After a rough regular season, Masahiro Tanaka has become the postseason ace the Yankees need

(Getty)
(Getty)

Four years ago the Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka hoping he would do what he is doing right now. They signed him expecting him to be an impact pitcher, especially in the postseason, one who would help the Yankees get to the World Series. The Yankees aren’t in the World Series yet, but they’re a win away, and Tanaka is a very big reason why.

Last night, in Game Five of the ALCS, Tanaka held the Astros to three hits and one walk in seven scoreless innings. He struck out seven and allowed only eight of the 26 batters he faced to hit the ball out of the infield. It was a dominant performance against a very good offense. An ace-like performance through and through.

“He was special again. You look at his three starts in the playoffs, they’ve been special,” said Joe Girardi after last night’s game. “He wins the one game 1-0, I believe, the first start. His two starts here have been really good. And we needed it. This was a big game for us.”

So far this postseason Tanaka has indeed made three starts — one against the Indians and two against the Astros. His start against the Indians was an elimination game, remember. Tanaka’s line in those three starts: 20 IP, 10 H, 2 R, 2 R, 3 BB, 18 K. He’s thrown only 90 of his 284 total pitches from the stretch. Only 32% of his pitches have come with a man on base. That is nuts.

Tanaka, of course, was the last starter the Yankees used this postseason. Luis Severino got the ball in the Wild Card Game because he deserved the ball in the Wild Card Game. The Yankees pushed Tanaka back to Game Three of the ALDS not only because his home/road split is drastic, but because he was the worst of the team’s four postseason starters during the regular season.

During the regular season Tanaka threw 178.1 innings and ranked 50th in ERA (4.74) and 36th in FIP (4.34) among the 58 pitchers with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. His +1.0 WAR put him on par with guys like Ariel Miranda (+1.0 WAR) and Austin Bibens-Dirkx (+0.9 WAR). Only three pitchers allowed more home runs in 2017.

Tanaka did pitch better in the final three months of the regular season, though he was still prone to the occasional blowout, and it was enough for the Yankees to start three pitchers before him in the postseason. Now, three starts later, Tanaka has been the team’s best pitcher in the playoffs and it’s not close. He’s been that good so far.

“All I’m trying to do out there is just try to do my best and that’s pretty much it,” said Tanaka following last night’s game, through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m just keeping it really simple. You go out there and you fight and you empty the tank. I think I’m just really clear of what I need to do out there and I’m just executing that.”

Going from the contract signing in 2014 to postseason ace in 2017 has been a bumpy road. There’s no doubt about that. The Elbow™ still hangs over every pitch he throws. There have been some other injuries along the way, plus a lot of home runs and more than a few dud starts. Tanaka has been intermittently fantastic and terrible the last four years.

What happened in the past doesn’t matter though. Right now Tanaka is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his Yankees career. I truly believe that. This stretch is on par with the first half of 2014. Tanaka is fearless on the mound. The guy seems unflappable. And right now, he’s giving the Yankees exactly what they expected when they signed him. He’s the No. 1 starter on a title contender.

Thoughts following Game Five of the 2017 ALCS

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(Getty)

The Yankees are one win away from going to the World Series. I can’t believe it. They’ve turned an 0-2 series deficit into a 3-2 series lead for the second straight series. Three wins were enough to beat the Indians in the ALDS. The Yankees still need one more win to get to finish off the Astros in the ALCS. What a fun season. Anyway, I have some thoughts on the off-day, so let’s get to ’em.

1. Can’t say enough about Masahiro Tanaka‘s performance last night. His entire postseason, really. It was difficult to expect the Yankees to score a lot of runs given their history against Dallas Keuchel — Joe Girardi played the infield in in the second inning! — so Tanaka was going to have to match zeroes to keep the Yankees in the game, basically. Fortunately, the Yankees roughed Keuchel up and gave Tanaka some breathing room. He kept hanging zeroes on the scoreboard anyway. The Astros only squared him up a handful of times. The Yulieski Gurriel double in the second inning, which eventually led to the infield being drawn in. That’s about it. Tanaka held the Astros to an average exit velocity of 81 mph. That’s nothing. His average exit velocity during the regular season was 87.7 mph. It was 88.2 mph last season, when he finished seventh in the Cy Young voting. Tanaka is a stone-cold assassin on the mound. He stays cool and composed, but he competes like hell and will show some emotion when he gets a big out. What a start last night. What a postseason.

2. What a series for the pitching staff in general. The Yankees have held the Astros to nine runs and 22 hits — only eight of those 22 hits have gone for extra bases (seven doubles and one homer) — in the five games so far. Houston scored eight runs in Game One of the ALDS against Chris Sale and the Red Sox. Then they scored eight more runs in Game Two against Drew Pomeranz. The Yankees have held them to nine runs total in five games. Incredible. And this is not isolated to the Astros either. Here are the runs allowed by game this postseason: 4, 4, 9, 0, 3, 2, 2, 2, 1, 4, 0. That works out to a 2.45 ERA in eleven games and 99.1 innings. In the AL with the DH, against the very good Indians and Astros, and with six of those eleven games being played at hitter friendly Yankee Stadium. Incredible. We all knew the bullpen would be good, and aside from Game Two of the ALDS, it has been. The starters have really come through huge though. Aside from Luis Severino in the Wild Card Game, the Yankees are getting a quality outing every game right now. That’s why they’re one win away from the pennant.

3. The bats have finally come alive. Aaron Judge is 3-for-6 with two doubles and a homer in the last two games, and that doesn’t include his Game Three homer. Gary Sanchez is 3-for-7 with a double and a homer in the last two games. Chase Headley is 4-for-5 in the last two games. Those three guys — well, the two young guys and the DH spot — were really dragging down the offense earlier in the series. Judge and Sanchez were strikeout machines in Games One and Two, and the DH spot had done nothing all postseason until Headley poked a well-placed ground ball back up the middle the other night. I’ve said it several times within the last week and I’m going to say it again: the Yankees have no chance to beat the Astros without Judge and Sanchez contributing. They’re too important to the offense. Over the last two games, they’ve started to contribute, and that’s why the Yankees are now going back to Houston with a 3-2 series lead.

(Getty)
(Getty)

4. We don’t talk about Didi Gregorius enough. As much as we talk about him, it’s still not enough. Gregorius is 6-for-20 (.300) in the series and hitting .275/.383/.500 with more walks (seven) than strikeouts (six) in the postseason so far. He hit the game-tying homer in the first inning of the Wild Card Game and then hit two homers against Corey Kluber in Game Five of the ALDS. He also had a single during the four-run eighth inning rally in ALCS Game Four the other day. Plus Gregorius plays a mean shortstop. He makes everything so look easy when it is very not easy. Didi is similar to Robinson Cano in that he’s so smooth and in control in the field that it looks like he’s not even trying. I never in a million years envisioned Gregorius as a legitimate middle of the order hitter for a World Series contender, but here we are. Replacing Derek Jeter had to be a daunting task for the front office. Turns out they absolutely nailed it on the first try with Didi. What a ballplayer.

5. I know the Yankees won the last three games and have pitched so well and the offense is starting to heat up and they lead 3-2 in the series, but make no mistake, the next win will be the hardest one to get. The Yankees have to get that win in Houston against an Astros team that will be playing all-out to save their season. And they’re facing Justin Verlander tomorrow. This might sound silly because they’re so good, but do not underestimate the Astros. They are an excellent team, much better than we’ve seen in the series so far, and winning one of the next two games will not be easy. The easy part is over. Turning that 0-2 into a 3-2 lead will be nothing compared to nailing down this last win. If the Yankees are going to go to the World Series — I still can not believe this is a thing with a very real chance to happen — they’re really going to have to earn it. Winning one of two games at Minute Maid Park with Verlander set to toe the slab in one of them is no small order. Then again, no one said going to the World Series would be easy.

Yankees 5, Astros 0: Tanaka, Judge, and Sanchez carry Yanks to 3-2 lead in ALCS

The 2017 New York Baseball Yankees are one win away from going to the World Series. What a time to be alive. The Yankees finally — finally! — solved Dallas Keuchel in ALCS Game Five on Wednesday night, en route to a 5-0 win and a 3-2 series lead. Hell of a rebuilding year, eh?

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The ‘Hiro We Need, Not The ‘Hiro We Deserve
So does everyone still want Masahiro Tanaka to opt-out of his contract after the season, or no? Yeah, I thought so. Tanaka made his third start of the postseason Wednesday night and it was another gem, a seven-shutout inning masterpiece against a lineup that has looked more punch-and-Judy than power-and-contact this series.

Only twice during Game Five did Tanaka face a real jam. Yulieski Gurriel, who is pretty much the Astro hitting the ball hard right now, roped a double to left field to start the second inning. Three ground outs later, including one to Starlin Castro with the infield in and one to Tanaka himself, put an end to that threat. That the Yankees had the infield in in the second inning tells you important this game was.

Then, in the fifth, a single by No. 8 hitter Marwin Gonzalez and a walk to No. 9 hitter Brian McCann put two men on base for the Astros with one out. Trouble was brewing and Tommy Kahnle started warming up in the bullpen. Eight pitches later, the inning was over. Tanaka struck out George Springer and Josh Reddick on four pitches each. Only three of those eight pitches were no-doubt strikes. He got Springer and Reddick to chase out of the zone, which Tanaka does better than anyone.

Game Five started when Springer lifted a fly ball to right field that carried and carried and carried to the wall before settling into Aaron Judge‘s glove. I thought it was a routine fly ball off the bat, but it very nearly went out. That was ominous. From that point on though, Tanaka faced 25 batters and only seven hit the ball out of the infield. His seven innings of no effs given pitching featured eight strikeouts and ten ground ball outs. Three hits and one walk, scattered.

Through three postseason starts Tanaka has allowed two runs on ten hits and three walks in 20 innings. He’s struck out 18. That includes his seven shutout innings in Game Three of the ALDS — an elimination game, of course — and two excellent starts against the Astros in the ALCS, a lineup that was baseball’s most fearsome in the regular season given how much power and contact ability they have. Tanaka is not impressed, however. The man is stone cold killer on the mound.

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(Getty)

Beat Up Dallas Before Going To Houston
Dallas Keuchel has earned the Yankees Killer™ tag throughout his career. He went into Game Five with a 1.09 ERA in 57.2 career innings against the Yankees in the regular season and postseason. That includes six shutout innings (on short rest!) in the 2015 Wild Card Game and seven shutout innings in Game One of the ALCS last week. Keuchel has crushed the Yankees. No doubt about that.

And that’s why it felt so damn good to watch the Yankees crush Keuchel in Game Five. He didn’t make it out of the fifth! Never before had he thrown fewer than six innings against the Yankees. Only once before had he thrown fewer than seven innings. The Yankees got on the board quick, with a two-out run in the second inning. Castro banged a double to left-center and Greg Bird hooked a single to right field for a 1-0 lead. Perfect.

One inning later, the suddenly unstoppable Chase Headley led off with a single, then was erased on Brett Gardner‘s fielder’s choice. That turned out to be significant though, because now the Yankees had a faster runner at first base. Judge then brought Gardner home with a rocket double down the left field line and into the corner. See? Faster runner scores from first. Judge is really starting to feel it huh? It’s hard to believe, but at this point, he has to be considered one of the front-runners for the ALCS MVP award.

Anyway, this game turned in the fifth. Turned into the best way to put it. The Yankees went into the inning with a 2-0 lead and that’s great, but it didn’t feel particularly safe. They scored two big insurance runs in that inning and chased Keuchel from the game, giving the offense a few cracks at the bullpen. And it all started with an error. Headley hit a soft grounder to third and Gurriel missed Alex Bregman’s throw at first, allowing Chase to get to second. Hooray.

With two outs and Headley on second, Judge worked a walk in which is seemed like Keuchel was going to give him nothing to hit. If he was willing to chase out of the zone, great. But he wasn’t getting anything in the zone. Judge took the walk, and Gary Sanchez took a hanging slider for a ride to left field for a run-scoring single. Sir Didi Gregorius then found a hole up the middle with a ground ball single to score Judge and give the Yankees a 4-0 lead.

The Didi single ended Keuchel’s night. His final line: 4.2 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 1 BB, 8 K on 86 pitches. Satisfying. Very satisfying. What was the difference between Game One and Game Five? The Yankees refused to chase down below the strike zone. Check it out:

yankees-vs-dallas-keuchel

I count eight strikeouts and three ground ball outs on pitches below the strike zone in Game One. In Game Five, I count three strikeouts and nothing else. No ground balls. The Yankees made Keuchel get the ball up, which is baseball speak for don’t give him any gifts by chasing down. If he wanted a swing, he’d have to get the ball up in the zone. The Yankees laid off those pitches down and it made all the difference in Game Five.

Leftovers
Further evidence Sanchez is getting locked in: he clocked a solo home run off Brad Peacock in the seventh inning for a 5-0 lead. Gary went 1-for-3 with the go-ahead double in Game Four and 2-for-4 with the run-scoring single and solo homer in Game Five. He’s driven in five of the team’s eleven runs the last two games. Judge and Sanchez are really starting to do damage, folks. That sure is exciting.

Shout out to Kahnle for two stress-free innings to close out the game. He did allow a ninth inning double to Carlos Correa, which had Aroldis Chapman stirring in the bullpen, but there was no drama after that. Seven up, six down on 20 pitches for Kahnle in Game Five. He’s scattered two hits and two walks in ten scoreless innings this postseason. Sure, why not? David Robertson and Chapman will go into Game Six having had two straight days off. Huge.

The DH spot lives! Headley went 3-for-4 and is 5-for-7 over the last three games. Thank goodness for that. The Designated Out-Makers act was no fun. Gregorius had two hits as well. The Astros? They had four hits in the game. The Yankees have held them to nine runs and 22 hits in five games. That’ll work.

Bird went 1-for-2 with two walks in Game Five and is now 4-for-13 (.308) with seven walks and six strikeouts in the series. That’s a .308/.550/.615 line. Aaron Judge, have you been impressed by Bird’s big series? “I’m not impressed. That’s Greg Bird,” said Judge after the game. Hell yeah it is.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head on over to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. We have a Bullpen Workload page. Here’s the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
A chance to clinch the American League pennant. That’s what’s up next. The ALCS is heading back to Houston for Game Six. A win sends the Yankees to the World Series. A loss means they’ll play a Game Seven. Thursday is an off-day, then Justin Verlander and Luis Severino will be on the mound for Game Six on Friday night. Fun fun fun.

2017 ALCS Game Five: Astros at Yankees

2017-alcs-logoWelcome to the best-of-three ALCS. The Astros won the first two games, the Yankees the last two games. It’s a new series, and it starts this evening at Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees are undefeated this postseason. They’re a perfect 5-0 at home and have outscored their opponents 30-12 in the five games, which of course includes three elimination games.

Today’s game will determine which is the greater baseball force: Dallas Keuchel against the Yankees or the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Well, I suppose we don’t have to get an answer. Keuchel could dominate and the Yankees could win anyway thanks to a rally against the Astros bullpen, the same way Lance McCullers Jr. dominated and the Yankees won anyway yesterday. That’d be fun, even if I’d love an easy win one of these days.

More importantly, today’s game will decide whether the Yankees go to Houston needing to win one game or two this weekend. Going to Houston needing to win two games would be awfully tough. Doable, sure, but a win this afternoon at home would make life sooo much easier. With the off-day tomorrow, I expect to see Joe Girardi be very aggressive with his top relievers to nail down this win. Here are the starting lineups:

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. DH Carlos Beltran
8. LF Marwin Gonzalez
9. C Brian McCann
LHP Dallas Keuchel

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

It has been a stunningly beautiful day in New York. Sunny and cool. Pretty much perfect weather, baseball or otherwise. It’ll be a bit chilly tonight, of course. Today’s game will begin at 5pm ET and FOX Sports 1 has the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

The Yanks might see a different Dallas Keuchel in Game Five

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

Once again, the Yankees have battled back from down 2-0 in a postseason series to knot things up 2-2. They did it against the Indians in the ALDS and now they’ve done it against the Astros in the ALCS. Their reward: Dallas Keuchel in Game Five and Justin Verlander in Game Six. That’s no fun. Then again, no one thought facing Corey Kluber in Game Five of the ALDS would be fun, and we know how that went.

Keuchel, as you know, shut the Yankees down in his team’s Game One win. Seven scoreless innings, four hits, one run, ten strikeouts. He was dominant. And he’s been dominant against the Yankees pretty much his entire career. The players change but Keuchel’s dominance against the laundry has remained the same.

In theory, seeing Keuchel for the second time in the span of a week should help. The Yankees are more familiar with him now, right? Ben Lindbergh’s research suggests otherwise. During the wildcard era, pitchers who made two starts in a single postseason series showed no significant change in performance in the second start, as long as they were on normal rest, like Keuchel will be in Game Five.

postseason-starters

Keep in mind that is a big picture look at things. That’s the average of 211 pitchers making multiple starts in one postseason series. In one individual game, anything can happen. The Yankees could benefit from seeing Keuchel for the second time in the series even though the research suggests it doesn’t really matter. And this works both ways. The Astros could benefit from seeing Masahiro Tanaka for the second time in Game Five too.

When Keuchel dominated the Yankees in Game One, he did it primarily with his sinker and slider. He threw 109 total pitches in the game and 57 were sinkers. Another 28 were sliders. That’s 52.8% sinkers and 25.8% sliders. His regular season averages: 50.8% sinkers and 18.7% sliders. Furthermore, Keuchel threw one (1) changeup in Game One. That’s all. He said Tuesday the pitch wasn’t working, so he had to lean on his slider instead.

“It mainly was a feel. I’m usually throwing 10-15, maybe 20% percent changeups, especially to this group being such good fastball hitters” said Keuchel yesterday when asked about not using his changeup in Game One. “And it was just the fact that I had some really late movement on my two-seam and my slider was really good, the cutter was decent. So I didn’t feel the need to change speeds with the changeup.”

That is sorta scary! Keuchel pitched so well in Game One despite not using his changeup, which is widely regarded as his best secondary pitch. He didn’t have a feel for the pitch, so he had to lean on the slider — and also the cutter, which he threw 19 times, way more than usual — and he still pitched effectively. Chances are Keuchel won’t eschew his changeup in Game Five. At least not if it’s working.

“Hopefully that comes into play tomorrow where they only saw one changeup,” added Keuchel.” It might come in handy … The changeup usually is the second to third best pitch. And for me to not use it hopefully will come into play for me tomorrow.”

On one hand, this sounds bad. Keuchel pitched well last time out and he did it without his best secondary pitch, and now he figures to break it out in Game Five. On the other hand, Keuchel has thrown only one changeup in the past 12 days. Including his ALDS start against the Red Sox, he’s thrown only seven changeups in the last 23 days. The changeup is a feel pitch, and if you don’t throw it much, it can be easy to lose that feel.

Even though the fastball-slider approach worked in Game One, my hunch is Keuchel will look to use his changeup more often in Game Five today, as long as the pitch is behaving properly. That means a new look for the Yankees, who didn’t see the pitch in Game One. With any luck, Keuchel will hang a few of those changeups and the Yankees will take advantage, or he’s miss out of the zone and put them in favorable counts. That’s where a potential lack of feel can come into play.

Either way, changeup or no changeup, I feel the key to beating Keuchel remains the same: wait him out. Houston’s middle relief is sketchy as hell right now — even Ken Giles, as good as he is, has allowed a run in all four postseason appearances so far — and the more bullpen the Yankees see, the better their chances of winning. Keuchel is awfully tough and he can frustrate opposing hitters and fans alike. The sooner the Yankees get him out of the game, the better.

The small things added up in Yankees’ Game Four win

Slip 'N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Slip ‘N Slide (Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Whenever you have a big win, some big things have to go your way. A homer here, a double there, a strikeout here, a double play there. This all kind of goes without saying.

But there are also the little things that change everything. The borderline strike call. The tiny bit of experience you have against the opposing pitcher. The fielder being shaded a foot this way or that.

In Game 4, the big ones are obvious. The Aaron Judge hits (MVP!), Gary Sanchez‘s double and really any hit from the seventh inning on. Chad Green and Aroldis Chapman keeping the Astros relatively silent. But I wanted to break down or simply note a few of the small details that changed the complexion of the contest and led to perhaps the Yankees’ biggest win since Nov. 4, 2009.

1. Sitting on McCullers’ curve: Going into Game Four, Judge had about as good a feel against Lance McCullers as any Yankee hitter. He was 2 for 4 with a double and a walk against the righty in five career plate appearances and walked in one of his first two PAs on Tuesday.

McCullers is obviously a curveball-first pitcher, especially in Game 4, as he should be with that good a curve. But Judge has seen it well and McCullers has actually avoided the curve against Judge this year, often using his fastball and change. He’d only led off with a curve for a strike once, his first AB against Judge back in May.

But Judge is a smart hitter and knew to keep looking for it. It doesn’t take an MVP to hit a hanging curve, but it takes a good hitter to be waiting for the right pitch. He got his first pitch curve over the plate and took advantage.

2. The ABs against Chris Devenski: The Yankees have figured out Devenski. Some credit definitely goes to the Yankees’ advance scouts, including former reliever Matt Daley, who Suzyn Waldman mentioned on the WFAN postgame as involved in watching the Astros the last month or so.

Maybe the league has figured out Devenski and he just needs to adjust. Or maybe it’s just a rough stretch. The changeup master seems to have lost some steam in recent months and his three at-bats against Yankee batters were a perfect example.

The Bombers know to wait for his fastball and spit on his offspeed stuff, which he hasn’t been throwing for strikes. Didi Gregorius lined an 0-1 fastball for a triple (more on this in a second), Gary Sanchez got a 2-1 fastball and drove it to right and Greg Bird spat on a nice 2-2 change before drawing a walk. Bird did swing through a 2-1 change, but he made the adjustment.

3. Defensive non-replacement: In case you forgot, the Yankees lost a game to the Astros on May 11 this year because A.J. Hinch went to Jake Marisnick as a defensive replacement in left field and he threw out Jacoby Ellsbury at the plate. Marisnick is a very solid corner outfielder and would have been welcome for the Astros in the later innings.

But he’s out for this series after fracturing his thumb in September. That’s part of why Cameron Maybin was in left field to miss Greg Bird’s double on Monday and Marwin Gonzalez was in left on Tuesday. Gonzalez is a fine hitter and solid fielder, but has below average foot speed. If Hinch has Marisnick, he likely puts him in left starting in the seventh, when he would have had a chance to flag down Didi’s triple for an out. Or hold him at second. Either way, an injury to a backup on another team in September could have made a difference tonight.

4. Cutting down Gurriel: Backing up a moment, I just wanted to quickly mention the cut-off on Yuli Gurriel’s three-run double. Todd Frazier does a good job of cutting the ball, surely aided by his teammates, and getting Gurriel in a rundown. Finely executed rundown with the putout by Judge coming in from right field. The big man helping in all sorts of ways! The play helped keep the game at 3-0 for the moment and was a nice team effort.

5. Chase Headley and Joe Musgrove’s cutter: Musgrove tried a backdoor cutter to Headley to start the eighth-inning at-bat and missed. Headley mentioned postgame that he kept it in his mind that Musgrove may go back to it. Sure enough, he did on 2-2 and Headley lined it into left-center. That’s just smart baseball from Headley.

6. Headley’s slide: This one, pictured above, was delightful at the start, scary in the middle and exhilarating at the end. How many times have the Yankees made outs on the bases this postseason? Feels like too many. This was less a bad baserunning play and more bad luck with Headley stumbling. He’s a smart baserunner and gets lucky that Carlos Correa doesn’t hold the ball a split-second longer to wait him out. Phew. This was a small one that was a big one if you know what I mean.

7. The non-called strike: Judge fouled off the first pitch from Ken Giles. Like every pitcher this postseason, Giles then went for an offspeed pitch away. However, he didn’t get the call.

(Screenshot)
(Screenshot)

Perhaps he should have. Perhaps this was karma from the baseball gods for all the bad calls Judge has seen at times this postseason. If the count goes 0-2, who knows if Judge can fight his way to tie the game? At 1-1, Judge maintained some control and it led to his big double. Also helps that he’s seen Giles a few times now dating back to the regular season and knew what the tough righty threw.

There were plenty other examples.  One pitch in his walk on Friday perhaps led to Gary Sanchez’s go-ahead double off Giles. Maybe Didi’s bunt on Monday changed the Astros’ defensive alignment to allow his seeing-eye single in the eighth. It’s hard to discern at times.

The Yankees need many more big hits, defensive plays and strikeouts to get through this series and another seven-game set. To accompany those, they’ll need some of these small ones to go their way as well.

Thoughts prior to Game Five of the 2017 ALCS

(Getty)
(Getty)

So are we having fun this postseason or what? Once again, the Yankees have fought back from down 0-2 in a series to even things up 2-2. They did it against the Indians in the ALDS, and now the Astros are getting a taste of the Fighting Spirit in the ALCS. That win was amazing yesterday, but the series is far from over. You know that. It’s a best-of-three now. Anyway, let’s get to the thoughts.

1. Now that the series is tied 2-2, the hard part begins. Mathematically, the Yankees have to do two things to win this series. They have to beat Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander, and they have to win a game in Houston. Can’t do it any other way. Today’s game is huge for both teams, because neither wants to go back to Houston needing to win Games Six and Seven. That’s true for the Astros, not just the Yankees. Because there’s an off-day tomorrow, I imagine Joe Girardi is ready to go all out with his bullpen to nail down a win today. In a perfect world Masahiro Tanaka would throw seven brilliant innings like he did in Game Three of the ALDS, when the Yankees were facing elimination. If not, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson could both be asked to throw multiple innings. So could Aroldis Chapman if there are some stray outs that need to get got in the eighth. Girardi knows these guys will get to rest Thursday, and a win today in Game Five would make things so much easier going forward. Hopefully Tanaka continues to pitch well and takes the ball deep into the game. If not, I expect Girardi to use that bullpen aggressively.

2. Speaking of the bullpen, the Astros seem to have some issues down there, huh? Steven wrote about this last week. Ken Giles, last night’s blowup aside, has been pretty great all year. Chris Devenski and Will Harris have been very home run prone since the All-Star break though — Harris gave up Aaron Judge‘s three-run home run in Game Three — and neither Luke Gregerson nor Francisco Liriano inspire much confidence right now. There’s a reason neither see high-leverage work. The Yankees sent 15 batters to plate against Houston’s bullpen yesterday and none of the 15 struck out. That seems impossible. Could you imagine the Yankees bullpen going 15 batters without a strikeout? Keuchel and Verlander are workhorses of the first order. The Astros can reasonably expect them to pitch deep into Games Five and Six because they’ve been doing it all year. Now that the Yankees are seeing these guys a second time, hopefully they work the count a little more and not only be more effective against them, but also get into the bullpen a little sooner. The Astros have some issues down there right now, and I’ll take my chances in a battle of the bullpens any day of the week.

3. Man, how great was it to see Judge and Gary Sanchez play such huge roles in the comeback yesterday? Forget about their recent strikeout-filled slumps for a second. I’m just talking about two young cornerstone players getting huge hits in a postseason game. That is an awful lot of fun, isn’t it? These two are the faces of the franchise now. These are the types of hits and moments the Yankees are going to count on them to provide the next five or ten or however many years. And to see them do it now, in their first postseason and first full MLB season? Gosh that is awesome. Sanchez and especially Judge have looked more dangerous at the plate the last two games and it’s not a second too soon. The Yankees need those two to beat Keuchel and Verlander. I’m just glad they were able to snap out of their slumps and contribute in a huge way to that memorable win last night. That alone is really exciting and memorable.

(Getty)
(Getty)

4. Todd Frazier has been exactly the right player at exactly the right time for the Yankees. He’s been involved in basically every notable rally so far this postseason. He had the run-scoring double against Trevor Bauer in ALDS Game Four. He worked a nine-pitch walk in front of Brett Gardner‘s monster 12-pitch at-bat in ALDS Game Five. He slugged the three-run home run in ALCS Game Three the other day. Then, last night, he started that four-run eighth inning rally with a leadoff single. Frazier is a flawed hitter. He pops up a lot and it drags down his average. That’s just who he is. But, so far this postseason, Frazier has shown he’s not afraid of the bright lights and he embraces the biggest moments. And that’s on top of all the intangibles he adds. His teammates love him and he brings so much energy to ballclub. No one is having more fun than this dude. Given his role as a complementary player who bats near the bottom of the order, he’s been as good as the Yankees could’ve possibly hoped. Sometimes teams make a trade and that player just fits in perfectly. That’s Frazier.

5. Austin Romine catching Sonny Gray is absolutely going to be a thing now. Assuming the Yankees advance and Gray makes another start, of course. I hope he gets that chance. Following the game yesterday Gray said he and Romine were on the same page — he shook him off only once in five innings — and they had a good rhythm going. That sounds like more than enough for Girardi to justify keeping them together. Gray’s last four starts prior to yesterday were rough, mostly because he struggled to throw strikes, so I imagine anything that makes him comfortable and effective will remain in place going forward. That’s Romine. Gray said himself they were working well together. What can you do? I guess this is a thing now.

6. With each passing round this postseason, the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium has gotten better and better. The place was electric last night. The atmosphere was great during the Wild Card Game, it was even better during the ALDS, and now it’s better than it’s ever been since the new place opened. I went to postseason games in 2009. Aside from maybe Alex Rodriguez‘s game-tying home run against Joe Nathan, I don’t ever remember the ballpark getting as loud and as rowdy as it did during the eighth inning rally last night. It’s been amazing. Really amazing. This team is lovable — how weird is it that the most lovable team left in the postseason is the Yankees? — and fans are buying into it. The fact they’ve exceeded expectations makes it so much better. This has been such a fun ride, from the young players having so much success on down to being at the ballpark.