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Lo and behold, falling into a 2-0 hole was not the beginning of the end for the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series.
Having already shocked the Cleveland Indians by coming back from a 2-0 deficit in the American League Division Series, the Yankees have started on their way to doing the same to the Houston Astros in the ALCS after an 8-1 win in Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Monday night.
As most romps are, this one was a total team effort.
CC Sabathia hurled six shutout innings. Todd Frazier started the scoring with a three-run home run in the second inning. Aaron Judge, who knows a thing or 52 about homers, capped the Yankees’ end of it with his own three-run job in the fourth.
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NYY 8, HOU 1. #ALCS https://t.co/MsmKQof1NJ
If anyone is surprised the ALCS won’t be a sweep of a mere wild-card team by a 101-win juggernaut, here’s a hint: Don’t be.
It’s not as if the Astros overpowered the Yankees in the first two games. They won both Games 1 and 2 by ultra-slim 2-1 finals. At home, no less.
To give the victors due credit, the Astros did execute better. But to give some to the vanquished as well, a couple bounces here and there could have resulted in the 2-0 lead landing in the Yankees’ hands instead.
Heartbreaking though it may have been, the 2-0 hole that the Bombers fell into was hardly intimidating. An additional silver lining was that they were heading home, where they led the American League with a 51-30 record this season.
Yet another silver lining is that, arguably even more so than ostensible staff aces Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka, Sabathia was just the guy to get the comeback started.
“He’s been that guy that we’ve kind of relied on,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before Game 3, per Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. “You know that the situation hasn’t been too big for him. I look at what the other two guys have done, and they’ve pitched really well, too. To me, it’s CC giving us a good five or six innings and us scoring a few more runs.”
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It’s no secret that the 37-year-old’s vintage mid-90s fastball is long gone. However, it’s also no secret that he’s reinvented himself to render that no big deal.
Sabathia’s new trick is working the edges of the strike zone with different speeds and movements. This doesn’t make him hard to hit but does make him hard to hit well. Hitters averaged 83.9 miles per hour on batted balls off him in the regular season, which was tied for the lowest exit velocity among starters.
While this is a fine way to silence any offense, it may be the best way to silence a Houston offense that’s known for both frequent and powerful contact. Sabathia did well to strike out five batters, but the bulk of his outs came from limiting Astros hitters to a collective average of 81.3 mph on balls in play.
Meanwhile, the Yankees offense performed like an offense that was glad to see pitchers other than former Cy Young winners on the mound.
Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 AL Cy Young winner, and Justin Verlander, the 2011 AL Cy Young winner, pitched all but two innings for the Astros in Games 1 and 2. They looked the part of elite aces, combining to allow just one earned run on nine hits and two walks while striking out 23.
But if the Yankees could hold out any hope in the midst of all that dominance, it’s that Keuchel and Verlander couldn’t cover up the softer underbelly of Houston’s pitching staff forever.
Said underbelly came into focus early in Game 3, wherein Charlie Morton got worked for six hits and two walks before giving way to Will Harris, who was greeted by Judge’s long ball.
A few of the Yankees’ hits were pretty lucky, granted. But luck didn’t have too much to do with Frazier poking an outside fastball over the right field fence, nor with Judge turning on a high-and-tight heater and launching it over the left field fence.
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After leading MLB with 241 home runs in the regular season, the Yankees reminded us how the offense rolls, as did the big guy himself.
After blasting 52 homers in the regular season and another in the American League Wild Card Game against the Minnesota Twins, Judge was held to two hits and 19 punchouts in seven games against Cleveland and Houston pitchers, who used a basic hard-in, slow-away approach. His homer off Harris could prove to be the beginning of his adjustment to the adjustment.
Failing Judge putting the entire lineup on his back, the Yankees can always hope that their offense will simply be better than Houston’s pitching from here on out.
This note from MLB.com’s Richard Justice highlights that as a fair deal more than just a fool’s hope:
Richard Justice @richardjustice
Astros 3-4 starters in postseason: 10.2 innings, 19 hits, 12 earned runs, 5 walks, 13 strikeouts, 14.34 ERA.
After dispatching Houston’s No. 3 starter in Game 3, the Yankees will now get to take aim at its No. 4 starter in Game 4 on Tuesday.
Going to Keuchel on three days’ rest was an option, but Astros manager A.J. Hinch announced that he’ll be countering Sonny Gray with Lance McCullers. He has great stuff but doesn’t always know where he’s going with it and thus not liable to last long.
It adds up to an excellent opportunity for the Yankees to tie the series and go from there. And while Keuchel, Verlander and additional exposure to Houston’s offense do loom on the road ahead, the Yankees have every right to feel confident in their own starters (including Sabathia in a potential Game 7) and their flame-throwing bullpen and their high-powered offense.
It’s only appropriate to dust off one of the late Yogi Berra’s more famous proclamations: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
This one ain’t. If anything, it’s only just begun.
Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.