What to watch for in the ALCS
Astros host Yankees in opening game Friday
AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES
New York Yankees at Houston Astros, 8 p.m. ET Friday, Fox Sports 1
Key matchups in series and what to watch for
Breaking down the American League Championship Series between the New York Yankees and Houston Astros
For starters: Game 1, Friday: Masahiro Tanaka (13-12, 4.74 ERA during the season) vs. Dallas Keuchel (14-5, 2.90), 8 p.m. ET. Game 2, Saturday: Luis Severino (14-6, 2.98) vs. Justin Verlander (15-8, 3.36 ERA), 4 p.m. ET. Game 3, Monday: CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69) vs. TBA, 8 p.m. ET. Game 4, Tuesday: Sonny Gray (10-12, 3.55) vs. TBA. Game 5 (if necessary), Wednesday: TBA vs. TBA. Game 6 (if necessary), Oct. 20: TBA vs. TBA. Game 7 (if necessary), Oct. 21: TBA vs. TBA.
27 outs: The Yankees are riding an emotional high from their three consecutive wins in the AL Division Series over the Cleveland Indians, who had lost just four of their last 37 games in the regular season. And it wasn’t just New York’s outstanding bullpen carrying the load.
After Sonny Gray’s abbreviated outing in Game 1 — 31⁄ innings, 3 three runs — Yankees starters excelled and were downright imposing in some stretches, averaging nearly six innings with a 2.66 ERA in the final four games. That was supposed to be the club’s biggest weakness, but even 37-year-old CC Sabathia looked rejuvenated.
The question is whether New York’s starters can come close to replicating that performance against the majors’ most potent offense. The Astros come at you from all angles. They finished second in the majors in home runs — three behind the Yankees’ 241 — but struck out the fewest times. They were the only team with an on-base plus slugging percentage above .800 (.823) and finished fourth in the AL in stolen bases.
Led by MVP favorite Jose Altuve, Houston battered the Boston Red Sox pitching staff in their division series, hitting .333 with a .974 OPS and eight homers. There are no weak spots in the Astros lineup, which also features the likes of Carlos Correa, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez and Josh Reddick.
“We won a lot of games late during the season. I think that helps boost some confidence,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said of his club’s upbeat state of mind. “The fact we can score from any position in the batting order, that helps. We are a quick-strike offense that can hurt you in any inning.”
The Astros also feel good about their 1-2 punch of starters Keuchel and Verlander. It was only two years ago that Keuchel shut down the Yankees in the wildcard game, pitching six sparkling innings as Houston prevailed 3-0. For his career, including the playoffs, he’s 5-2 with a 1.24 ERA in seven starts against New York.
Verlander won all five of his starts after joining Houston on Aug. 31, with a 1.06 ERA. He also collected victories in his two division series outings, the second one a 2 2⁄3- innings stint as a reliever.
Keep an eye on: Aaron Judge. The record-setting rookie has fallen into another one of the deep slumps in which he can’t hit a grapefruit. Judge had one hit in 20 at-bats against the Indians, striking out a stunning 16 times. His struggles were a major reason New York averaged just 4.2 runs in that series, more than a run below its regular-season standard, while hitting .201.
The Astros held Judge to a .235 batting average and one home run in 23 plate appearances, and they’re sure to follow Cleveland’s formula of busting him with in- side fastballs just off the plate, then tempting him to chase low and outside.
However, Judge has the bat speed to turn on those inside pitches that catch too much of the plate, and he can get hot for long spells, as his 15 September home runs attest.
On the Astros’ side, Altuve and Springer are accomplished allaround players who can impact a game with their bat, glove or legs. And don’t lose sight of Correa, the emerging superstar who went 14-for-28 with 10 RBI against the Yankees this season.
Close and late: This is New York’s strength, often displayed against the Indians and most notably in their Game 5 victory. Even with a deep, rested bullpen, the Yankees relied on just two relievers — David Robertson and Aroldis Chapman — to cover the final 42⁄ innings of a 5-2 victory. 3 They yielded nary a hit nor a run.
Chapman, who endured a mystifying August slump, is back to his old overpowering ways. He hasn’t allowed a run in his last
172⁄ innings, with 28 strikeouts. 3 If he or Robertson faltered, manager Joe Girardi had lots of other options with swing-and-miss stuff, including Chad Green, Tommy Kahnle and Dellin Betances.
Astros closer Ken Giles saved
34 games in 38 chances, but he’s not quite at the same level as Chapman. Houston’s bullpen ERA of 4.27 during the season was nearly a run higher than the Yankees’ 3.34, and neither Giles nor top setup man Chris Devenski pitched well in the first round against Boston.
In the end: With such offensive firepower on both sides, the expectation is for a high-scoring series with lots of action. That rarely happens in the postseason, where power arms tend to prevail. The Yankees bullpen is loaded with them, but the Astros happen to be particularly adept at hitting the hard stuff, putting up a .898 OPS against fastballs. For the Yankees to reach their first World Series since 2009, they’ll need to exploit the soft part of Houston’s rotation and its bullpen while their own starters continue their strong work. That might be too much to ask. Astros in six.
NLDS Game 5 was tense Thursday, as the Cubs scored first, the Nationals rallied and Chicago went back ahead in the fifth inning, when Addison Russell, above, doubled in two runs and later scored on a passed ball.
Astros second baseman Jose Altuve is coming off a big series against the Red Sox.
Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius hit two home runs in Game 5 vs. the Indians.
Pitcher Justin Verlander hasn’t lost since the Astros acquired him.