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.

Mailbag: Tanaka, Otani, Thomson, Gleyber, Judge, Bullpen

We’ve got nine questions in this week’s mailbag. And later tonight, the Yankees will look to clinch the American League pennant. Amazing. Anyway, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is where you can send us any questions.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Many asks: Does Tanaka’s great postseason make him more likely to opt-out?

It could, sure. That said, teams have shown they won’t overreact to good (or bad) postseason performance. They don’t pay players based on October. They pay them based on their entire body of work and expected production going forward. Is Tanaka any different right now than he was three weeks ago? No, not really. We all knew he could have starts like this. We’ve seen him do it before. We knew it was in there.

I’ve said all season I think the chances of Tanaka opting out are pretty darn high, like 80/20. Either opting out or leveraging the opt-out into a contract extension like CC Sabathia did way back when. I don’t think anything has changed. The great postseason surely won’t hurt Tanaka’s earning potential in a few weeks. I just don’t think it’ll make a big difference either way. Teams have shown they won’t get caught up in the postseason and make an emotional decision, and I assume the same is true of Tanaka when it comes time to use that opt-out.

Jason asks: Do you think the Marlins gig will hurt Jeter’s legacy with the Yankees? He will probably have to detach himself from NYY team events and may find himself in direct conflict with the team at times. He was already very reserved and a bit disconnected, so he is starting from a difficult position to begin with.

Nah. Derek Jeter is a Yankees icon and he’ll always be a Yankees icon. Did Andy Pettitte signing with the Astros, or Don Mattingly leaving to manage the Dodgers hurt their legacies? I don’t think so. No matter what he does with the Marlins in Miami, Jeter will always be remembered as a Yankees legend, first and foremost. He hasn’t been around the team much anyway since retiring — Jeter has been back for number retirements and various ceremonies, that’s it — so it’s not like we’ll even notice he’s gone. I don’t think hooking on with the Marlins will change his legacy at all. Derek is a legacy Yankee, now and forever.

Evan asks: Did you catch A-Rod post game 5 giving a lot of the credit to Rob Thomson as the glue between the player and Girardi and management and saying he expects him to get a job as a manager soon? Any thoughts on him to the Marlins or being a Girardi replacement (recent article saying Joe might be getting tired and his family moved to Florida)?

Joe Girardi brought up Thomson prior to Game Five when asked about Aaron Judge, completely unprompted. “He’s a complete player. He’s a great defender. He’s a great baserunner. And he does so many things right at an early age on a big stage, and just the way he handles all the attention simply amazes me. It’s as good as it gets … That goes back to our minor league system, the way they’ve raised him. And Rob Thomson, he stays on these guys all the time to make sure they’re in the right place and ready to go,” said Joe.

Thomson has been with the Yankees forever. Since 1990, when he was named third base coach for High-A Fort Lauderdale. That was before the Yankees moved their operations to Tampa. Since then, Thomson has served as a minor league coach, field coordinator, director of player development, vice president of minor league development, first base coach, third base coach, and bench coach (two stints). He interviewed with the Blue Jays about their managerial opening back in 2010. (Thomson grew up outside Toronto.)

I don’t know anything about Thomson’s relationship with Jeter, so I’m not sure if he’s a candidate to head to the Marlins. Jeter has a very small circle and Gary Denbo was in that circle. I’m not sure whether Thomson is. If Girardi does leave to spend more time with his family after the season, I have to think Thomson would at least be considered for the manager’s job. Heck, the Yankees might look at him as a potential Denbo replacement. You don’t stick with one team for nearly three decades without having a lot to offer.

A few people asked: Why didn’t Sanchez have to throw to first on the strikeout to end the ALDS???

That was an interesting play, wasn’t it? Aroldis Chapman struck out Austin Jackson looking to end the ALDS, but Gary Sanchez dropped the pitch behind the plate. Here’s the play:

Jackson could’ve gone to first base and forced Sanchez to make the throw for the out. From what I’ve been told, the throw was not necessary because the home plate umpire determined Jackson made no attempt at the base. He stood there arguing the called strike three instead. Jackson had to go for first base basically right away.

Here’s the interesting thing: Sanchez put the ball in his back pocket. That could’ve been declared a dead ball and Jackson awarded two bases. The umpire did not signal Jackson was out for not attempting to take first base prior to Gary putting the ball in the pocket, at least not with his hands. He might’ve called him out verbally. Terry Francona could’ve argued the ball was in Sanchez’s pocket before Jackson was deemed to have not made an attempt for first base, but geez, that would’ve been tough to prove.

Ray asks: Does the Yankees win in the ALDS have a side benefit of making this young, exciting team more attractive to Shohei Otani?

Sure, it could. Ultimately, none of us have any idea what Otani will prioritize when picking a team. Money? Location? Chance to win? Weather? I would imagine the Yankees being an up-and-coming team with a lot of young players who are ready to win now — and showing they can win right now — makes them awfully attractive to any free agent. Plus there’s the whole New York thing. I think that’s pretty cool. It makes for a mighty long trip to Japan, however. I don’t think I’m being a raging homer when I say the Yankees figure to be a premier free agent destination going forward. They have money, they have talent, and they’re ready to win. What more could anyone want?

Brian asks: Way too early prediction, what do you think the chances of Gleyber making the team out of ST are? I’d guess very low even if he rakes in ST they’d send him down and call him up in early-mid May.

Tiny. The kid just missed half a season with a serious elbow injury and he’ll just be getting back on the field in Spring Training. Gleyber Torres played only 23 Triple-A games before the injury, remember. He didn’t even have 100 plate appearances. Even if he lights it up in Spring Training (again), I have to think the Yankees will send Torres to Triple-A for a few weeks to make sure he plays everyday and gets back on track following surgery. As an added benefit, it’ll delay his free agency one year. I expect Torres to arrive at midseason next year, and once he’s up, I think he’ll be up for good.

Nick asks: Is there a way to see all of called strikes on Judge this postseason? It’d be interesting to know how much of his struggles are related to calls out of the zone, and how much is just good pitching and dotting the corners.

FOX Sports 1 has to get rid of the strike zone overlay. I adds nothing to the broadcast. Actually, it does worse than add nothing because it creates confusion. The strike zone overlay doesn’t seem particularly accurate, especially on the edges of the zone. Here are all the called strikes against Judge this postseason, via Baseball Savant:

aaron-judge-postseason-called-strikes

The bottom of the zone is a big problem for Judge. Well, no, it’s an umpire problem, not a Judge problem, but he’s the one who has to deal with the ramifications. That’s been a problem all season and I hope the Yankees get on MLB’s case about it this winter. Judge’s strike zone is not the standard strike zone, and the umpires have to adjust because the rulebook says a 6-foot-7 player is not subject to same bottom of the zone as a 6-foot-2 player.

As for the edges of the zone, there have been some pitches off the plate called strikes against Judge this postseason, though not a ton. Not more than I’d expect in a random eleven-game sample, really. The pitch down below the zone getting called a strike against Judge is a legitimate problem. The FOX Sports 1 strike zone overlay makes the pitches off the plate in or out look worse than they really are.

Ray asks: I’ve seen/heard mention of how significant it was that the Yankees elected to play the infield in during the second inning of game 5 in the ALCS. With me not being incredibly versed in baseball defensive strategy, can you explain to me why that was a big deal? If playing the infield in is the best way to limit the opposing team from scoring runs in that situation, why would the inning matter? Why would it not be the defensive strategy all the time regardless of inning?

Playing the infield in improves your chances of either throwing the runner out at the plate, or forcing him to hold at third, which is what happened in Game Five. The runner held on the ball right to Starlin Castro. The downside is fielders have less time to react to a batted ball, so a grounder is more likely to get through the infield and become a hit, which could lead to a big inning. You’re banking on the ball being hit right at an infielder, basically.

Generally speaking, teams only play the infield in in close games, where one run makes a big difference. Playing the infield in in the second inning the other day tells us Girardi wasn’t expecting the Yankees to score many runs, and hey, who could blame him given Dallas Keuchel’s history against the Yankees? He felt every single run was imperative, enough that he was willing to risk a potentially bigger inning in exchange for improved odds of preventing that run from scoring, and it worked. Usually you only see the infield in in the late innings of a close game. Second inning is pretty rare because it’s still so early in the game and so much can happen. You don’t want to give the other team a better chance to get a grounder through, because that leads to another set of problems.

Matt asks: Obviously a lot of it will depend upon game situation, but what is your optimal bullpen strategy for Game 6? Do you go whole hog and ride Kahnle, Green, Robertson, Chapman for 5-7 innings total if the game is up for grabs? Or do you save a few bullets for a potential Game 7 against a starter who is definitively more beatable than Justin Verlander?

Treat it like a Game Seven and go all out to win. Now, if Luis Severino gets knocked out after two innings and the Yankees are down eight runs, then no, don’t go to the top relievers. That’s obvious. But if the game is winnable — as far as I’m concerned, being down three runs counts as winnable against Houston’s bullpen — go with the top guys and put yourself in the best position to win the game. And if the Yankees have a lead, absolutely go hard with the top relievers. Get this series over with. Ride the top relievers as long as possible, avoid Game Seven, and enjoy the extra day of rest afterwards.

Thursday Night Open Thread

Off-days following a win during the regular season are pretty great. Off-days following three straight wins in the ALCS to get the Yankees to within one win of the World Series are outstanding. These last few days have been pretty amazing. Enjoy the off-day. Tomorrow’s game is probably going to be hell. In the meantime, make sure you check out these Jeff Passan joints on raucous Yankee Stadium and the annoyingly lovable 2017 Yankees. Annoying for non-Yankees fans, that is. Also, don’t miss Tom Verducci on the young hitters.

Here is an open thread for the evening. The Dodgers and Cubs will play Game Five of the NLCS tonight (8pm ET on TBS), plus there’s Thursday Night Football (Chiefs vs. Raiders), and all the locally hockey and basketball teams except the Nets are in action. You folks know how these threads work by now, so have at it.

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

(Getty)
(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.

(Getty)
(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.