Astros 4, Yankees 0: Game Seven loss sends Yankees home for the winter

All great things must come to an end. The incredibly fun and better than pretty much everyone expected 2017 Yankees season came to a close Saturday night, with a 4-0 loss to the Astros in Game Seven of the ALCS. Houston will take on the Dodgers in the World Series. The Yankees are heading home. You can either call this season a failure or be happy you got to enjoy the ride. I know which one I’m doing. Still love this team, you guys.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Strugglin’ Sabathia
It was clear in the second inning CC Sabathia was not especially sharp in Game Seven. The only reason it wasn’t clear in the first inning was three quick outs by the Astros. George Springer led the inning off with a single, then three first pitch weak ground ball outs followed.

The second inning was ominous. Sabathia fell behind in the count 2-0 on Yulieski Gurriel, but survived with a line drive out. Sabathia got ahead in the count 0-2 on Evan Gattis, but couldn’t finish him off and needed a hard-hit grounder for an out. Brian McCann then drew a four-pitch walk, Marwin Gonzalez dunked a single to center on the sixth pitch of his at-bat, and Josh Reddick popped up to end the threat. Bad signs abound.

Sabathia faced five batters in the third inning and only one saw a first pitch strike. There was one 2-0 count and one 3-1 count mixed in there, as well as another walk and an infield single. Sabathia looked so shaky — he had nothing to put hitters away with, it was all guts and guile — that I thought it was probably best to pull him after three innings. It felt like only a matter of time until the Astros broke through.

Instead, Sabathia went out for the fourth, got ahead on Gattis 0-2, then couldn’t put him away. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat Gattis cranked a hanging slider out to left field for a solo home run and a 1-0 Astros lead. Sabathia then walked McCann on five pitches, and gave up Reddick’s first hit of the ALCS. That was finally the end of his night. Tommy Kahnle escaped the inning with a first pitch double play.

Sabathia’s final line: 3.1 IP, 5 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 0 K on 65 pitches. Yikes. He generated only three swings and misses, and only nine of 18 batters faced saw a first pitch strike. Sabathia doesn’t need to be perfect to succeed, he still has enough movement to get away with mistakes, but only when he’s ahead in the count. Falling behind is a recipe for disaster. All things considered, the Yankees were lucky he allowed just the one run in Game Seven.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Kahnle Finally Melts Down
Kahnle’s emergence as a dominant bullpen force this postseason is a big reason the Yankees got to within one game of the World Series. He finally had a hiccup in Game Seven, and at exactly the wrong time. Jose Altuve took Kahnle deep in the fifth inning — opposite field! — for a 2-0 lead, then a first pitch single and a seven-pitch single put the Astros back in business. Kahnle hung a changeup to McCann, who pounded it to right field for a two-run double and a 4-0 lead. Barf.

The numbers on Kahnle: 1.1 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 1 K. That’s after scattering two hits and two walks in his first ten postseason innings. The more important numbers: 16 changeups among 24 pitches, and an average fastball velocity of 96.2 mph. His regular season average was 98.1 mph. That much missing velocity and a boatload of changeups suggests Kahnle was running on fumes and trying to get outs any way he could. It happens.

Adam Warren and David Robertson resorted order and held the Astros to one hit in 3.1 innings combined. Robertson struck out three in two scoreless innings, and looked like David Robertson. After the game Joe Girardi inadvertently admitted Robertson has been sick, which might explain his last few rough outings. I’m a bit surprised Aroldis Chapman did not pitch, though I guess Girardi wanted to make sure he maxed out Robertson in a Game Seven situation before going to Chapman.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Not Enough Offense
The No. 1 reason the Yankees lose the ALCS: they scored three runs total in four games in hitter friendly Minute Maid Park. Yes, Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander started three of those four games, but still. That little offense on the road is not going to cut it, even as well as the Yankees pitched in the series overall. The Yankees were shut out in Game Seven, which I guess is a fitting end to the series.

Charlie Morton mowed the Yankees down for five innings with stunning efficiency. His pitch count by inning: 10, 6, 12, 8, 18. Morton was pounding the strike zone. When the Yankees jumped on a first pitch fastball, they did nothing with it. When they took the first pitch and tried to work a long at-bat, Morton got head in the count quickly. They had no answer either way. Damned if you swing, damned if you don’t.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch pulled Morton after five innings and 54 pitches because his control was starting to deteriorate, and because his numbers going through the lineup a third time are pretty terrible. The Yankees had their best chance to score in the fifth inning, which Greg Bird led off with a double. He moved to third on a wild pitch with one out, and Todd Frazier could’ve tied the game 1-1 with a fly ball. Instead, this happened:

Three things. One, that was a heck of a play by Alex Bregman. Real good throw home too. Two, wow did McCann take a spiking to make that play. Bird spiked him (accidentally, I assume) right in the forearm. That couldn’t have felt good. And three, man is Bird slow. He’s sooo slow. He also slid right into the tag instead of around it, which is exactly what happened when he was thrown out at the plate in Game One. Bird is a great hitter. But he is slow as hell and not the best slider in the world.

That was the only real chance the Yankees had to score in Game Seven. Bird was the only Yankee to make it as far as third base. The Yankees scattered one single and one walk in the final four innings, during which Lance McCullers Jr. completely mowed them down with his curveball. Frazier worked a leadoff walk in the eighth, and McCullers settled down to retire the final six batters by thrown 24 (!) straight curveballs. Oy vey. The final out of the season: Bird flying out to Springer in center.

Leftovers
For the third time this postseason, Aaron Judge made a ridiculous leaping catch at the wall. And it’ll probably be completely forgotten. He took a home run away from Francisco Lindor in the ALDS, robbed Gurriel of extra bases earlier in the ALCS, then robbed Gurriel of extra bases again in Game Seven. To the action footage:

I’m not sure whether that ball would’ve gone out, but I do know that was a fantastic catch. Judge’s best of the season. I really hope he gets more credit for his defense going forward. We all see the 50-something home runs and light tower power. But Judge is a well-rounded ballplayer who saves runs defense and runs the bases well. I feel like not enough people know that.

The Yankees had three hits total in Game Seven. The double by Bird and singled by Brett Gardner and Gary Sanchez. Hicks and Frazier drew walks. That’s all the baserunners. Didi Gregorius had maybe his worst game as a Yankee, going 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on 14 total pitches, two over the minimum. The Yankees went 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position and I’m surprised they had that many at-bats in those situations.

This was only the fifth time in history the home team won every game in a best-of-seven series. It happened in the 1987 World Series (Twins vs. Cardinals), 1991 World Series (Twins vs. Braves), 2001 World Series (Diamondbacks vs. Yankees), and 2004 NLCS (Cardinals vs. Astros). Losing Games One and Two by identical 2-1 scores stings. Those games were there for the taking.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head over to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. We have a Bullpen Workload page, not that it matters anymore. Here is the loss probability graph …


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The offseason. At least this one will be a few weeks shorter than the last few. The first orders of offseason business will be re-signing Brian Cashman and Girardi, or finding a Girardi replacement should he step away to spent time with his family. Once that happens, the Yankees can move forward with improving the 2018 Yankees.

2017 ALCS Game Seven: Yankees at Astros

2017-alcs-logoSo here we are again. Another win or go home game. The Yankees have been through a few of these already this postseason. Except unlike the Wild Card Game or Games Three, Four, and Five of the ALDS, a spot in the World Series is on the line tonight. The Yankees and Astros are playing Game Seven of the ALCS. Winner goes to Los Angeles for the World Series. Loser cries in the shower.

The good news: CC Sabathia is on the mound tonight, and he’s been pretty excellent so far this postseason. Hasn’t allowed an extra-base hit through three starts! If nothing else, you know Sabathia won’t be overwhelmed by the moment. The Yankees lined up their ALCS rotation specifically so Sabathia could start this winner-take-all game, the same way they called on him to start Game Five of the ALDS. In the big man we trust.

Now, the bad news: the bullpen is a little taxed and Houston’s bats seemed to wake up late in Game Six. Chad Green won’t be available today and David Robertson seems pretty rundown. Fortunately Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman are still out there, and I can’t help but wonder if we’ll see Masahiro Tanaka at some point, even though Joe Girardi said it won’t happen. Sabathia to Kahnle to Chapman with like a 17-run lead would be ideal. Fingers crossed. Here are the lineups:

New York Yankees
1. LF Brett Gardner
2. RF Aaron Judge
3. SS Didi Gregorius
4. C Gary Sanchez
5. 1B Greg Bird
6. 3B Starlin Castro
7. CF Aaron Hicks
8. 3B Todd Frazier
9. DH Chase Headley
LHP CC Sabathia

Houston Astros
1. CF George Springer
2. 3B Alex Bregman
3. 2B Jose Altuve
4. SS Carlos Correa
5. 1B Yulieski Gurriel
6. DH Evan Gattis
7. C Brian McCann
8. LF Marwin Gonzalez
9. RF Josh Reddick
RHP Charlie Morton

It is cloudy and breezy but warm in Houston today. No matter, the Minute Maid Park will be closed. Seems like they always close the roof in the postseason, regardless of the weather. Tonight’s game will begin at 8pm ET and FOX Sports 1 has the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Thoughts prior to Game Seven of the 2017 ALCS

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

For the fifth time in the last 18 days, the Yankees will play with their season on the line tonight. They are a perfect 4-0 in elimination games this postseason, and tonight’s Game Seven with the Astros will determine who moves on to face the Dodgers in the World Series. I am weirdly not nervous. I’m sure I’ll want to puke during the game, but I’m excited more than anything. Anyway, let’s get to some thoughts.

1. I thought Justin Verlander did a real nice job changing the game plan in Game Six. I mentioned yesterday he threw a ton of first pitch fastballs in Game Two, so it would make sense for the Yankees to hunt them in certain spots. In Game Six Verlander threw a first pitch fastball to 18 of the 27 batters he faced, so that’s nine who got a non-fastball. In Game Two he faced 32 batters and threw only six non-fastballs on the first pitch. A few Yankees took ugly hacks against first pitch breaking balls and changeups last night. Also, Verlander broke out his curveball and slider earlier in Game Six than he did in Game Two. Last night he came out of the gate firing everything. In Game Two he held back a bit on the curveball and changeup. Verlander had eight strikeouts last night: three on fastballs, two on sliders, two on changeups, one on a curveball. He was getting outs with everything. Verlander is tough as it gets. When he comes out with a different game plan than the first time you saw him in the series, he’s even tougher.

2. I said this in the recap last night and it bears repeating: I really did not like letting Luis Severino face Jose Altuve in the fifth inning. I didn’t even want Severino facing Josh Reddick, the previous batter, but Reddick popped out, so no big deal. Except that quick pop-up — Reddick popped up on the third pitch — is probably the reason Joe Girardi let Severino face Altuve. Had Reddick put together a longer at-bat and given Severino a chance to fall behind in the count (again), he might’ve been out of the game after that, even if Reddick eventually popped up anyway. There were plenty of indications Severino was losing it. I mean, three walks in the inning should set off alarm bells, right? Anyway, I’m harping on this because I thought it was a bad mistake. Aside from the non-challenge against the Indians, I think Girardi has had a great postseason overall. I’ve liked his bullpen usage and his lineup decisions. That decision last night, letting a fading Severino face Altuve for the third time with the bases loaded in a one-run game, stands out as a bad one. Probably Girardi’s worst move (or non-move) in the postseason behind the non-challenge. At that point Severino was not the best man to get that very important out. Chad Green, who was hot in the bullpen, was. Alas.

3. David Robertson really didn’t look good last night. His stuff was flat and the four Astros hitters he faced were on everything. The exit velocities on the four hits he allowed, in order: 93.3 mph, 107.2 mph, 102.2 mph, 98.4 mph. The Altuve homer had the lowest exit velocity. Go figure. Robertson just looked worn down to me, which is understandable, I think. Going into Game Six he’d throw eleven postseason innings — all intense high-leverage innings — in eleven games spanning 17 days. That’s an awful lot work. Robertson has thrown 79.1 total innings this season, easily the most of his big league career. It’s easy to understand why he’d look as worn down as he did last night. Of course, that isn’t good news for the Yankees, who figure to need their bullpen tonight since CC Sabathia rarely pitches deep into the game. I wonder if Tommy Kahnle, not Robertson, will be Girardi’s go-to setup option tonight given how run down Robertson looked last night. We’ll see. I suspect Kahnle will be the first guy out of the bullpen to put out any Sabathia created fire. Figure the rest out after that.

4. It goes without saying Game Seven is an all hands on deck game. It would not surprise me at all to see Dallas Keuchel come out of the bullpen at some point for the Astros. I’m pretty sure Lance McCullers Jr. will be the first guy out of the bullpen for Houston. For the Yankees, this means what? Sonny Gray in relief? Maybe Masahiro Tanaka? The Yankees always play it extremely safe with Tanaka, but two things. One, it’s a win or go home game! And two, tomorrow might be his final game as a Yankee. As callous as it sounds, Tanaka’s long-term health might not be the club’s biggest concern if they’re planning to let him walk once he triggers his opt-out. In a perfect world, the Yankees score a zillion runs and go Sabathia to Kahnle to Chapman tonight. Things rarely go according to plan though. My guess is we’ll see Robertson be asked to get some big outs (again), even after a tough outing last night. I don’t think we’ll see Gray or Tanaka unless Sabathia gets knocked out early or the game goes into extras.

5. Since the LCS became a best-of-seven in 1985, 15 teams have won Game Six when trailing 3-2 in the series, thus forcing a Game Seven. Of those 15 teams, 13 (!) went on to win the series. That is pretty crazy. History is not on the Yankees side tonight. Then again, if you’ve been reading RAB long enough, you know I’m not big on using history as a predictive tool. What happened in the past, those 13 teams that went on win the series after trailing 3-2, has no bearing on the 2017 Yankees. Besides, this Yankees team has been defying the odds all season. Why can’t they do it again? If nothing else, these Yankees have shown they are very resilient. They get knocked down — and there were a lot of knockdowns this season, plenty of bad losses to go around — and they get right back up and keep fighting. I expect more of the same in Game Seven tonight. The Yankees may lose and their season could end tonight. But I do not expect them go down without a fight. It’s not in their DNA.

Astros 7, Yankees 1: Yanks can’t solve Verlander, Astros force Game Seven

What, you didn’t think winning the pennant would be easy, did you? The Yankees and Astros are going to a Game Seven. Justin Verlander shut the Yankees down again in Game Six of the ALCS on Friday night, then Houston’s offense tacked on a bunch of insurance runs late to put the game out of reach. The final score: 7-1. And we will see you tomorrow night.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Still No Answer For Verlander
Five days ago Verlander manhandled the Yankees for nine innings, striking out 13 in his 124-pitch masterpiece. He wasn’t quite as good in Game Six, though he was obviously excellent, and the Yankees failed to capitalize on the few chances they had. That includes putting a man on base in each of the first three innings.

The sixth and seventh inning … that’s when the Yankees really had a chance to get back into the game. The Astros took a 3-0 lead into that sixth inning — more to come on that in a minute — and, for the first time basically ever, Verlander appeared to be tiring. Chase Headley started the sixth with a single, then Didi Gregorius reached with a two-out single to bring the tying run to the plate.

The batter: Gary Sanchez. The count: 3-0: The result: a weak little check swing tapper for the inning-ending ground out. Yuck. I was totally cool with giving Sanchez the green light. There were two outs in the inning and Verlander had roughed up Greg Bird pretty good in the series up to that point. Sanchez is very capable of tying the game with one swing. Then Verlander threw him a 3-0 breaking ball and Gary had no idea what to do with it. He was frozen in his tracks expecting a heater. It was ugly.

In the seventh, Verlander gifted the Yankees two free leadoff baserunners. Bird drew a walk and Starlin Castro was hit by a pitch — how the home plate umpire missed it, I have no idea, the Yankees had to ask for a review — which set the Yankees up. Verlander was clearly running on fumes. It was made even more clear when he fell behind in the count 3-0 on Aaron Hicks. Hicks took the 3-0 pitch for a strike (duh), then got jobbed on the 3-1 pitch. Look at this:

aaron-hicks-3-1-pitchDude. That call completely changed the game. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Yankees go on to win the game, but it changes everything. That should have been ball four to load the bases with no outs. Instead, it was called a strike to run the count full. Hicks battled for ten pitches before striking out on a wicked breaking ball. That orange dot in the lower right corner of the strike zone? That was the finish pitch. How the hell are you supposed to hit — or even foul off — a breaking ball down-and-in like that.

Hicks struck out, but the rally was not dead. Todd Frazier came up next and absolutely clobbered a fastball to center field. Off the bat, I thought it was gone. I though the game was tied. Frazier hit it to the wrong part of the park through, literally the deepest part in left-center, and George Springer made a fantastic leaping catch at the wall to take away extra bases. If Frazier gets the bat to the ball a nanosecond sooner, he pulls it a bit and it’s over the wall. Baseball can be a real jerk sometimes. Headley followed with a ground out to end the threat.

The first out of the inning came after Hicks should’ve walked on the 3-1 count. The second out came on the Yankees’ hardest hit ball of the night. Sometimes you get the breaks, sometimes you don’t. Aaron Judge did hit a very long solo home run in the eighth to get the Yankees to within 3-1, then they made Ken Giles work in the ninth with a 7-1 lead, and that’s about it for the offense. Those sixth and seventh innings, man. That was the game right there.

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Severino Hits A Wall
For the first four innings of Game Six, Luis Severino traded zeroes with Verlander and looked good and strong. He was getting the anxious Astros to chase fastballs — and sliders, at that — up the zone. Severino looked real good. Then he hit a wall in the fifth inning, and things came crashing down. The inning started with walks to the No. 6 and 8 hitters and continued when Severino couldn’t put Brian McCann away in an 0-2 count.

McCann, who was 0-for-postseason up to that point, worked the count back 2-2, then pounced on an outside fastball that was a little too up in the zone for a ground-rule double to right field. The Yankees got lucky, or so it seemed. The ball hopping over the wall forced Evan Gattis to stop at third. Severino then issued his third walk of the inning to load the bases with one out. He was missing his spots by a mile and simply seemed to run out of gas.

I thought Severino should’ve been out of the game at that point. Joe Girardi opted to leave him in to face Josh Reddick, who has been terrible all series, and sure enough he popped out for the second out. Severino had a chance to escape the jam with only one run allowed. Then he hung the hell out of a first pitch slider to Altuve. Look where Sanchez set up and where the pitch ended up:

jose-altuve-luis-severino

Oy vey. That was a hanger and a half. It was also the final pitch Severino threw. By time Chad Green came in, it was too little, too late. Altuve’s two-run single gave the Astros a 3-0 lead. Like I said, I thought Severino should’ve been out after walking Springer. I definitely didn’t want him facing Altuve for the third time with his control vanishing. That was asking for trouble, and the Yankees got it. Severino’s final line: 4.2 IP, 3 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 4 BB, 3 K. Good to bad in a heartbeat.

Battered Bullpen
Green gave the offense a chance to get back in the game. He hucked 2.1 scoreless innings and threw 38 pitches, and that is a-okay with me. Down three runs against Houston’s bullpen is still a winnable game as far as I’m concerned. Green never pitches back-to-back days anyway, so once he’s in the game, might as well max him out. Girardi did that and Judge’s solo homer got the Yankees to within 3-1 in the eighth. Progress!

The wheels came off in the bottom of the eighth. David Robertson entered and again, I thought it was the right move. Hold them right there because two runs is hardly insurmountable. Homer, double, single, double. Ouch. Robertson faced four batters and retired zero. The Altuve solo homer came on a pitch down on the zone, one of those “how the hell did he hit that?” pitches. Everything else was pretty poorly located. Robertson looks worn down, which tends to happen when you throw eleven high-stress innings in eleven postseason games.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Dellin Betances mopped up the rest of the eighth and allowed a sac fly to give the Astros a 7-1 lead. I guess the good news is Betances looked serviceable? Not serviceable enough that I’d trust him with a small lead in Game Seven, but perhaps serviceable enough to keep him on the World Series roster should the Yankees advance. Anyway, four batters faces for Robertson, four hits allowed, four runs allowed. That’ll put a dent in the postseason ERA.

Leftovers
The Yankees had seven hits even though it doesn’t really feel like it. Headley had two — he’s now 7-for-11 in the last four games — while Brett Gardner, Judge, Gregorius, Sanchez, and Castro had one each. Bird and Hicks drew walks. Everyone in the starting lineup reached base at least once except Frazier, who had the team’s hardest hit ball of the night. Well, second hardest after the Judge homer. The Yankees went 1-for-15 with men on base. There’s yer ballgame.

That’s about it, right? Not much else to cover in this one. Shake it off and go get ’em in Game Seven.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
ESPN has the box score and MLB.com has the video highlights. We have a Bullpen Workload page. Here’s the loss probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
With the loss, the Yankees will once again play a win or go home game this postseason. They’re 4-0 in those already this year. The Yankees and Astros will get together for Game Seven of the ALCS on Saturday night. CC Sabathia and Charlie Morton are the scheduled starters.

2017 ALCS Game Six: Yankees at Astros

2017-alcs-logoFor the first time since the championship season of 2009, the Yankees are one win away from going to the World Series. They fell behind 0-2 in the ALCS before storming back to take a 3-2 series lead. Beating up on Dallas Keuchel in Game Five the other day was satisfying. Very satisfying.

The series is not over yet, however. The last win is always the hardest to get. The series has shifted back to Houston, so you know the Minute Maid Park crowd will be going wild tonight. Plus the Astros are going to play with extreme desperation since their season is on the line. The postseason only gets harder the deeper you get.

The good news: the bullpen is well-rested. Or at least as rested as it’s going to get on October 20th. Chad Green, David Robertson, and Aroldis Chapman have all had two straight days of rest. What are the odds Joe Girardi is thinking he can get five innings from them tonight? Pretty good, I’d say. Here are the starting lineups:

New York Yankees
1. LF Brett Gardner
2. RF Aaron Judge
3. SS Didi Gregorius
4. C Gary Sanchez
5. 1B Greg Bird
6. 2B Starlin Castro
7. CF Aaron Hicks
8. 3B Todd Frazier
9. DH Chase Headley
RHP Luis Severino

Houston Astros
1. CF George Springer
2. RF Josh Reddick
3. 2B Jose Altuve
4. SS Carlos Correa
5. 1B Yulieski Gurriel
6. 3B Alex Bregman
7. LF Marwin Gonzalez
8. DH Evan Gattis
9. C Brian McCann
RHP Justin Verlander

It is a bit cloudy in Houston and there’s supposed to be some rain later today, though that doesn’t matter. The Minute Maid Park roof is closed. Tonight’s game will begin at 8pm ET and FOX Sports 1 will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

The best way to beat Justin Verlander in Game Six could be swinging early in the count

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

Tonight the Yankees have a chance to advance to the World Series, and they’re in this position because they beat up on Dallas Keuchel in Game Five. Keuchel shut the Yankees down in Game One, which he’s done throughout his career, but the tables were turned in Game Five and he didn’t make it through five innings. Keuchel said the Yankees hit good pitches. The Yankees said they hit mistakes. Whatever.

In Game Six later tonight, the Yankees will again look to flip the script against a pitcher who dominated them earlier in the series. Justin Verlander was vintage Justin Verlander in Game Two, holding the Yankees to one run on five hits and one walk in nine innings. He struck out 13 and threw 124 pitches, something that basically never happens anymore. Only 17 times did a pitcher throw 120+ pitches in a game during the 2017 regular season.

“I know this is one of the main reasons I was brought here. I think so far I’ve done what they’ve asked or what they’ve needed of me to help the rotation and help get deep in the playoffs,” said Verlander yesterday. “This is obviously the biggest game for the Astros up to this point for this season. The expectations are there. My teammates, I’m sure, are expecting a lot of me. And I expect a lot of myself. So this is why we play the game. And I love these opportunities to pitch in these atmospheres, these type of games. It should be a lot of fun.”

Even at age 34 and with more than 2,600 innings on his arm, Verlander’s stuff is still as electric as ever, and he was on in Game Two. The fastball was humming, the curveball started up above the zone and finished down below the zone, and that new-ish slider he has started down the middle and finished in the left-handed hitter’s batter’s box. When Verlander is on, there’s not much you can do to beat him. You just have to wait him out.

That said, the Yankees are seeing Verlander for the second time in the span of a week, which could help them in tonight’s game. As I mentioned prior to Game Five, pitchers who make two starts in a postseason series haven’t seen their performance slip in the second game, on average. On average is the key phrase there. In an individual game, anything can happen, and the Yankees could zero in on something Verlander did in Game Two and adjust.

“I’m sure there will be some adjustments, yes. I think as any pitcher you don’t want the team, if you’re going at the same team twice in a row, you don’t want them to see the exact same guy or same game plan, so there will probably be some adjustments on my end,” added Verlander. “But also I have to trust my instincts and what my eyes tell me more than anything.”

Verlander dominated in Game Two for two reasons. One, his stuff was electric. That’s always a good start. And two, he was ahead in the count all night. Verlander faced 32 batters and 22 saw a first pitch strike. Thirteen of the 32 batters saw an 0-2 count, and that’s no way to hit. How did Verlander get ahead in Game Two? With his fastball. Only six of those 32 batters did not get a first pitch fastball. Here are his first pitches in Game Two, via Baseball Savant:

justin-verlander-first-pitches

Thirty-two batters, 26 first pitch fastballs. Furthermore, the first pitch non-fastballs were thrown to specific batters. Gary Sanchez saw three first pitch curveballs in his four at-bats and Greg Bird saw two first pitch curveballs in his four at-bats. Chase Headley saw a first pitch slider, and he was struggling mightily at the time, so I guess Verlander just felt like piling on. But yeah, six first pitch non-fastballs and five were thrown to Sanchez and Bird.

During the regular season Verlander threw 69.8% first pitch fastballs, so seven out of ten times he’d throw a heater on the first pitch to try to get ahead. That’s what he does. Verlander has a great fastball and he uses it to put the hitter on the defensive. Luis Severino, who will oppose Verlander tonight, does the same thing. Because Verlander throws so many first pitch fastballs, this seems like something the Yankees might be able to use to their advantage in Game Six tonight.

Now, I’m not saying everyone should go up to the plate and look to an ambush a first pitch fastball. But in select situations, say with a runner on base or in scoring position, sitting dead red on a first pitch fastball might be the best way to get something to hit against Verlander. Of course you want to work the count, especially with Houston’s bullpen being shaky. Then again, Verlander is probably going to throw 110+ pitches anyway, so how much does that help?

Verlander has such a great fastball that you could sit on the pitch, get it, and still not do anything with it. That’s why he’s so great. But the Yankees are a very good fastball hitting team. They hit everything well, but especially fastballs. Their .355 xwOBA on fastballs was seventh best in MLB during the regular season. Knowing Verlander is going to throw so many first pitch fastballs seems like a possible advantage. It’s something to hunt in a specific count given how often he goes to his heater to start an at-bat.

With any luck, Verlander will be worn down a bit following his high-intensity 124-pitch outing in Game Two, and he won’t be quite as sharp tonight. Even with an extra day of rest. If the Yankees hunt first pitch fastballs in certain situations and capitalize, great. If not, well that’s okay too. As good as Verlander was in One Two, he’s not unbeatable. The Yankees got to Keuchel in Game Five and they have the talent to do the same to Verlander in Game Six.

The Yankees are one game away from the World Series thanks to their pitching staff

(Abbie Parr/Getty)
(Abbie Parr/Getty)

In just a few hours the Yankees will look to clinch a spot in the 2017 World Series. I still can’t believe they’ve made it this far. They weren’t supposed to contend this year. They weren’t supposed to come back from down 0-2 to the Indians. They weren’t supposed to come back from down 0-2 to the Astros. Now here they are, one win away from the American League championship. Pretty amazing.

The story of the ALCS so far has been the Astros’ lack of offense, or, as I prefer to frame it, the Yankees’ pitching. They’ve completely shut down the highest scoring offense in baseball in the five games so far. The ‘Stros have scored nine runs (seven earned) on 22 hits and 16 walks in the five games so far. That works out to a 1.45 ERA for the Yankees and a .147/.234/.213 batting line for the Astros. Yeesh.

“It’s rare (for this lineup to struggle so much), because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series,” said Astros manager A.J. Hinch following Game Five. “We’ve swung the bats very well and to this day I believe we’re one game (away from) coming out of it. We’re going to go home. We hit well. We get a day off, which is probably the most important thing, and try to make some offensive adjustments … We haven’t stayed in our game plan quite well enough to make adjustments.”

The last few games, you could see the frustration beginning to mount in the Astros hitters based on their body language. Carlos Correa slammed his bat after popping up with the bases loaded in Game Four. Jose Altuve struck out in the same game and was yelling at himself as he walked back to the dugout. Josh Reddick threw his helmet after swinging at this pitch …

masahiro-tanaka-josh-reddick

… to strike out in Game Five, stranding two men on base in the fifth inning. The Astros are struggling offensively and they know they’re struggling offensively. The frustration has built up and now it’s boiling over. For the Yankees, that’s a wonderful thing. You want the Astros squeezing sap out of the bat. You want them trying to hit a five-run home run with each swing. The less relaxed and comfortable they feel at the plate, the better. The pressure is on big time.

Here are some quick numbers comparing Houston’s offense this series to their offense during the regular season and the ALDS:

Regular Season ALDS ALCS
AVG .282 (1st in MLB) .333 .147
ISO .196 (1st) .238 .067
wOBA .355 (1st) .419 .210
xwOBA .330 (3rd) .377 .293
Avg. Exit Velo 87.6 (3rd) 88.3 86.2
Avg. Launch Angle 12.0° (9th) 18.9° 7.1°
BABIP .313 (4th) .376 .183

Just about everything in that table is a descriptive stat. It’s telling you what actually happened on the field. The one exception is xwOBA, or expected wOBA based on exit velocity and launch angle and all sorts of other factors. It’s telling you what a player or team would be expected to hit based on the type of batted ball. A .293 xwOBA — wOBA is on the same scale as OBP, so .293 is terrible — tells you the Astros aren’t making good contact at all. There’s not much bad luck here, if any.

The Yankees, based on what I’ve seen, haven’t changed their pitching approach much in the ALCS. The Indians went breaking ball heavy in the ALDS, as we saw. The Yankees have not done that. Masahiro Tanaka pitched like Masahiro Tanaka. CC Sabathia pitched like CC Sabathia. So on and so forth. And yet, they’ve completely dominated. They’re not giving up much hard contact, and they’ve been able to limit baserunners. The Astros have had 44 offensive innings this series and in only ten of them have they multiple runners on base. Crazy.

Now, here’s the thing: the Astros aren’t really this bad. Give them enough time and their offense will snap out of it. And that’s why it’s important to end the ALCS as soon as possible, meaning tonight. I have to think the Astros will be energized by their fans and playing at home tonight, the same way the Yankees were energized by their home fans the last three games. Know how the Yankees are 6-0 at home this postseason? Well, the Astros are 4-0 at home.

What’s done is done though. The Yankees have silenced Houston’s offense through five ALCS games and, as a result, they lead the series 3-2. It happened. It’s in the books. As cool as it would be, I don’t think the Yankees have truly found the magic formula to shutting down the Astros. It’s baseball. This stuff happens, and it happened at a bad time for Houston. And if it continues in Game Six, great. If not, the Yankees are good enough to win anyway.