Aaron Judge, Justin Verlander, Jose Altuve
ESNY Graphic, Getty Images, AP Photo

If the New York Yankees want to play better against the Houston Astros, they need to start respecting them more like a real, true rival team.

Josh Benjamin

I‘ve got news for you, New York Yankees fans: The Houston Astros aren’t going anywhere unless the attitudes change on the Bombers side.

It’s a hard truth everyone has avoided for four years. Sure, the Astros are a strong team, but so what? They just got hot at the right time. They also ran away with their division, so why even bother with them?

News flash, ladies and gentlemen: The Yankees don’t respect the Astros the way they should. This is a team that not only eliminated New York from the playoffs and advanced to the World Series on Saturday but also won a championship in 2017.

New York, meanwhile, has learned this lesson the hard way. GM Brian Cashman avoided trading for Justin Verlander in 2017 in the midst of a down year for the big righty. The same winter, he balked at trading prospects for Gerrit Cole. Of course, Houston was more than happy to part with top prospects for the former No. 1 pick.

Fast forward to today, and the Yankees’ passiveness has cost them. Cole and Verlander may very well share AL Cy Young Award honors this year on top of winning a World Series ring. Later, Cole may set records as he enters free agency.

The point is for having faced each other in the ALCS two of the last three years, the Yankees-Astros rivalry isn’t what it should be. If New York has any hopes of winning a 28th World Series title in the near future, this must change next year.

What is a rivalry?

Not all baseball rivalries are alike. Some are simply from having faced each other in the postseason enough times. Others are regional or divisional.

Take the Yankees’ rivalry with the Boston Red Sox, for example. It arguably came to be once Babe Ruth was traded to New York in late 1919, setting the Yankees up for decades of future success.

Except, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry didn’t really boil over until over 50 years later in 1973. Beloved catcher Thurman Munson tackled popular Boston catcher Carlton Fisk in a game between both teams, sparking a brawl.

Mind you, this also took place when the Yankees were in the middle of a decade-long rough stretch while Boston was a regular playoff contender. Three years later, with New York back to its winning ways, another nasty brawl took place and the rest is history. Since then, Yankees-Red Sox games have always had a certain intensity to them regardless of where either team is in the standings.

Long story short, these teams don’t like each other and aren’t afraid to show it.

The Yankees need to start treating the Houston Astros the same way if they want to rule the American League again.

Make Houston get down in the mud

Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean the Yankees should automatically engage in on-field violence whenever they play the Astros. Making every game like the Paul Newman classic Slap Shot is far from what should be done.

However, there are other ways. Just look at other Yankees-Red Sox incidents, namely Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS. This is when Pedro Martinez threw coach Don Zimmer to the ground in a bench-clearing fracas. And how did this start? It all began when both teams’ pitchers threw more inside than some hitters would have liked.

Keep in mind, Boston did exactly this in 2018 when Tyler Austin sliding hard led to a full-out brawl later in the game. They didn’t appreciate Austin’s actions, so they pitched inside when he came to bat next. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Tampa Bay Rays are also a prime example of how to handle the Astros in the future. Just look at when CC Sabathia got himself ejected by throwing at a Rays hitter. It was his (and the Yankees’, by extension) way of saying, “You’re our rival and we aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty when playing you.”

Sure enough, the fire was there again this year when Sabathia and Avisail Garcia got into a verbal tiff.

The Yankees know how to deal with these teams. They pitch inside, jaw at other players, and play a little harder because beating Boston and Tampa Bay means gaining ground in the AL East.

Why should the Houston Astros be any different?

But why Houston?

The fact of the matter is the Houston Astros are not only highly confident, but the players know how to win together. Be it sign stealing, strong communication as a whole, or overall skill, Houston is a cohesive unit and it shows. Even when trailing in a game or clinging to a lead, the Astros never blink.

The Yankees’ job in 2020, thus, is to make them blink. Sitting back and waiting for an Astros pitcher to make a mistake won’t do. Rather, New York needs to get inside Houston’s head and not just bank on being better on the field.

This means anything from trash talking to pitching inside, to maybe staring down Verlander if he pitches a bit inside. It could mean getting in a Houston baserunner’s face if they slide hard into a base. This isn’t to say start a fight, but definitely up the adrenaline on both sides.

And why should the Yankees devote so much energy to psyching out an AL West team? Simple. The Red Sox front office’s first priority this winter is to clean up payroll, which could mean blowing up the team entirely. Boston, though still the Yankees’ fiercest rival, isn’t going to be a threat for a bit.

Houston, meanwhile, has the strongest pieces of its core under contract for a few years. Not only that but in his book Inside the Empire, longtime beat writer Bob Klapisch calls Houston’s Minute Maid Park “loud as a jet propulsion lab.”

This means turning trips to Houston into not just ballgames, but ballgames with a cage fight vibe. New York looked flat against the Astros in all but one game of the ALCS. In 2020, something must change.

Final thoughts

Furthermore, the Astros aren’t the first non-divisional rival the Yankees have had to handle differently. The Kansas City Royals were a regular playoff opponent in the 1970s, and third baseman Graig Nettles even tangled with Hall of Famer George Brett in one playoff series.

Speaking of Brett, how about the infamous Pine Tar Game? Granted, it wasn’t a playoff series, but the Royals were a legit rival. Just those small manipulations which slow down a game and rattle the other team can do wonders, no matter how fleeting in the moment.

There is indeed a playbook the Yankees can follow to best the Astros in the future. It just requires relying less on overall performance and engaging in some mental chess.

The point is the Houston Astros aren’t going anywhere and have established themselves as the team to beat in the American League. The New York Yankees, meanwhile, have two choices.

They can either brush off the loss and hope for better luck and health next year or start treating the Astros as what they truly are: a threat.

Otherwise, New York could soon find itself to always be a baseball bridesmaid, but never a more than deserving baseball bride.


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