NEW YORK — The playoffs aren’t the time to try to become something you’re not. And that’s mostly why the Houston Astros’ 2-0 advantage over the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series looks even more mountainous, beyond the roughly four out of five times that a team that taking such a lead closes a best-of-seven series.
The Astros have been the best team in the AL since July, snatching that title from the Yankees en route to 106 wins while New York stopped and won “only” 99. And the fortunes of the two clubs in second period were on display as the Astros won both games in Houston, by scores of 4-2 and 3-2 that partly belie Houston’s level of control.
As the series moves to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 on Saturday night (5:07 a.m. ET, TBS), a look at three reasons the Astros maintain a significant advantage in this ALCS:
Why does it look like the Astros are in the driving seat, even though they barely outscore the Yankees 7-4 overall?
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Well, the bigger tale is the 30 strikeouts by Yankees batters versus just eight by Houston, and that difference is reflected in the clubs’ DNA.
Not that the Bronx Bombers, mind you, are a whine-and-bail team led by slugger Aaron Judge, who set a record 62 home runs. Still, their 1,391 strikeouts in the regular season put them 18th in the majors in contact, while their .241 batting average ranks in the middle of the AL and majors.
And which teams have hit the least?
At the top of the list are the Cleveland Guardians, a team inferior in talent to the Yankees who nevertheless forced them into two games of the AL Division Win-or-go-home series. And they are followed by the Astros.
“It’s mostly who they are, but it has a lot to do with sheer determination and enjoying the competition,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of his team’s contact skills ahead of Game 2. Our staff insist on being tough and putting the ball in play. If you put the ball in play, you have a chance. If you don’t put the ball in play, you have no chance.
“You put the ball in play, especially these days when a lot of guys play out of position on some teams because they rely on strikeout, defense isn’t as important if you rely on strikeout But the guy on the other team, he has to catch it, and then he has to throw it, and then someone on the other end has to catch it too, so there’s a possibility of three mistakes putting the ball in play.
His own pitcher, Framber Valdez, later proved that point when he fielded an inoffensive hitter from Yankees’ Giancarlo Stanton, then dropped the ball, slid and pitched wildly, credited with two errors on the play.
As if to prove baseball’s goal in the playoffs, the Stanton batter drove in two unearned runs, the only time New York has scored in Game 2.
Afterwards, Stanton noted that the Yankees could stand to shorten a bit, put the ball in play, put more pressure on the Astros. Manager Aaron Boone echoed that theme in a press conference on Friday’s day off, both urging his team and, in a sense, lamenting what they don’t have.
“Elite contact skills are a valuable thing,” says Boone. “I wish everyone was .300 hitting and 30 homeruns guys. That’s what you’re chasing, you’re chasing a perfect and excellent attack. And since we struggled to put the ball in play consistently in those first two games, one thing yesterday was that when we needed the ball in play, that’s what got us our two points. . So it was at least encouraging.
“Now we have to find a way against a great pitching staff. I still think it’s really important that we focus on controlling the sweetspot because it’s always important to make really good swing decisions. It’s really important in the playoffs because when you start chasing, you start leaving the strike zone against elite pitchers and you get in trouble.
Yet what Boone wants, Baker already has. Rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña has been a revelation this postseason, with four hits in eight at-bats this ALCS and with three hits that preceded Yordan Alvarez’s go-ahead or home runs (twice) in the ALDS and the three winners of Alex Bregman. -run blast in Game 2. Catcher and No. 9 batter Martin Maldonado reached base four times in six plate appearances; Yankees receivers Kyle Higashioka and Jose Trevino struck out five for eight at bat.
These are roster injuries the Yankees probably can’t sort out overnight.
NLCS: Yankees in ALCS big hole with ugly offense: ‘We have to score’
STRUGGLING: No swing for the Yankees, 30 strikeouts in two games
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Prior to the start of the ALCS, Boone strongly hinted that ace Gerrit Cole would start Game 7 with three days off; Baker indicated, more or less, that the Astros would be worried about Game 7 if Game 7 ever came around, a point he reiterated on Friday. It has as much to do with contestants to cast on a short rest as it does with wanting to end the streak early. Game 1 starter Justin Verlander (calf) and Game 4 starter Lance McCullers Jr. (flexor tendon recovery) are still a little soft, and no day off between Games 5 and 6 limits multiple options.
McCullers’ status was complicated when his elbow took a bop from a teammate dragging a bottle of champagne through the haze of the Astros’ ALDS celebration in Seattle, necessitating a bullpen session on Friday that turned out to be OK.
So the Astros in Game 3 will have to start…the guy who went seven hitless innings against the Yankees in June.
Cristian Javier is ostensibly throwing some sort of bullpen game for the Astros, but the reality is he’ll probably go as long as he looks strong. Houston’s throwing depth is such that they can afford to swing Javier — who struck out 190 in 148 ⅔ innings this year — between the rotation and the bullpen. Same with Luis Garcia, the 2021 playoff stalwart who came out of the bullpen for five scoreless innings in Houston’s 18-inning clincher at Seattle.
The Yankees? They’re excited to have Cole and Nestor Cortes start Games 3 and 4, the crucial ingredients for a series comeback. But beyond that? They’ll have to fire Jameson Taillon in Game 5, a start after hitting exactly zero Astros to start the series, and hope Luis Severino can avoid the one big mistake – Bregman spinning on an inside fastball – that sank him in the game 2 if they are alive to see a game 6.
It’s a steep climb when 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 home getting nothing from playoff legends Jose Altuve — now an 0-for-23 record this postseason — and Yordan Alvarez, who produced a harmless single as the Yankees threw it very carefully.
Still, the venerable Yuli Gurriel is 9 for 22 in the playoffs. Peña and Chas McCormick pulled off this series. And Bregman, at 28, has the advantage of being at his physical peak with nearly 300 career playoff appearances under his belt.
The Yankees are far from having the best performance, but it’s also hard to imagine they’re unwatched now. The judge is not far away; he nearly overturned Game 2 with a home run and was on pitches, results far more encouraging than his rut of 11 strikeouts before a late breakout in the ALDS.
But the Yankees are in a funny place. Josh Donaldson, 36, was baffled by Astros’ pitch and his presence in the line-up increasingly questioned by New York media. Meanwhile, promising youngsters Oswald Peraza and Oswaldo Cabrera are just weeks away from making their major league debuts. Seeing the numbers 91 and 95 on the diamond might conjure up memories of Tampa in March, not the Bronx in October.
That’s not to say they and the other Yankees can’t turn the tide at home plate, and Peraza showed very well in his playoff debut at shortstop. But they do not reach their peak and few are at their peak.
You can’t say the same for the Astros.
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