at bats.

These are lineup wounds that the Yankees probably won’t be able to treat overnight.

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Pitch perfect

Before the ALCS began, Boone made it clear that Gerrit Cole would start a Game 7 with three days of rest; Baker more or less indicated that the Astros would be concerned about Game 7 if Game 7 ever came, a point he reiterated Friday. That has as much to do with the candidates to pitch on short half-time as the 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 bit sensitive, and no day off between Games 5 and 6 limits several options.

McCullers’ standings were complicated when his elbow received a blow from a teammate who dragged a champagne bottle through the haze of the Astros’ ALDS celebration in Seattle, necessitating a Friday bullpen session that came in handy.

So the Astros in Game 3 will have to start… the man who threw seven no-hit innings against the Yankees in June.

Cristian Javier is ostensibly starting some sort of bullpen game for the Astros, but the reality is he will probably go as long as he looks strong. Houston’s pitching is so deep that they can afford to switch Javier – who hit 190 in 148 ⅔ innings this year – between rotation and bullpen. The same goes for Luis Garcia, the 2021 playoff champion who came out of the bullpen for five scoreless innings in Houston’s 18-inning clincher in Seattle.

The Yankees? They’re excited to see Cole and Nestor Cortes embark on Games 3 and 4, the crucial ingredients for the series’ comeback. But further? They’ll have to lead Jameson Taillon back in Game 5, one start after knocking out exactly zero Astros to start the series, and hoping Luis Severino can avoid the one big mistake – Bregman calling in an inside fastball – that sank him in Game 2 if they are still alive to see a Game 6.

It’s a steep climb if the Yankees have to win three out of five games. Meanwhile, it looks 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 through, getting nothing from the postseason legends Jose Altuve—now a record 0 for 23 this postseason—and Yordan Alvarez, who produced a harmless single because the Yankees made him very tossed carefully.

Still, the venerable Yuli Gurriel is 9 to 22 in the playoffs. Peña and Chas McCormick made it big in this series. And Bregman, at age 28, has the advantage of being in top physical shape with nearly 300 playoffs in his career.

The Yankees are nowhere near peak performance, but it’s also hard to imagine that they are now unattainable. Judge is not much wrong; he nearly turned Game 2 around with a homerun and was on pitches, much more encouraging results than his 11-strikeout rut for a late breakout in the ALDS.

But the Yankees are in a weird place. Josh Donaldson, 36, has been confused by Astros’ pitching and his presence in the lineup is increasingly being questioned by the New York news media. Meanwhile, promising youngsters Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera are only weeks away from their big league debut. Seeing the numbers 91 and 95 on the diamond may bring back 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 himself exceptionally well in his playoff debut at shortstop. But they don’t peak, and few are in their prime.

You can’t say the same about the Astros.

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