Springtime Storylines: Will age catch up to the Yankees?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  The Yankees are the defending champs, so they have the honor.

The big question:  Will age catch up to the Yankees?

People have been asking this for years, but for 2010 at least I’m going to say no. Sure, it’s possible that Derek Jeter is going to suddenly remember that he’s a 36 year-old shortstop, Jorge Posada will act like we expect 38 year-old catchers to act and opposing batters may actually be able to hit the one pitch that Mariano Rivera throws, but we’ve been waiting for that for years and it it still hasn’t happened.  All three of those guys can be expected to decline a bit from unexpectedly good 2009 seasons, but it seems like the core of that team is entitled to the benefit of the doubt against cratering until they actually, you know, crater.

And you know what? Age is something of a red herring with this team. Mark Teixeira isn’t going to turn 30 until after the season starts. Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes, and Joba Chamberlain aren’t old. I worry about Nick Johnson’s health, but Jesus Montero could probably be plugged in at DH if things got dicey, and of course the Yankees are always able to make a deal for a hitter another team doesn’t feel like paying come July. People have questioned the Yankees depth, but on a team full of All-Stars the loss of any one player for a good chunk of time is less devastating than it might be elsewhere. No team could survive a 2009 Mets-style plague of injuries, but I think the 2010 Yankees are no more susceptible to age and injury than any other 100-win juggernaut.  

So what else is going on?

  • A lot of ink has been spilled over the fifth starter’s race, but given how strong the 1-4 guys are (Sabathia, Burnett, Pettitte, Vazquez) Yankees fans should be embarrassed that they’ve worried about it at all. Your fifth starter is going to be better than many team’s third starters and would be bona fide aces in a couple of cities. Zip it with the Phil and Joba anxiety, OK?
  • People have voiced concern about the outfield, but I think that the combination of Granderson, Brett
    Gardner and Randy Winn will be better than last year’s combination of
    Johnny Damon, Gardner and Melky Cabrera. Nick Swisher is the constant in right and he could fall back a bit, but this is not a team whose fortunes will rise and fall on the strength of Nick Swisher’s OPS;
  • The bullpen looks amazingly strong right now. Rivera anchors of course, the loser of the Chamberlain-Hughes battle sets up, and a crowd of solid guys in Chan Ho Park, Dave Robertson, Sergio Mitre, Damaso Marte and Alfredo Aceves round things out. Yankees opponents may find games to be very, very short this year;
  • The Yankees are always subject to some in-season drama, but the biggest thing on the horizon at the moment is Joe Girardi’s lame duck status. But really, whether Girardi is given a new contract will be determined by whether the Yankees win or lose, not the other way around.  Even with the A-Rod-Dr. Galea stuff, it’s hard to remember a less strife-filled beginning of the season for the Yankees.

So how are they gonna do?

Predictions are for suckers, so the Springtime Storylines feature is going to tread lightly in that department, but right now it’s hard to say that the Yankees aren’t strong favorites to repeat. Yes, injuries and age could be a factor, but there are too many guys on the roster who could, if they were the best player on their team, lead that team to a championship.  If things are going to go sideways for the Yankees, it’s going to take the simultaneous burnout or breakdown of multiple players for it to happen, and no one has ever gotten rich betting on coincidences like that to occur.

Prediction: First place in the AL East and a better shot at a champagne shower come November than anyone else.

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Astros push ALCS to Game 7 with 7-1 stunner against Yankees

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There’s just something about playing in your home ballpark. The Astros decimated the Yankees at Minute Maid Park on Friday, riding seven scoreless innings from Justin Verlander and a pair of big runs from Jose Altuve to win 7-1 and force a Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

Through the first four innings, however, the teams looked equally matched. Luis Severino no-hit the Astros through 3 2/3 innings, losing his bid on Carlos Correa‘s line drive single in the fourth. The Astros returned in the fifth to do some real damage, drawing two walks and plating the first run of the night with Brian McCann‘s ground-rule double off of the right field wall. Things didn’t get any easier for Severino. Jose Altuve lined a two-RBI base hit into left field, upping Houston’s advantage to three runs.

Verlander, meanwhile, muted the Yankees’ offense with seven innings of five-hit, eight-strikeout ball. While he didn’t come close to matching his complete game effort in Game 2, he was still plenty dominant against a struggling New York lineup. No player reached past first base until the sixth inning, when a pair of base hits from Chase Headley and Didi Gregorius gave the Yankees their first runner in scoring position. That didn’t last long, though, as Gary Sanchez grounded out on a 3-0 slider to end the inning.

In the seventh, Houston’s ace got into another spot of trouble. He walked Greg Bird on six pitches to start the inning, then plunked Starlin Castro on the wrist. Aaron Hicks struck out, in part thanks to a questionable call by home plate umpire Jim Reynolds, but it was Todd Frazier who presented the biggest threat after returning an 0-1 fastball for a 403-foot fly out to left field. Luckily for Verlander, George Springer was there to bail him out with a leaping catch at the wall.

The Yankees kept things exciting in the eighth, too. Aaron Judge ripped his third postseason home run off of Brad Peacock, taking a 425-footer out to the train in left field to spoil the Astros’ shutout. That was the only real break the Yankees got, however, as Altuve, Alex Bregman and Evan Gattis returned in the bottom of the inning to tack on another four runs, including Altuve’s solo shot off of David Robertson:

Ken Giles handled the ninth, expending 23 pitches and giving up a base hit and a walk before retiring Frazier and Headley to end the game. Thanks to Houston’s winning efforts, the two teams will compete in their first seven-game Championship Series since 2004 — and this time, at least one of them is guaranteed to come away with a win.

Game 7 of the ALCS is set for Saturday at 8:00 PM ET. Houston right-hander Charlie Morton (14-7, 3.62 ERA) is scheduled to face southpaw CC Sabathia (14-5, 3.69 ERA).