As another American League Championship Series between the 107-win Astros and the 103-win Yankees got underway Saturday night, a highly anticipated collision of superteams that had seemed inevitable all season, it was instructive to contemplate what had changed between them and what had stayed the same since that epic duel of 2017.
There is plenty to explore on both sides of that equation, but the most impactful change is this: the Yankees will not be going 0-for-Texas this month, a critical fact they ensured with a thorough, 7-0 victory in Game 1 of the ALCS — an outcome that undid the six months’ worth of work the Astros put in to gain home-field advantage in this series, while keeping the Yankees undefeated in these playoffs.
Sluggers Gleyber Torres and Giancarlo Stanton homered off Astros right-hander Zack Greinke during the pivotal sixth inning and starter Masahiro Tanaka delivered six brilliant, efficient innings to carry the Yankees to the win. Greinke is the onetime ace the Astros acquired from Arizona in July specifically to win games such as this; Tanaka is the Yankees’ undisputed October ace, his career postseason record now 5-2 with a 1.32 ERA.
Torres, 22, also doubled, singled and drove in five runs, looking, as he has all month, like the best player on the field. Between their sweep of the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series and Saturday night’s blowout win, the Yankees have outscored opponents by a margin of 30-7 this postseason.
“Smart, confident,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said of Torres. “The intelligence part is big, because it’s allowed him to grow and get better at all the little things. He likes playing in these situations, and he’s confident in his ability to produce. That leads to a dangerous player.”
The Astros had gone to great lengths — leaning on their regulars through the season’s final days, despite a division lead that swelled to 10 games by the end — to hold off the Yankees and earn the right to host games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at Minute Maid Park, where they went a major-league-best 60-21 this season and 3-0 against the Tampa Bay Rays in the division series.
But if the Yankees were going to steal one in Houston, this was the one. Greinke, the Astros’ prized trade-deadline pickup, had lasted just 3 ⅔ innings against the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 3 of the Division Series, and for all his pedigree and track record — not to mention a 2.93 ERA this season — he is not the same sort of uncomfortable at-bat that aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole will present in Games 2 and 3.
“To come in here and beat them in their own house,” Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge said, “that’s huge.”
Greinke was starting Game 1, instead of Verlander or Cole, because the Astros had been pushed to five games by the Rays in their first-round series, while the Yankees were sweeping the Twins. Among the ways those divergent outcomes affected this series: Astros pitchers threw nearly 250 more pitches in the Division Series than their Yankees counterparts.
The Yankees are a deeper, better version of the team that lost to the Astros in seven games in the 2017 ALCS. That team was nicknamed the “Baby Bombers” for all the fresh-faced neophytes on their roster, all of whom — Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino
et al. — have the benefit of those two extra years of experience.
But that’s not the only way in which these Yankees are better.
Instead of Greg Bird at first base, they have top-five MVP candidate D.J. LeMahieu. Instead of Starlin Castro at second base, they have Torres. Instead of Todd Frazier at third, they have Gio Urshela, who slugged .534 this season and homered in the ninth inning Saturday night. Instead of Chase Headley as their primary designated hitter, they have Stanton and Edwin Encarnacion, the former a two-time home run champ, the latter a one-time RBI champ. Lefty James Paxton is in their rotation, slated to start Game 2 Sunday night, and Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton in their bullpen.
Both starting pitchers worked aggressively in the strike zone Saturday night, leading to early strikes, quick outs and low pitch-counts. Greinke breezed through his first three innings in just 28 pitches, but in the fourth, LeMahieu and Torres both ambushed his first pitch, leading to a single and an RBI double that gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead. Two innings later, Torres attacked another first-pitch from Greinke, smashing this one into the Crawford Boxes in left. And two batters after that, Stanton homered into the Astros’ bullpen in right-center.
“Very encouraged,” Boone said of Stanton, who has struggled for consistency after missing most of the season with injuries.
Tanaka, meantime, used every pitch in his extensive arsenal — fastball, splitter, slider, curve and change-up — to keep the Astros guessing, his slider a particularly effective weapon. The only two base
runners he allowed through the game’s first four innings, a single by Astros rookie Kyle Tucker and a walk to Alex Bregman, were erased on double plays.
The first of these was a fairly standard 5-4-3 twin-killing, but the second required an exceptional play by Judge, the Yankees’ right fielder, who expertly read Yordan Alvarez’s high liner, speared it and made a strong throw to first to double up Bregman — who appeared mystified that the liner had died in Judge’s glove.
“I should’ve remembered [Judge] is 6-9 and really athletic,” Bregman said. “He made a great play, and he’s got a heck of an arm. I thought it was over his head for sure.”
Tanaka had thrown only 68 pitches and shown not even the slightest sign of faltering when Boone pulled him at the end of the sixth, just as the top of the Astros’ lineup would be coming to the plate for the third time.
This type of move, maddening to old-timers who prefer their starters pitch until their arms fall off, is nonetheless standard for the Yankees — especially with Tanaka, who this year held opposing batters to a .637 OPS his first time through the order, and .730 the second time, but a whopping .943 the third time. It was well understood, by the Astros and everyone else, that there would be no third time in this series.
“At this point [in the season], I don’t think you really consider the number of pitches that much,” Tanaka said through a translator. “For me, it wasn’t much of a surprise being pulled out after the sixth inning.”
Ottavino, a right-hander, handled the seventh, and Britton, a lefty, the eighth. But the size of the Yankees’ lead afforded Boone the luxury of sparing closer Aroldis Chapman, so it was Jonathan Loaisiga who handled the ninth, with the stands emptying by the minute and the typical energy in this building all but gone. The Astros went down in order; they managed just three hits over the course of the game, and are hitting just .224 with 19 runs scored in six games this postseason.
“We really haven’t done anything offensively this postseason,” Bregman said.
Two years after the memorable 2017 ALCS, much is the same between the Astros and Yankees, from their primary protagonists to the distance between them and the rest of their league. But after Saturday night, just one game in, this ALCS already feels significantly different.