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In heated MVP race, Aaron Judge has Jose Altuve’s vote

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Aaron Judge is the presumed shoo-in for this year’s AL Rookie of the Year award, and despite his recent postseason strikeout record, he appears to be a strong contender for the AL MVP title as well. He’ll face some stiff competition for the latter award, however, especially with Astros’ slugger Jose Altuve leading a pack of strong contenders. On Friday, Altuve did his part to put the debate to rest, telling reporters that the Yankees’ rookie phenom would get his vote. “He hit a lot of homers, a lot of RBIs, he got on base a lot, and I like the way he plays,” Altuve said. “If I was a GM, I want him on my team because he plays the right way and he’s very humble.”

It’s a tough call to make. There’s no question that Judge left his mark on the league during the regular season, leading all hitters with 8.2 fWAR and batting .284/.422/.627 with an AL-best 52 home runs in 678 plate appearances. While that power has failed to materialize through much of the postseason thus far, his regular-season accomplishments made him one of the most fearsome hitters in either league. In Altuve’s words: “Obviously, he’s really strong. He hits the ball way farther than anybody in the big leagues, all his homers. He plays good defense, he did everything to win the MVP in the regular season.”

That’s not to discredit the strides Altuve has made in 2017. He’s been remarkably consistent over the last four seasons — something no crystal ball has been able to predict with regard to Aaron Judge’s performance so far — and upped the ante with career-best numbers this year, slashing .346/.410/.547 with 24 home runs, 32 stolen bases and 7.5 fWAR in 662 PA. Although he didn’t capture nearly as many home runs as his rival, his on-base production netted a third career batting title.

Though they make compelling candidates, Altuve and Judge aren’t the only ones up for consideration. Mike Trout returned from thumb surgery to finish the season with 33 home runs and a career-best 1.071 OBS in 507 PA. Chris Sale dominated the AL East with a 17-8 record, 2.90 ERA and 308 strikeouts, 40 more whiffs than second-place strikeout leader Max Scherzer. Corey Kluber‘s 2.25 ERA was the lowest among qualified starters in both leagues, and his 7.3 fWAR came in only a hair under Sale’s 7.7 mark.

No matter the results of the race, however, one thing’s for certain: With Altuve and Judge suited up for Game 1 of the ALCS, there’s bound to be plenty of excitement on both sides.

The Astros gave the Yankees an opening. Keuchel and Verlander will try to close the door.

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If Game 4 of the ALCS had been even remotely conventional, it’d stand at 3-1 in favor of Houston right now. The Yankees’ starter pitched well but got no run support. A mighty Astros team with an ordinarily good closer in Ken Giles had a 4-0 lead in the late innings. As the Yankees set out to mount a comeback, a base runner fell down in between first and second and should’ve been dead to rights. This is playoff baseball, however, so stuff, as they say, happens. The runner was safe, the closer struggled, the Yankees rallied and now we’re tied 2-2.

But are we even at 2-2?

On paper, no, because the Astros now will send Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander out in Games 5 and 6, and that gives them a clear advantage. Keuchel dominated the Yankees in Game 1, tossing seven scoreless innings and striking out ten batters. Verlander struck out 13 batters in a 124-pitch complete game in which he allowed only a single run. Beyond the mere facts of the box scores, however, the Yankees have looked profoundly overmatched by both of the Astros’ aces, in this postseason and on other occasions on which they’ve faced off against them. Most notably in the 2015 wild-card game at Yankee Stadium when Keuchel pitched six scoreless innings in the 3-0 victory.

But remember: stuff happens.

Stuff like Aaron Judge‘s and Gary Sanchez‘s bats waking up. The two most important sluggers in the Bombers lineup combined to go 3-for-6 with two doubles, a homer, a walk and five RBI in last night’s victory. Each of them had been silent for the first three games of the series but if they’re heating up, the Yankees will be a lot harder to pitch to.

Stuff like Masahiro Tanaka showing that he can tame the Astros’ lineup. Which he did pretty well in Game 1, giving up only two runs on four hits in six innings. He was overshadowed by Keuchel in that game, but it was a good performance against a strong lineup in a hostile environment. Tanaka pitches much better at Yankee Stadium than he does on the road, so don’t for a second think that the Astros bats will have an easy time of it today.

Stuff like the Yankees bullpen still being the Yankees bullpen. Yes, the Astros got to David Robertson yesterday, but it’s still a strong, strong group that gives the Yankees a clear advantage if the game is close late or if they hold a lead.

All of which is to say that we have ourselves a series, friends. While, 48 hours ago, it seemed like we were on our way to an Astros coronation, the Yankees have shown up in a major way in Games 3 and 4. If you’re an Astros fan you should feel pretty confident with Keuchel and Verlander heading into action over the next two games, but we have learned that absolutely nothing is guaranteed in the postseason.