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ALCS Notebook: Yankees vs. Astros

   10-20-2017

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Big player

Jose Altuve endured the Astros' 106-loss season in 2011, another 107 losses in 2012 and 111 more in 2013, so it was fitting that his home run off Tommy Kahnle sparked the three-run, fifth-inning outburst that helped put the franchise in the World Series for the first time since 2009. It was the fifth home run of the postseason for the 5-foot-5 Altuve, who led the AL in batting (.346 ) , hits (204 ) and heart during the regular season. The 27-year-old Venezuelan is now batting .400 with .500 on-base average in the postseason. “We go as Altuve goes,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “We've been able to build a team around him that has multiple options; that maybe somebody else could pick up the slack if he decides not to get a hit for some reason. But there's no doubt that when he has good games, it's hard to beat the Astros.”

 

Baby Bombers gain experience

They weren't supposed to be this good … yet. But the mostly Baby Bombers had other ideas. They came together as a team in 2017 and served notice that they will need to be reckoned with for years to come. Now, they are battle-tested in the postseason, too. The close-knit, loose bunch of young players were led by Aaron Judge, who didn't just have a rookie-of-the-year type season, he led the American League with 52 homers and became a contender for the MVP Award as well as a finalist for the 2017 Players Choice Award as the AL's Outstanding Player. Catcher Gary Sanchez hit 33 homers in his second season. Luis Severino went 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA to become the club's ace and one of the game's elite pitchers. Shortstop Didi Gregorious had his best season, batting .286 and banging 25 home runs. Greg Bird retuned from injury to play well, outfielder Aaron Hicks and reliever Chad Green emerged as stars and they added talented young pitchers Sonny Gray and Tommy Kahnle. All of those players are 27 or younger and they have blue-chip prospects like Gleybar Torres, Clint Frazier, Justus Sheffield and Chance Adams in the pipeline. But after their defeat by the Astros in Game 7 of the ALCS, prospects for a bright future weren't quite enough to console the players who comprise the team's young nucleus. Nobody told them they couldn't do it this year. “It's tough,” Judge told Newsday. “We didn't get the job done. That's about it.”

The Throw

Alex Bregman denied the Yankees an opportunity to tie the pennant-deciding game in the top of the fifth inning by charging a ball that Todd Frazier topped between third and the mound and feathering a perfect throw into catcher Brian McCann's waiting glove. “I knew if it wasn't a missile, or a ball I could turn two on, I was going to the plate immediately,” Bregman told USA Today. “It was huge. It gave us some momentum.”  There was one out with runners on first and third, so the young third baseman's decision would have been questioned if the throw didn't hit McCann's glove two inches off the ground and about a foot in front of Greg Bird's oncoming spikes. But the throw was perfect, the Yankees didn't score and didn't have a big inning and turn the game around. Instead, Charlie Morton got Chase Headley on a grounder and got out of the only jam he would face in pitching five scoreless innings and the Astros added three more runs in the bottom of the inning. “I knew it had to be bang-bang,” said McCann, who held on despite getting simultaneously spiked by Bird's slide. “It had to be perfect, and he put the ball right on the money. I didn't even have to move my glove. I couldn't believe, one, that I caught it, and two, that it stayed in my glove.”

The Curve

The Yankees couldn't touch Lance McCullers Jr.'s signature curveball. After coming into the 4-0 game in relief of Charlie Morton in the top of the sixth, the 24-year-old gave up a leadoff single but held New York hitless the rest of the way to get his first major-league save. Forty-one of his 54 pitches were curveballs, all six of his strikeouts came on curveballs that the Yankees swung and missed and he finished the game with 24 straight curveballs.  "I know that he has a lot of confidence in that pitch," catcher Brian McCann told MLB.com "He had the feel for it. Once he had that feel for it, that was it. It's one of the best pitches in baseball. It's one of the best pitches you're going to see. That pitch and his competitiveness, he was finishing that up." On Friday night, manager A.J. Hinch called McCullers to tell him he would follow Morton and wanted him to close out the game. “You know, he really does love the moment,” Hinch said afterward. “He rises to the moment and has as good a killer instinct as you would ask out of a pitcher. Putting him in the game was our plan all along … I didn't know he was going to be as dominant and go as long as he did on three days' rest. His killer instincts, his feel for the moment is pretty impressive.”

American League Championship Series, Game 7
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 21, 2017

LCS Game 7 history

Between 1969 and 1984 the League Championship Series were decided in best of five formats; and since 1985, when they were extended to the best of seven games, 15 series have gone the limit – six in the AL and nine in the NL.  The last ALCS to go the distance was 2008, when Matt Garza pitched the Tampa Bay Rays to a 3-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox.  The Yankees have played in an ALCS seventh game twice, both against the Red Sox in back-to-back seasons, 2003 (W) and 2004 (L).  The Astros appeared in their lone LCS game seven in 2004, when they were in the National League.   They lost to the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-2, and it was the last time both LCS went seven games.  Combined, ALCS and NLCS seventh games have been won by the home team in 10 out of the 15 match-ups, and only one (2003 NYY/BOS) has ended in extra innings.  Game seven winners have outscored the losers by a whopping, combined score of 104-25 for an average score of 7 – 2 (6.9 -1.6).

In Justin, the Astros trust

The Astros players lobbied hard for that one player who could help make a difference in the postseason and the front office heard them. There was no bigger move at the deadline then Justin Verlander waiving his no-trade clause after 12-plus seasons with the Tigers and agreeing to join the Astros, and his new teammates are appreciative of their new teammate's effort and ability. “I literally love him,” said José Altuve, who is a finalist for the 2017 Players Choice Award as Player of the Year. Dallas Keuchel, himself one of the game's elite pitchers, knows as well as anyone what it takes. “He's always in attack mode. Especially here in the playoffs,” he said. “He's throwing 70, 80 percent strikes. And they're quality pitches, too. When you couple that together, it just puts the hitter back on his heels every at-bat.” In his two ALCS wins, Verlander, 34, has struck out 21, walked two and allowed one run in 16 innings.  “To watch those two performances … That's rare. And he's special. He's one of the greatest pitchers of our generation.”

Slump buster Brian

Brian McCann, who was in the biggest slump of all, was the guy who got Houston's offense going. The Astros were baseball's best offensive team this season, leading the majors with 896 runs and a .286 team average, but they were just 22-for-50 (.147) going into Game 6. McCann, who caught three seasons for the Yankees before waiving his no-trade clause last November to allow his trade to the Astros, was struggling mightily, going 0-for-11 in the ALCS, 0-for-20 in the postseason and had just two hits in his last 44 at-bats, but he could pick no better time than the fifth inning of Game 6 with two runners on base to turn on a 98-mph fastball from Yankees starter Luis Severino and hit a one-hop double over the fence to score the Astros' first run. “I've been getting pitched tough all series and I got a pitch out over the plate and was able to put a really good swing on it,'' McCann said. “We needed it. We were just waiting for one big hit, and I think that was it.” The run was the first of seven, more than enough on a night when Justin Verlander was pitching and just enough for the Astros hitters to feel good about themselves going into Game 7. “Obviously we've been waiting for the big hit for a couple of games,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “And no better time than for McCann to have a really good at-bat battle, get a pitch he could drive, and then obviously break things open.”

Big Shoulders

There is no pitcher the Yankees players would rather have on the mound for them in the deciding Game 7 of the American League Championship Series than big-game veteran CC Sabathia, who pitched six scoreless innings in Game 3 and is having a renaissance season. It's been 10 years since his Cy Young Award and eight since he was named MVP of the 2009 ALCS, but the big left-hander and clubhouse leader went 14-5 with a 3.65 ERA in his 17th season. In the course of these past 17 years, Sabathia has won 237 games, gone to six All-Star Games and won 10 more games over 22 postseason appearances and 21 starts – the kind of experience that inspires confidence in the Yankees' young clubhouse. “He's got presence, man,'' third baseman Todd Frazier said. “He's going to come out and go after them, and you feel good about him out there. The older he's gotten, the craftier he's gotten.” When he lumbered into the interview room, Sabathia gave nobody reason to believe he had the slightest bit of trepidation going into what will be his first Game 7 start. “"We'll come out and play a great game and win,” he said. That confidence is warranted. Sabathia is 10-0 following Yankees losses this season after his Game 3 win and has a 2.30 ERA over his three starts this postseason.

Crowded ‘Stros bullpen for Game 7

The Astros will be quick to the bullpen, if necessary, in Game 7 with all of their pitchers making themselves available, except for Justin Verlander, who didn't exactly rule himself out, either. Charlie Morton, who gave up seven runs in 3 2/3 innings in the Astros' Game 3 loss, wasn't exactly clobbered by the Yankees. Among the six hits he allowed were three infield singles and a bloop single to center field. But everyone will be ready. The availability of starters Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel could prove crucial. “No pitcher is going to be in the dugout. They're all going to be in the bullpen -- myself included," said Keuchel, who started Games 1 and 5.  "If things get crazy, I'm your man. I'm your man before things get crazy, hopefully."

American League Championship Series, Game 6 
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 20, 2017

 

Severino looks to pitch Yankees to Series

After being removed because of an injury scare in his Game 2 start, Luis Severino will again start for the Yankees, who are looking to advance to their 41st World Series with a Game 6 win. Don't worry, the right-hander is ready. “I feel strong,” Severino said on Thursday. “My bullpen yesterday was great [in Game 2]. My change-up was good. My fastball was great. I have to say that I feel great right now.” Severino is looking to become the second-youngest Yankees' starter to pitch New York to the World Series. In clinching games, only 22-year-old Dave Righetti, who won Game 3 of the 1981 ALCS, was younger than the 23-year-old Severino. “The big thing is getting through the first inning and not being too hyped up,” manager and former Yankee catcher Joe Girardi said. “You have to pitch with your brain, not your arm. Because you have to be smart and you can't try to overpower through situations, because this team will turn around fastball. So he has to locate and change speeds.”

For starters

Through five games, Yankees' starting pitchers have shut down the regular season's most-potent offense. The combination of Masahiro Tanaka, Severino, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray has limited the Astros to a .123 batting average (13 for 106). The staff has pitched to a 1.29 earned run average through 28 innings, while the group has amassed 20 strikeouts.

The verdict is in on Judge

For a guy who didn't know if he would start the season in New York with the major league club or Scranton with the Triple-A RailRiders, Aaron Judge silenced his critics with one of the most electric rookie seasons ever. In the postseason, Judge has picked up the pace after going 1 for 20 against Cleveland in the ALDS. In the Championship Series, the 6-foot-7 Judge has hit .313 with four runs scored, two home runs and six RBIs. His solo home run in Game 4 – when the Astros were seemingly in control, leading 4-0 – ignited the Yankees' comeback. After striking out 16 times in the ALDS, Judge has cut that number in half with only eight in five ALCS games. 

Confident ‘Stros

Facing elimination in the ALCS after losing three straight games in New York, the Astros looked at their task as winning two straight games at home, something they did regularly all season on their way to winning 101 games and taking first place in the AL West during the regular season. “We've played extremely well all season long and nothing's gonna change,” catcher Brian McCann said. “We'll be ready. We'll regroup. We'll turn the page.” To do that, the Astros will need to reignite their offense. The Astros were the best offensive team in baseball this season, leading the majors with 896 runs and a .286 team average, but they're just 22-for-50 (.147) in the series and face the Yankees' ace, Luis Severino, in Game 6. Outfielder George Springer was happy to return to Houston and have Thursday to regroup. “Having a bit of a mental break will help us all,” Springer said. “It's been a hard fought five games and that's a good team over there. Any day off at this point in time will help anybody. I don't expect us to quit. That's for sure.“  Shortstop Carlos Correa wasn't about to hit the panic button. “We go home, and hopefully wake up and score some runs. .We know we have a great team. We've got to go out there and focus, and show off why we're one of the best teams in the league.”

 

Big-game Justin

Justin Verlander knows all of the achievements over his 13-year career don't guarantee he's going to pitch well in Game 6. “I can draw from my success in past situations, but it means nothing,” the right-hander told the media. “I think that's why we as athletes, you get nervous, anxious -- all those feelings -- because it's the fear of the unknown. I don't know if I'll be as sharp as I was last time or the last time I pitched in a clinching game or a possible season ending. You just don't know, and that's what's fun about this.” Verlander's former manager with the Tigers, Jim Leyland, saw the old-school right-hander pitch enough crucial postseason games to make an educated guess, though. “In games like that, he's not gonna be denied,” Leyland told the New York Post. “This is a guy who's great all year long, but when he's pitching for the biggest stakes, he seems to get even better and he makes sure he's on top of his game. You're gonna see him at his best.” Verlander, now 34, has a 1.48 ERA in four elimination games with his only loss coming as a rookie in the 2006 World Series against the Cardinals.

Lean on me

The visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium was silent and the Astros' mood somber when Carlos Beltran walked in after New York had won Game 5, 5-0, to complete a sweep at home and take control of the AL Championship Series, so the 20-year veteran and catcher Brian McCann gathered the team together for a little talk before the return flight to Houston. “The message was: We can't feel sorry for ourselves,” Beltran said. “Now we have to go home and try and do what they did here. That's the mentality. I told them that this wasn't gonna be easy.” Beltran, who is just 1-for-12 in the ALCS, has felt the sting of postseason elimination six times with five different teams. “Being in this situation before, you've seen a lot of baseball. A lot of younger guys sometimes they get tendencies of getting down. … Sometimes you see people acting different than the way they act in the regular season, and I just don't want people to feel sorry about themselves.”


 

American League Championship Series, Workout Day
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 19, 2017

Home sweet home

The Yankees ran their home postseason record to 6-0 after dismantling Houston ace Dallas Keuchel in Game 5 on Wednesday. For the three games at Yankee Stadium, Yankees' pitchers limited the Astros to five runs and a .120 batting average (11 for 92) in 27 innings of baseball. It's definitely a surprise given the Astros entered the postseason as the majors' top run scoring offense with 896 runs in the regular season. “There weren't a lot rooting for us here,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch said after Game 5. “I think getting home will be good for us. We'll have an off day tomorrow, and then get to play in front of our home crowd. Every home team has won this series, if that trend continues, we'll be in pretty good shape.” Houston has held serve at home all postseason, going 4-0 at Minute Maid Park. Game 6 will be Friday at 8 p.m. ET. These two teams aren't the only ones that have protected their home field. The Dodgers are 4-0 at home in the postseason, as well. What a difference a little home cooking can make.

Home sweet home, Part II

Chase Headley is hitting like he's very comfortable at his home park. The veteran third baseman and designated hitter is 0-for-10 on the road in the postseason, compared to 5-for-13 (.385) at Yankee Stadium.

New York's ‘Hiro

For the third time since 2015, it was Masahiro Tanaka versus Dallas Keuchel in the postseason. In the two previous meetings, Keuchel had stifled Yankees' batters, allowing just seven hits over 13 innings without giving up a run. To use the cliché, the third time's a charm. On Wednesday, New York teed off for seven hits, four runs and chased Keuchel after 4 2/3 innings. Tanaka put together arguably his most complete start of his postseason career, giving the Yankees seven innings of three-hit, no-run baseball, while also giving most of the Yankees' bullpen the day off. In his third start of the 2017 postseason, Tanaka continued his dominance, dropping his postseason ERA to 0.90. In his three starts, he has allowed two runs over 20 innings and struck out 18, compared to just three walks. Tanaka extended his scoreless innings streak at Yankee Stadium to 22 innings, dating back to Sept. 14.

Judging Aaron's postseason production

All Rise for Aaron Judge, at least when runners are on base. Judge is hitting .389 with two home runs and nine RBIs with runners on base in the postseason, and is a blistering .429 with one home run and five RBIs with two outs and runners in scoring position.

Slumping ‘stros

Skipping batting practice didn't do the trick. The Astros were perhaps baseball's best offensive club during the regular season, leading the majors with 896 runs and a .286 team batting average, but the Yankees have been able to keep them in check through the first five games of the ALCS. After getting just four hits in Game 5, their third of three straight losses at Yankee Stadium, the Astros are 22-for-150 (.147) for the series. They haven't had a home run since Carlos Correa's in Game 2. As always, the Yankees' deep and talented pitching probably has had a lot to do with it, but the Astros, now down 3-2 in the series, tried calling off batting practice before Game 5 as a way to jumpstart the team.  “We're trying to do too much in the box,” right fielder Josh Reddick told the New York Daily News. “Just keep the line moving, we've been so great at that all year just chaining together hits, (we need to) quit trying to do everything ourselves.” Maybe getting out of New York and having a day off will help? . “I believe we're one good game (from) coming out of it,” manager AJ Hinch said.

Noise factor

The two finalists in the race to represent the American League in the World Series both have loud, demonstrative crowds. With the Yankees in their first sustained postseason run since 2012, exuberant crowds of nearly 50,000 shook not just Yankee Stadium when they roared but got a little notice in the Astros' clubhouse, too. “New York is no joke. Yankee Stadium is a tough place to play,” said defeated Ace ace Dallas Keuchel, who added, “it was rocking, but it's going to be rocking Friday for us.” Minute Maid Park, with its seas of orange-dressed and demonstrative fans, can be imposing for visitors, especially with the roof closed.


 

American League Championship Series, Game 5
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 18, 2017

 

Keuchel, Verlander inspire confidence

There was a limit to the Astros' despondency following their second straight ALCS loss at Yankee Stadium, because they have their co-aces pitching the next two games, the same guys who shut down the Bronx Bombers in Games 1 and 2. Houston is 5-0 this postseason in games in which Keuchel and Justin Verlander have pitched (including Verlander's relief appearance in ALDS Game 4 of the AL Division Series). Keuchel, a 29-year-old left-hander, is a finalist for the 2017 Players Choice Award as the AL Outstanding Pitcher after going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.119 WHIP in the regular season.  The 2015 Cy Young Award winner has always had the Yankees' number with a 1.09 ERA in eight career starts, including Game 1 of this series when he struck out 10 and limited the Yankees to four singles and a walk over seven innings. "We're not going to hit the panic button because we've lost two games in a row," shortstop Carlos Correa said. "We've got Keuchel going, so we're going to play behind him and hopefully come up with a win."

All in the Gurriel family

As rookies in the postseason go, Yuli Gurriel  was already an experienced international star by the time he came to the United States in February 2016, so it was no surprise he was the hitter who finally solved Yankees pitching in Game 4 of the ALCS. The 33-year-old first baseman belted a three-run double down the left-field line at Yankee Stadium on a breaking ball from Dave Robertson that got too much of the plate, the kind of mistake good hitters hit. Unfortunately for the Astros, that would turn out to be their biggest offensive moment in the game. Gurriel, who got a five-year contract from the Astros last July, is now hitting .400 (12 for 30) for the postseason with three doubles and a triple. “I think there was some doubt as to what I was going to be able to do here, but I was ready for it,” Gurriel told the Toronto Sun. “All the games I played in Cuba and internationally helped me with the experience of playing here. In terms of intensity, it's the same.” The strong first baseman was considered Cuba's best player and had starred in the Beijing Olympics, a couple World Baseball Classics (2006, 2009) and even played for half a season in Japan. In 2017, his first full season with the Astros, he batted .299 with 18 home runs, 75 RBIs and 43 doubles. It should also be noted he comes from Cuban baseball royalty. His dad, Lourdes Gurriel, was a Cuban superstar in the ‘80s and ‘90s and eventually one of the country's top managers. His younger brother, Lourdes Jr., who defected with him and turns 23 this week, is one of the top prospects in the Blue Jays' system. “We talk every day,” Yuli Gurriel told the newspaper. “Right now he's in the Arizona Fall League and whenever he's done over there, he goes somewhere to watch our games. He's in touch with me and he supports me.”

5-0 at the Stadium

In both the Division and Championship Series, the Yankees have returned to New York facing a 0-2 hole. Twice now, the team has battled back to even the series at two games apiece. Give an assist to the hometown fans for the Yankees' 5-0 postseason record at home, as Yankee Stadium has been rocking. “That ballpark is alive. It was unbelievable,” Aaron Judge said after the come-from-behind Game 4 win. “That stadium was rocking. The fans were going crazy. I didn't know what to do after I touched home plate. I can't describe it. That's why we play this game, for a moment like that.” 

‘Hiro takes the mound

Masahiro Tanaka will make his third start of the postseason in Game 5, and second start of the ALCS. In Game 1, the righty went toe to toe with Dallas Keuchel before giving up two run-scoring singles in the fourth inning. In all, Tanaka gave the Yankees six innings of four-hit, two-run baseball. Tanaka has been in control at home throughout 2017 in 16 starts (3.00 ERA), with an ERA more than three points lower than on the road in 16 starts (6.25 ERA).

Baby Bombers lift Yankees

Through six innings in Game 4, the Yankees were shut down at the plate. Then, Aaron Judge chased Houston starter Lance McCullers with a towering solo shot over the center field fence. “We've been in that situation before, been down a couple of runs, down two, three, four runs, it doesn't matter with our team,” Judge said after the game. That was just the beginning. In the eighth, Judge doubled home a run and Gary Sánchez – who was 0-for-11 in the ALCS – lined a double to put the Yankees up 6-4. “We're going to keep fighting, keep putting out quality at-bats, and that's what we did,” Judge said. Leave it up to the Baby Bombers.

Kahnle delivering in postseason

When the Yankees have needed clutch outs this postseason, Tommy Kahnle has answered the call. He's appeared in five games for New York, and has allowed one hit in eight innings pitched – good for a .043 opponents' batting average. Kahnle has entered the game anywhere from the fifth inning to provide two innings of relief in Game 2 in Houston, to the ninth inning to finish off Game 3 in the ALCS. He'll be fresh for Game 5 on Wednesday night, as the right-handed pitcher did not appear on Tuesday.


 

American League Championship Series, Game 4
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 17, 2017

Video

Lance back to himself

Lance McCullers, the Astros' starter in ALCS Game 3 and the owner of one of the game's best curveballs, believes he's back to being the pitcher he was before back trouble scuttled much of his second half. The 24-year-old right-hander was 7-2 with a 3.05 in 16 starts in the first half. He was the AL Pitcher of the Month in May and he made his first All-Star Game in just his third season. But, limited by lower back pain, he was 0-2 with an 8.23 ERA in six starts in the second half. The reason he's getting the Game 3 start is that McCullers, the 41st overall draft pick coming out of Jesuit High in Tampa in 2012, believes he turned the corner during the three innings he pitched against the Red Sox in ALDS Game 3 when he gave up three hits and left two runners on base. And, more importantly, the club believes in his ability. “I know those two runs came across after I got taken out of the game. But up to that point I just felt like I was in control again,” McCullers said on Monday. “I felt like I was dictating the game on my terms a lot more … I just feel confident with my pitches and my stuff again.” When he's at his best, he's throwing the curveball close to 50 pct. of the time. "He's a really good pitcher,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “He's got really electrifying stuff, some of the best stuff in the big leagues."

Astros bats due for breakout

Lost in Houston's 2-1 ALCS lead and the outstanding back-to-back pitching performances by Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games 1 and 2 is that the Yankees' staff has held the Astros' bats in check ... at least those bats that don't belong to Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. While the middle infield duo is a combined 9 for 23 (.391), their teammates have been a collective 6 for 66 (.091) heading into Game 4 at Yankee Stadium. As a team, the Astros have scored just five runs and are hitting .169 with just three extra-base hits in 89 at-bats. “This isn't the normal Astros lineup we're used to,” Josh Reddick told ESPN's Jerry Crasnick. “Our whole lineup isn't hitting. We relied on Altuve and Correa a little too much in the first two games, and we've just got to come together as a team.”

Sonny forecast for Yankee Stadium

Looking to even up the series at 2-2, the Yankees will send Sonny Gray to the mound for Game 4. Gray, acquired at the July trade deadline from Oakland, will be making his first postseason start at Yankee Stadium. His one start this postseason came on the road in Game 1 at Cleveland. Looking forward to the raucous atmosphere, Gray said he looks forward to the tradition of the Yankee Stadium “roll call,” unique to games in the Bronx. “It's really nice to have that support behind you. It will be fun to pitch a playoff game here,” Gray said on Monday. Squaring off against Houston in Game 4 – a team he's started against nine times – brings familiarity for the right-hander. In 58 1/3 career innings pitched against the Astros, Gray carries a 4-3 career record with a 3.09 ERA.

Bronx Bombers

As a team, the Yankees have been a power-hitting club all year, leading the majors with 241 home runs. But at home, New York has been slugging at a higher clip, blasting 140 home runs in 81 regular-season home games, compared to just 101 on the road. Living and dying by the long ball, the Yankees were 46-20 when hitting one-or-more home runs at home during the regular season, compared to 5-10 when the team didn't record a round-tripper. Aaron Judge, the team's leading home run hitter follows the same progression. He averaged one home run in 8.15 at-bats at home, compared to just one per 14.3 at-bats on the road. Manager Joe Girardi attributed the uptick in home runs at Yankee Stadium to the way his team is built and comfort level. “You're familiar with everything that you do on a daily basis,” Girardi said after Game 3. “You have your routine and you're able to be in your routine. I find that baseball players like routine.” During the postseason, the story has been more of the same, with the club winless (0-2) when not hitting a home run.

The honorable Aaron Judge: presiding over Yankee Stadium

Aaron Judge set records in his rookie season with 33 home runs at Yankee Stadium, the most at home in franchise history. He also broke the MLB's rookie record with 52 home runs. In Game 3, Judge blasted a two-out, three-run home run in the fourth inning to but the game out of reach at 8-0. The home run was Judge's second of the postseason, with both coming in Yankees' wins at home. During the regular season, the club went 31-14 when Judge homered. Besides eye-popping power numbers Judge starred in the field, making a Gold Glove-caliber play in right field by running into the right field wall, which robbed Yuli Gurriel of an extra-base hit. “He'll go through a wall for you,” Todd Frazier said. Literally.

Matching up against McCullers

Lance McCullers Jr. has faced the Yankees three times, holding New York to a .241 team batting average. The Yankees may find their offensive support tonight from their shortstop. Didi Gregorius has hit .625 (5-for-8) with one double off McCullers, while Aaron Judge has gone 2-for-4 with one walk against the right handed pitcher. 

 


 

American League Championship Series, Game 3
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 16, 2017

Old School Justin

Justin Verlander went into full throwback mode in Game 2 of the ALCS, throwing a complete game for the Astros. The veteran right-hander's 124 pitches were the most by a postseason starter since now-teammate Dallas Keuchel threw 124 in the 2015 ALCS against the Royals. His 13 strikeouts were the most since Tim Lincecum shut out the Braves in Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS. It was the first complete postseason game by an Astros starter since Nolan Ryan, his childhood idol, beat the Dodgers in the 1981 NLDS. He threw 71 fastballs, which averaged 96.6 mph, along with 40 sliders, 12 curveballs and two change-ups, according to brooksbaseball.net. “They couldn't hit his slider,” Keuchel told The Athletic. “It was, ‘I'm coming at you. You know it's coming. Everyone in the park knows it's coming. Here it is.'” Manager A.J. Hinch never considered taking him out. “I would have had to rip the ball away from that man if I was going to take him out,” he said.

Plan of attack

Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve took matters into their own hands and provided the Astros and Justin Verlander all the Astros offense they would need in their second straight 2-1 win over the Yankees in Game 2. Correa hit a solo homer and drove in Altuve with a walk-off double in the ninth. Altuve used his speed and got a little help from a missed cut-off man and a short-hop relay throw from Didi Gregorious that catcher Gary Sanchez couldn't handle. It turns out that the infield pair had planned a half-inning earlier to make something happen when they got to bat. “In the last inning when we were warming up, I tell Altuve, ‘We got to do this for the team, we got to come through right now in this inning.' He's like, ‘OK, let's do it.' So he got a base hit and I said, okay, I got to do something here, we talked about it. So 3-2 count, I was just trying to get on top of a fastball and he threw a good fastball to hit and I hit it in the gap.”

Buck stops with backstop

Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez took responsibility for not handling the short-hop relay from shortstop Didi Gregorious that allowed Jose Altuve to score from first with the winning run for the Astros in the ninth inning. “The bottom line is he's going to be out and I dropped the ball,” Sanchez said through an interpreter after the difficult loss. Altuve agreed that he would have been out at the plate. “I saw Gary Sanchez go for the ball way before I touched home plate,” Altuve said. “If he catches the ball, he's got me out, but it's not an easy throw to catch.”

Older, faster Charlie

Charlie Morton, who was scheduled to start Game 3 in New York on Monday night, defied baseball's conventional wisdom this season, throwing harder than ever and winning more than ever at age 33. Morton was 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA and for the first time in his 10-year career  struck out more than a batter per inning. "I think Chuck's been one of the most underrated big league starters this year," fellow starter Dallas Keuchel told the Houston Chronicle. "The increase and uptick in velocity and just the sharpness he's had when he's healthy, I will take him against anybody, honestly. When he comes out tomorrow throwing 95, 97 and that devastating curveball and people are freaking out because he looks so nasty. I've seen it all year and I don't expect any different." Morton attributes the additional velocity to health, better mechanics and just deciding to throw harder.  "My body just feels better," he said. "I just feel stronger. My mechanics feel better. I feel more on time. I have a higher amount of torque. I can let the ball go and it comes out clean." Morton's third career postseason start will be at Yankee Stadium against the team he rooted for while growing up in Trumbull, N.J., and later Redding, Conn. "It will be the biggest game of my career," he said. "In a place I grew up coming as a kid to the old Yankee Stadium.”

CC takes mound in pivotal Game 3 

A familiar sight will greet CC Sabathia at Yankee Stadium, where he is set to start Game 3 for the Yankees on Monday night. His team is in a hole, down 0-2. But the big stage is where the 17-year veteran thrives. “He's been that guy that we've kind of relied on,” manager Joe Girardi said on Sunday. “And you know that the situation hasn't been too big for him.” Sabathia started the pivotal Game 5 in the ALDS against the Indians and went 4 2/3 innings, striking out nine and giving up two runs. In games following a Yankees' loss this season, Sabathia compiled a 9-0 record in 10 starts. Despite the success following a loss, Sabathia said he doesn't change the way he pitches or perceives any start. “Just go out and try to be aggressive in the strike zone, throw strikes and let them swing early in the count and get deeper in the game,” Sabathia said on Sunday. “Nothing different than I always do.” As a Yankee, Sabathia has faced the Astros twice, most recently in July 2016 – a 6 2/3 inning performance, as Sabathia earned the win and gave up just two runs. He is 2-1 with a 4.15 ERA in three career starts against Houston.

Bird's bombs take flight

After leading the Yankees with eight home runs in spring training, Greg Bird figured to be the starter at first base and anchor the middle of the Yankees' lineup starting in the 2017 season. Then, an ankle injury sent him to the disabled list where Bird would miss a majority of the season. It was unknown whether he would return at all during the season, let alone make a potential postseason roster. Now, the 24-year-old Bird has slugged three home runs this postseason – the third Yankees' player ever, 25 years or younger to accomplish the feat, joining only Mickie Mantle (1956) and Charlie Keller (1939).  He scored the Yankees' sole run in Game 1 of the ALCS with a solo blast in the ninth inning. As the series shifts back to New York and the short porches of Yankee Stadium, the left-handed hitting Bird could be a difference maker. He's hit 13 of his 20 career home runs at home.


 

American League Championship Series, Game 2
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 14, 2017

The not-so-secret weapon

Marwin González is no longer the Astros' secret weapon, not after gunning down Greg Bird at the plate in the fifth inning of Game 1. The 28-year-old from Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela, charged Aaron Judge's line single to left field like an infielder, got it on its second bounce and uncorked a one-hop throw to catcher Brian McCann that was clocked at 97.4 mph to get Bird, who had been running on the 3-2, two-out pitch. “It was one of the plays of the game,” McCann said. “We're also talking about a guy whose natural position is third base, second base, shortstop, the infield. He's been invaluable for this team giving guys days off. During the course of the season he can play anywhere. He's been one of the MVPs of this team.” Gonzalez, primarily a shortstop in the minors, has played every position except pitcher and catcher for the Astros and as a switch hitter can impact a game from either batter's box, too. He batted .303 with 23 homers and 90 RBIs during the regular season. But it was his shortstop's arm that helped his team in Game 1. “It was their best moment of the game,” Gonzalez said. “I just tried to get to the ball as fast as I could. I knew the only play would be at home plate. If they scored there, it would have changed the energy of the game.”

Here to win

There's no ambiguity about it. Justin Verlander agreed to leave the Tigers after 12-plus seasons and join the Astros moments before the July 31 trade deadline because he wanted another chance to win a World Series. That's why Astros' ace Dallas Keuchel called him in an attempt to help close the deal that night and told him, “You won't regret it.” The 34-year-old right hander has pitched like a man on a mission ever since. He was 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA for Houston in August and September and is 2-0 with a 3.12 ERA over 8 1/3 innings in the postseason so far. The six-time all-star and former Cy Young Award winner now takes his old-school approach into his ALCS Game 2 start. “I go out there until the manager takes the ball out of my hand.”

Respect for Severino

Twenty-three-year-old Luis Severino doesn't have nearly the experience of his Game 2 opponent, Justin Verlander, but the Dominican right-hander emerged as the Yankees' most feared starter this year with his power repertoire. He was 14-6 with a 2.98 ERA and 230 strikeouts over 193 1/3 innings during the regular season. In the postseason, he followed a rough start in the Wild Card game with a solid seven-inning performance against Cleveland in Game 4 of the Division Series. The Astros scored three runs in 2 1/3 innings against Severino on May 14 in New York and six in 5 1/3 in Houston on July 2, but the Astros' hitters respect his stuff. “It's not easy to face Severino,” MVP candidate Jose Altuve said. “He throws 100 miles per hour and he has a very hard slider. You got to go out there and try to do everything you can to hit it, because like I said, you're going to see 100 coming out of his hand and if you try to cheat, maybe he's going to throw you a slider.”

American League Championship Series, Game 1 
New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros
Oct. 13, 2017

 

Setting the stage 

The American League Championship Series features the two most high-powered offensive clubs in the majors in 2017. The Astros led baseball with 896 runs and the Yankees were second with 858.  The Yankees out-homered the Astros, 241-238, during the regular season. Game 1 is scheduled for tonight (Friday at 8:08 p.m. ET) at Minute Maid Park, and Game 2 will be played there Saturday at 4:08 p.m. ET.    The best-of-seven series moves to Yankee Stadium for Game 3 on Monday, Game 4 on Tuesday and Game 5 on Wednesday, if necessary. The Astros would host Games 6 and 7, if necessary, back at Minute Maid Park. All of the ALCS games will be televised by FS1 or FOX. The two teams have faced off once before in the postseason, with the Astros prevailing in the winner-take-all AL Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium in 2015, 3-0. It is the Yankees' first League Championship Series since 2012, while Houston is playing in their first ALCS since the club flipped from the National League in 2013. The Astros last played in the LCS in 2005, advancing to the World Series by defeating the Cardinals. 

Yes in Didi!  

After the 2014 season, much was made of replacing the model Yankees' shortstop, Derek Jeter. Tabloids and talk radio heads considered the tall task impossible – how could anyone replace The Captain? Needless to say, New York has found a more than capable replacement. The Didi Gregorious era reached its highest point yet in Game 5 of the ALDS in Cleveland. “It was just after [Jeter] played his long, successful career here in New York, I'm the guy to follow him up,” Gregorious said after Game 5. “It's amazing for me to be in this organization and just being awesome with all these guys. Everybody's here helping each other.” Gregorious smacked two home runs in Game 5 – both off Cy Young candidate Corey Kluber. Driving in three runs, he led the Yankees into the Championship Series. To put the feat in perspective: he became the first Yankees' shortstop to hit two home runs in a postseason game and the first Yankees' player to slug two home runs in a potential clinching postseason game since Jason Giambi in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. In addition to the historic offensive numbers, Gregorious turned a pivotal double play in the fifth inning when the Indians were threatening with men on first and second. Gregorious has elevated his batting each season, raising his average from .265 in his first season, to .276 in 2016 and to .287 this year. He's the only Yankees' shortstop ever to hit 25 home runs in a single season, and is also the only Yankees' shortstop to have back-to-back seasons of 20-or-more home runs.

Keuchel feeling at home

When the crowd is going crazy at Minute Maid Park, Dallas Keuchel feels right at home. “When you see orange-out or white-out and all those towels, I look over at Keuchel's Korner and see a bunch of fake beards, it really gives you a sense of calmness almost in such a chaotic atmosphere,” said Keuchel, the Astros' starter in Game 1 of their Championship Series against the Yankees on Friday night. “That alone makes me feel like I'm in my backyard playing wiffle ball … just the thought of it is giving me chills.” The 29-year-old left-hander, who allowed just a run in 5 2/3 innings in his Division Series Game 2 start, believes the Astros' home-field advantage will be important … to an extent. “I don't feel like we're going to go in and wipe the Yankees off the map just because we have such a good crowd at home, because they proved that they can win on the road,” said Keuchel, who will be going on six days' rest. “But to have the crowds back, to have the fans back, to have the city behind us, it really gives us that extra boost.” Keuchel, the Cy Young Award winner in 2015 , returned to top form this season, going 14-5 with a 2.90 ERA and a 1.119 WHIP.

Tanaka time 

Game 1 will feature a rematch from the 2015 AL Wild Card Game, with Masahiro Tanaka taking the mound for the Yankees, facing off against Dallas Keuchel. While Tanaka didn't lead the Yankees to a win in 2015, he gave the team five solid innings and gave up two runs – two solo home runs. Inconsistent at times this season, Tanaka finished the regular season with a flourish. He struck out a career-high 15 batters over seven scoreless innings in his regular season finale. Then, with the Yankees facing elimination in Game 3 of the ALDS, Tanaka allowed just three hits over seven scoreless innings, earning his first postseason victory. “I think just being able to grind through that up-and-down season that I had and just being able to just fight through that up-and-down season,” Tanaka said regarding his last two starts. “I think because of having that, I feel like I was able to pitch the way I pitched.”

Check out our #MLBPlayers411 series for more information on some of the players participating in the postseason: 

New York Yankees:

Chad Green

Gary Sanchez

Luis Severino

Ronald Torreyes

Aaron Judge

Houston Astros:

 Marwin Gonzalez

Lance McCullers and Collin McHugh

Dallas Keuchel

Nori Aoki

Carlos Beltran



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