Yankees vs. Astros: Power vs. power in what looks to be an epic ALCS

8 Comments

The New York Yankees didn’t win their division and had to settle for a Wild Card. That Wild Card put them into a completely unpredictable one-and-done game to get to the ALDS. They won that and then had to beat a heavily favored 102-win Indians team to move on to the ALCS. They won that too.

Their reward: another 100-win team in the Houston Astros.

Which isn’t to say that they’re some historic Cinderella story. Indeed, the Yankees are a better-than-usual Wild Card team by most measures. They led all of baseball in home runs, have an MVP candidate in Aaron Judge, one of the best bullpens in the game and had the second best run differential in all of baseball. They’re a strong match for the Astros and this ALCS appears to be an utter tossup.

Power is the name of the game here. Power in terms of homers, as the Yankees and Astros were number one and number two in the majors, respectively, in home runs this season. Power in terms of arms too, with the Yankees bullpen featuring four relievers — Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, Dellin Betances and Tommy Kahnle — with fastballs averaging over 96 m.p.h. Countering that is an Astros lineup, led by Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Marwin Gonzalez and George Springer — with feasts on fastballs.  The Astros strike out less, far less, than any other team in baseball, and that’s largely a function of them not being intimidated by the sort of heat that pervades the game these days. Figure the late innings of these games to feature epic power-on-power matchups.

Each club features a deep lineup, with any number of bats who could inflict game-changing damage. Aaron Judge has slumped in the playoffs, going 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts in the ALDS. He’s been picked up, however, by ALDS Game 5 hero Didi Gregorius as well as Aaron Hicks and Greg Bird. For the Astros, Jose Altuve has been on fire, going 8-for-19 with three homers and four walks in the Astros’ four-game series against the Red Sox. All of the Astros hitters have been tearing it up, in fact, with Yuli Gurriel, Carlos Beltran, Correa, Alex Bregman and Springer all hitting well so far this October. Each team has so, so many offensive weapons, so handling any one hitter at a given time will not be enough to contain their attack.

For all of the similarities between the teams, there is at least a little daylight between them when it comes to the starting pitching, at least a difference in kind if not overall quality. The Astros will present something of a top-heavy rotation, with aces Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander going in Games 1 and 2. After that it’s somewhat fluid, with some combination of Brad Peacock, Charlie Morton and possibly Lance McCullers slotting in Games 3, 4 and 5. It would not be shocking, however, to see A.J. Hinch bring back Keuchel or Verlander on short rest depending on how the series goes. The Astros bullpen is good, but not spectacular, so you might likewise see starters in relief depending on the situation, just as we saw Verlander pitch in relief against Boston on Monday.

The Yankees’ 1-2 guys aren’t quite the horses the Astros boast. Masahiro Tanaka is an ace to be sure, but he had an overall down year and has struggled mightily on the road (6.38 ERA in 15 starts), so he’ll be closely watched as he takes the bump in Minute Maid Park tonight. After him is Luis Severino, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray. None of the Yankees pitchers are likely to be go-on-short-rest candidates, so expect that rotation to hold. If more than one of their starters gets knocked out of the box early, the Yankees biggest strength — its bullpen — could suffer from fatigue as the series wears on.

The Astros won the season series between the clubs five games to two. The last of those seven games came on July 2, however, so don’t put too much weight in the predictive power of their previous matchups. Since that time the Yankees improved themselves, adding Gray, third baseman Todd Frazier, and Kahnle, who has proven to be a key part of New York’s dominant bullpen. The Astros added Verlander, who has been otherworldly since coming over from the Tigers. The big stars are all basically the same, but the nature of these teams has changed a bit since they last faced off.

Coming in to the playoffs, it seemed like the Astros and Indians were the alpha dogs in the American League. The Yankees impressive showing against the Indians, however, showed that, as of this moment, they are among the best teams in baseball. This ALCS figures to be an epic matchup of power and heat. Picking a winner seems like a fool’s errand.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
Cole Burston/Getty Images
3 Comments

TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.