The New York Yankees find themselves in a hole in the ALCS, but a simple method can help avoid a season-ending series loss.
Entering the American League Championships series, the New York Yankees knew what they were getting in the Houston Astros.
It clearly starts with the lineup. Led by MVP candidate Jose Altuve, the Houston offense led the Majors this season in runs (896), hits (1581), doubles (346), batting average (.282), on-base percentage (.346), slugging percentage (.478) and OPS (.823) while striking out fewer than any other club (1087).
They also carried this play into the championship series, as they defeated Chris Sale of the Boston Red Sox by scoring seven earned runs off the Cy Young candidate and averaged six runs per game in the series. For context, this came against a staff that finished the regular season with the fourth-best overall ERA (3.73) in the Majors.
While quieting the offense is a major key for the Yankees’ rotation that held Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez to a combined 4-for-45 (.089) with 16 strikeouts in the ALDS, the true task is matching that offensive output. That, in itself, is easier said than done.
Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander have become a dangerous one-two punch at the front of Houston’s rotation. Following them are Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock, and Lance McCullers Jr. Not as intimidating as the two-headed monster of Keuchel and Verlander, but are nonetheless part of a unit finished with the sixth-highest rotation WAR (15.2) in the Major Leagues in 2017.
Runs will continue to be a hot commodity against this rotation. Take the first two games as an example: Keuchel held the Yankees scoreless through seven in Game 1 with 10 strikeouts while Verlander fanned 13 in nine innings in Game 2. The two outings marked the 19th and 20th time a starting pitcher struck out at least 10 Yankees’ hitters in the postseason.
PURE DOMINATION by Justin Verlander. What a performance.
9IP 5H 1ER 1BB 13K, 124 pitches pic.twitter.com/RA18zgwmeu
— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 14, 2017
How do they overcome this dominance from this Houston rotation? They must follow the leader. Meaning, take some notes from Brett Gardner‘s at-bats.
The longest-tenured Yankee kicked off Saturday’s matchup with an eight-pitch at-bat which included five fouls balls. In his next at-bat in the third, Gardner worked a seven-pitch at-bat featuring two spoiled pitches before smacking a double down the right-field line.
In two plate appearances, Gardner worked 15 pitches off Justin Verlander, who kept the rest of the Yankees’ lineup in check.
— MLB Replay (@MLBReplays) October 14, 2017
As the series shifts to the Bronx, where the Yankees are undefeated this postseason, there’s a prime opportunity to execute this gameplan against weaker starters.
Houston’s gameplan seems to be to start Morton in Game 3 and Peacock in Game 4. Both those starters combined for a 27-9 record and a 3.33 ERA in 278.2 innings pitched. They aren’t exactly on the level of Kuechel or Verlander, but they are a quality back-end rotation tandem.
If the Yankees want any chance of overcoming a 2-0 deficit in this series, the lineup must have better composure and work the count on Astros’ pitching in order to take advantage of a weak middle-relief unit.
Francisco Liriano is the only left-handed pitcher in the bullpen while Chris Devenski has settled into a matchup role and has been susceptible to right-handed hitting this season. Relievers Luke Gregerson, Will Harris, Collin McHugh and Joe Musgrove are a shaky bridge leading up to closer Ken Giles, who they scratched one run off of in the series-opener.
If they can execute that, AJ Hinch will have no choice but to show some desperation, as he did in the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox.
In Game 4, he brought in Justin Verlander, who was scheduled to start in a potentially decisive Game 5. That gave a crystal clear understanding of where the bullpen is at right now. In Game 3, the foursome of Liriano, McCullers Jr., Devenski, and Musgrove combined for seven earned runs on nine hits and two walks in what ended up being a 10-3 trainwreck of a loss in Boston.
The unit is vulnerable and patience from top-to-bottom of the lineup can help the Yankees exploit Houston’s biggest weakness en route to yet another series comeback.