Yankees 8, Astros 1: Judge breaks out, Sabathia shuts down Astros in Game Three

Alright alright alright. Now we have a series. After getting stifled by Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in Games One and Two of the ALCS, the Yankees bounced back with a big 8-1 win in Game Three on Monday night. Good hitting, good pitching, good defense. This one had it all and the Yankees needed every bit of it. The Astros still lead the best-of-seven series 2-1.

Love this team. (Abbie Parr/Getty)
Love this team. (Abbie Parr/Getty)

Three Early Runs
With one swing of the bat, the Yankees scored more runs in the second inning of Game Three than they did in Games One and Two combined. Man did that Todd Frazier home run feel good. The rally started with two outs too. Line out by Gary Sanchez and strikeout by Greg Bird. It looked like another quick 1-2-3 inning for an offense that hadn’t done much in the series up to that point.

Things turned when Starlin Castro beat out an infield single and the pretty much unstoppable Aaron Hicks looped a single to shallow left field. Hicks has been so good this postseason. On both sides of the ball. Frazier’s three-run home run was one of those home runs that left you wondering how the hell it was a home run. Look at the point of contact:

todd-frazier

What the what. First of all, that’s a 95 mph fastball dotting the down-and-away corner perfectly. A great pitch, that was. Somehow Frazier reached out and one-armed the ball into the short porch for a three-run home run. A Yankee Stadium cheapie? Yeah, it sure looked like it. But the ball left his bat at 100.5 mph, so Frazier made great contact. And as he rounded first base, he pumped his fist has hard as I’ve ever seen a player pump his fist on a homer. Todd was pumped the hell up.

The Judge Game
There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Aaron Judge has had a brutal postseason to date. He went into Game Four with a 4-for-31 (.129) line and 19 strikeouts — 19 strikeouts! — in eight postseason games. And, in the first inning, Judge struck out again. On three pitches! That wasn’t good.

Fortunately, things started to turn after that. Judge worked a one-out walk in the third inning, and while it didn’t lead to a run, he finally got a favorable call on a pitch at the knees. He’s been getting hose on those all series. All season, really. The call went in his favor and, if nothing else, maybe that boosted his confidence a bit.

Also a confidence boost: robbing Yulieski Gurriel of extra bases in the fourth inning. Judge made a tremendous leaping catch — it wouldn’t have been a home run, but it definitely would’ve gone for a double without the catch — and crashed hard into the wall with his left shoulder, the shoulder he’s been icing basically the entire second half. Great catch! But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little worried about the shoulder.

Judge showed the shoulder was fine in the next half-inning. He somehow pulled his hands in and yanked a 93 mph Will Harris fastball to left field for a big three-run home run that turned a too close for comfort 5-0 lead into an okay you gave unclench now 8-0 lead. It was a very similar pitch to the high fastball he hit for a two-run double against Trevor Bauer in ALCS Game Four.

That five-run fourth inning rally was set up Cameron Maybin forgetting how to play defense. For whatever reason, he pulled up in left field and let Bird’s bloop dunk in for a ground-rule double. I have no idea. Not complaining though. Bird moved to third on Hicks’ fly ball to the warning track, then scored when Chase Headley perfectly placed a weak ground ball back up the middle. First DH hit of the postseason!

Headley’s two-out infield single gave the Yankees a 4-0 lead. It became 5-0 after Brett Gardner was hit by a pitch to load the bases, and Harris spiked a curveball that bounced away from Evan Gattis for a wild pitch. Not the best effort by Gattis to catch that ball. He just kinda watched it hit his mitt and did nothing else. Considering Judge’s strikeout issues, getting a run on the wild pitch felt big. He was definitely a candidate for an inning-ending strikeout. Instead, dinger time.

But wait! That wasn’t all for Judge. In the next half-inning he made a tremendous diving catch in shallow right field to take away a bloop single. And! And he made another nice running catch on a pop-up near the foul line. In the span of three half-innings, Judge made two excellent catches in right field and crushing a home run. That is how you impact a damn baseball game. What a game for Judge.

I Love It When You Call Me Big Stoppa
No, he is no longer the pitcher he was in his prime, but damn does CC Sabathia know how to come through in big spots. He’s stopped losing streaks all season, and with Game Three a must-win for all intents and purposes, Sabathia went out shut the Astros down across six innings. Three singles, four walks, five strikeouts, no runs. With a big 8-0 lead, Joe Girardi let the big man air it out for 99 pitches.

The biggest moment of the game for Sabathia came in the top of third, immediately after Frazier’s homer. After two quick outs, Sabathia walked George Springer, gave up a single to left to Alex Bregman, and walked Jose Altuve to load the bases. For Carlos Correa, no less. That’s not good. Sabathia stuck to the game plan, busted Correa in on the hands with a cutter, and got him to pop-up harmlessly on the infield. Ex-friggin-hale.

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Sabathia, who had the fifth highest soft contact rate and the sixth lowest hard contact rate in baseball this season, held the Astros to a 73.7 mph average exit velocity in Game Three. It was the lowest for any pitcher against the ‘Stros this season, according to James Smyth. In a way, Sabathia was the perfect pitcher to send out there against the Astros. They’re going to put the ball in play, but CC knows how to use their aggressiveness against them, and seemingly nothing he gives up is hard-hit.

Once upon a time, when the Yankees first signed Sabathia, there was a lot of ink spilled about his lack of postseason success. Now? Now he’s 37 years old and still slingin’ like a champ in the postseason. He’s the guy the Yankees want on the mound in a big game and I feel exactly the same way. There’s something to be said for not being overwhelmed by the moment and knowing how to pitch rather than overpower. Late career Sabathia is awfully fun.

Close It Out
I have zero complaints about Girardi’s bullpen usage in Game Three. With the 8-0 lead, he went to Adam Warren for the seventh and eighth innings, and it was only the third time Warren has seen game action since coming off the disabled list. Correa and Gurriel both his balls that I thought were gone off the bat in the eighth, but they just died in the cold night air. Two quick, scoreless innings for Warren.

Girardi went to Dellin Betances with the 8-0 lead because, well, if you’re not going use Dellin up 8-0, when will you? Bad Betances showed up and walked the first two — and only two — batters he faced. His pitch locations:

dellin-betances-pitch-location

Poor Dellin. Can’t help but feel terrible for the guy. His body language tells you his confidence is completely shot. How could it not be? The two walks ended the night Betances, and in came Tommy Kahnle to wrap things up. He allowed a single and walked in a run, which is mildly annoying, but whatever. It was 8-0. Altuve banged into a game-ending double play with the bases. Not very MVP like, if you ask me.

Leftovers
The Yankees had six hits in 3.2 innings against Charlie Morton, but don’t confuse that for crushing him. Frazier hit the home run, yes, but two of those six hits were infield singles — really three if you include Headley’s well-placed grounder against the shift — another was the Bird bloop double Maybin should’ve caught, and another was the Hicks flare single. Hey, I’ll take it. The Yankees hadn’t been getting those weak hits lately.

Everyone in the lineup reached base at least once except Sanchez, who crushed a fly ball in the eighth inning. Like Correa and Gurriel against Warren, I thought it was gone off the bat, but it just didn’t carry. Not a good night for fly balls. Gardner and Sanchez were the only starters without a hit. Gardner did get hit by a pitch to reach base. The Yankees went 3-for-6 with runners in scoring position.

Box Score, WPA Graph & Standings
Head on over to ESPN for the box score and MLB.com for the video highlights. Here is our Bullpen Workload page and here is the win probability graph:


Source: FanGraphs

Up Next
The Game Three win means there will be at least two more games at Yankee Stadium this season. The Yankees will look to even the series 2-2 in Game Four on Tuesday. That is a 5pm ET start, not an 8pm ET start. The Astros haven’t announced their starter yet, though I get the sense it’ll be Dallas Keuchel on short rest. We’ll see. The Astros are starting Lance McCullers Jr., surprisingly. Sonny Gray will be on the bump for the good guys.

2017 ALCS Game Three: Astros at Yankees

2017-alcs-logoOnce again, the Yankees return home in a postseason series down 0-2. And, once again, they’re faced with having to make a big comeback against a 100+ win team. The Yankees made that comeback against the Indians in the ALDS. Can they do it against the Astros in the ALCS? I mean, sure, of course they can. Will they? That’s another matter.

This season the Yankees had the AL’s best home record at 51-30, so it would seem it is advantage Yankees that these games will be played in Yankee Stadium. Then again, the Astros were tied for the AL’s best road record 53-28, so maybe not. But! The Astros were tied with the Indians for the best road record, and we know what happened in the ALDS.

More than anything, the Yankees need to get their offense going. They scored one run in Game One and one run in Game Two, and botched several chances due to poor baserunning decisions. The Astros aren’t exactly firing on all cylinders either. How much longer will that continue, realistically? It would behoove the Yankees to snap out of their team-wide funk soon, as in tonight. Here are the starting lineups:

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

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
LHP CC Sabathia

It is a cold and windy night in the Bronx. Playoff weather. If you’re at the game, I hope you dressed warm. Tonight’s game will begin at 8pm ET and FOX Sports 1 will have the broadcast. Enjoy the game.

Injury Update: Luis Severino (shoulder) doesn’t need further tests, it was determined. He played catch today and they’ll check on him again tonight just to be sure everything is fine. If (when!) there’s a Game Six, Severino will be the starter.

Tommy Kahnle went from having an undefined role during the regular season to being a postseason weapon

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

I don’t think Brian Cashman or the Yankees would admit it, but when they made the big trade with the White Sox back in July, righty Tommy Kahnle was the key piece. Todd Frazier is a rental player and David Robertson, while awesome, is owed quite a bit of a money next season. Kahnle was not just dominant, but he’s cheap and under control through 2020. That’s quite valuable. He was far from a throw-in.

Following the trade, Kahnle never did settle into a defined role with the Yankees. He was a seventh and eighth inning guy with the White Sox, setting up Robertson, but with the Yankees, he’s been more of a jack of all trades. Kahnle would pitch the late innings if the top relievers weren’t available, or handle middle innings work. He also struggled a bit soon after the trade. You could see Joe Girardi wanted to find a spot for him, but couldn’t.

Kahnle was pretty excellent in September, and he finished the regular season with a 2.70 ERA (2.30 FIP) in 26.2 innings with the Yankees. He struck out 31.3% of the batters he faced and walked 8.7%. A little surprising, right? Those first few weeks after the trade were a bit rough for Kahnle. Maybe that’s because the Red Sox were stealing signs. Whatever it was, Girardi never really found a set role for Kahnle during the regular season. He pitched in all situations.

When the postseason started, it wasn’t clear how or when Girardi would use Kahnle. It was clear Robertson and Chad Green were the top two setup options behind Aroldis Chapman. Then what? Well, the Wild Card Game answered that for us. Luis Severino bowed out after getting one out, Green and Robertson soaked up 5.1 innings between them, then it was up to someone to bridge the gap to Chapman. Girardi opted for Kahnle with the tying run on base.

Seven up, seven down for Kahnle in the Wild Card Game, which suddenly earned him some trust. Then, in Game Four of the ALDS, Kahnle retired all six men he faced to spare Robertson and Chapman, and make sure they were ready for the winner-take-all Game Five. And in Game Two of the ALCS, after Severino exited with an injury, Kahnle was the first one of the bullpen with the score tied.

All told this postseason, Kahnle has thrown seven scoreless innings with only a walk allowed. He’s retired 21 of 22 batters faced with seven strikeouts and, just as importantly, he’s thrown only 87 pitches in those seven innings. Kahnle has been excellent and efficient, which helps his availability going forward. He threw only 28 pitches in those two innings in Game Two the other day. I doubt he’s off-limits tonight.

“(He’s) been crucial to our success up to this point,” said Girardi during yesterday’s non-workout day. “The one thing we weren’t quite sure about him when we got him is how much we could use him multiple innings. It’s not something he did very much in Chicago, and he was successful in Chicago. And we thought if we took him out of that type of role, would it change who he was? It hasn’t. Which is very big in the playoffs, because some days you don’t have certain relievers.”

Kahnle didn’t come out of nowhere this postseason. I’ve joked about him pulling a 1996 David Weathers this postseason, but Weathers was quite bad during the 1996 regular season. Kahnle was awesome overall this season. He just never really settled into a set role with the Yankees after the trade, and when Girardi doesn’t have a set role for a reliever, it usually means he doesn’t trust him. Kahnle pitching the seventh and eighth innings of the Wild Card Game was not Plan A.

And so far this postseason, Kahnle’s emergence has been crucial for the Yankees. Dellin Betances still isn’t trustworthy in a close game because of his walk issues, and Adam Warren hasn’t pitched a whole lot since coming back from his back injury very late in the season. Warren has made one appearance in the postseason, throwing one inning with the Yankees down three in the ALDS Game One. That’s kinda where he’s at right now. He’s a mop-up guy.

On paper, the Yankees have an excitingly deep bullpen. In reality, the only relievers Girardi seems to trust implicitly are Robertson and Chapman. Green’s meltdown in ALDS Game Two seemed to knock him down a peg or two, at least temporarily. With Betances unable to throw strikes and Warren questionable after the back injury, the Yankees were suddenly faced with having a bullpen short on trustworthy relievers heading into October. Instead, Kahnle has stepped up, retired basically everyone he’s faced, and become a key component of the postseason bullpen.

Scouting Game Three of the ALCS: Charlie Morton

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Despite allowing four runs total in Games One and Two of the ALCS in Houston, the Yankees return home to New York for Game Three down 0-2 in the series. Annoying! Very annoying, really. The Yankees have been here before though. They came home down 0-2 to the Indians in the ALDS, and that was a best-of-five series. Not a best-of-seven. The current situation is not ideal. It is not insurmountable, however.

The good news: the Yankees don’t have to face Dallas Keuchel or Justin Verlander in Game Three tonight. Those two held the Yankees to one run total in 16 combined innings in Games One and Two. They are: good. Tonight the Yankees will face sinkerballer Charlie Morton, who threw 146.2 innings with a 3.62 ERA (3.46 FIP) during the regular season. His strikeout (26.4%) and ground ball (51.8%) rates were excellent. His walk rate (8.1%) was about average.

Morton’s lone ALDS start against the Red Sox did not go particularly well. He allowed two runs on seven hits and two walks in 4.1 innings, and, on top of that, six of the 12 balls in play against him left the bat at 100+ mph. The Red Sox hit some rockets for outs. Needless to say, it would be swell if Morton were that square-up-able again tonight. Let’s preview Houston’s Game Three starter.

History Against The Yankees

This is Morton’s first season in the American League, so he has limited exposure to the Yankees. Players on the ALCS roster have hit a combined .326/.396/.600 with eight homers in 135 plate appearances against him in his career. A lot of that, including all eight homers and 87 of those 135 plate appearances, are tied up in Matt Holliday, Starlin Castro, and Todd Frazier. They faced Morton a ton when they all played in the NL Central.

Here is how Yankees on the ALCS roster have fared against Morton the last three seasons, via Baseball Reference.

Name PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Aaron Hicks 6 4 1 0 1 0 2 2 1 .250 .500 .750 1.250
Starlin Castro 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Todd Frazier 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Brett Gardner 3 2 2 0 0 0 1 0 0 1.000 1.000 1.000 2.000
Didi Gregorius 3 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 .000 .000 .000 .000
Matt Holliday 3 3 1 0 0 1 3 0 1 .333 .333 1.333 1.667
Aaron Judge 3 2 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 .000 .333 .000 .333
Gary Sanchez 3 2 1 0 0 0 0 1 1 .500 .667 .500 1.167
Jaime Garcia 2 1 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Ronald Torreyes 2 2 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000
Total 31 25 5 0 1 1 6 4 9 .200 .333 .400 .733

Not nearly as much success as the overall career head-to-head numbers would lead to believe. Like I said, a lot of overall success comes from Holliday (Cardinals), Castro (Cubs), and Frazier (Reds) when they faced Morton (Pirates) on the regular as NL Central. A lot of the career head-to-head history is very old and not indicative of who these guys are as players today.

The Yankees did face Morton once this season, scoring four runs in 5.2 innings against him in May. His final line: 5.2 IP, 4 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 4 BB, 10 K. That is a bit misleading though, because Morton dominated the Yankees for four innings before falling apart in the fifth. A walk, two singles, and a Holliday homer put four runs on the board quick. Prior to that, Morton manhandled the Yankees.

Current Stuff

Over the years Morton has gone through several transformations. He went from four-seam pitcher to straight sinkerballer with the Pirates years ago, when he literally copied Roy Halladay’s delivery, hoping it would work for him. He also scrapped his changeup in favor of a splitter. And over the last two years, Morton has added basically two full miles an hour to his fastball. From Brooks Baseball:

charlie-morton-velocity1

Huh. It’s not often you see a pitcher on the wrong side of 30 add velocity like that, but then again, everyone seems to be adding velocity these days, so maybe it’s not that unusual. Morton’s sinker and four-seamer sit in the mid-90s these days, and his top secondary pitch is a hard low-80s curveball. He’ll also throw a few upper-80s cutters and mid-80s splitters per start, though they’re not crucial to his success. For all intents and purposes, he’s a sinker/curveball guy.

Here, via Brooks Baseball, is Morton’s pitch selection against righties and lefties this season:

charlie-morton-pitch-selection

Get ahead with the sinker and put away with the curveball. Fairly standard. Morton isn’t as good at peppering the bottom of the strike zone as Keuchel (few are), though he generally does a very good job locating down in the zone. Verlander crushed the Yankees with fastballs up and down, and breaking balls at the knees. With Morton, almost everything is at the knees. Part of me wonders if the Astros will look to change up the scouting report by having Morton pitch upstairs with four-seam fastballs, even as waste pitches to change eye level. We’ll see.

There aren’t any good 2017 Morton videos out there, so here are his ten strikeouts against the Yankees in that May start. You can get a good enough look at the sinker and curveball here.

During his ALDS start last week, Morton’s location was pretty crappy and he left a lot of pitches belt high. The end result would have been much worse than two runs in 4.1 innings if a) the Red Sox had any power, b) some hard-hit balls didn’t find gloves, and c) Morton didn’t have enough movement on his pitches to occasionally miss the sweet spot even when he makes mistakes.

Platoon Splits

Morton went from having an extreme platoon split from 2015-16 to having a reverse split this year. Weird. Verlander had something similar happen — he went from a slight platoon split to a slight reverse split this year — though not nearly as drastic. Check out Morton’s numbers.

2015-16 vs. RHB: .235/.291/.335 (.274 wOBA) with 17.9 K%, 6.3 BB%, 61.7 GB%
2015-16 vs. LHB: .295/.382/.497 (.378 wOBA) with 18.4 K%, 9.0 BB%, 54.0 GB%

2017 vs. RHB: .272/.263/.298 (.345 wOBA) with 20.9 K%, 7.9 BB%, 45.6 GB%
2017 vs. LHB: .172/.263/.298 (.249 wOBA) with 32.8 K%, 8.4 BB%, 56.1 GB%

While I’m sure there is some sample size noise and general randomness at play here — Morton had a .347 BABIP against lefties from 2015-16 and a .244 BABIP against them this year, though that doesn’t explain the big uptick in strikeouts — it is worth noting the Astros got Morton to use his curveball more often against lefties early in the count. That makes him less predictable and, in theory, leads to fewer balls in play early in the count. If you know a guy is very likely to throw his fastball 0-0, 1-0, 0-1, or whatever, it’s easier to zero in.

Can The Yankees Run On Him?

The Astros have the worst throwing catcher tandem in the league (by far), yet through two ALCS games, the Yankees have attempted zero (0) steals. Obviously a lack of opportunity is part of that. In the two games so far the Yankees have had only seven stolen base opportunities, meaning a runner on first with second base unoccupied. Two of the seven were slow as hell Greg Bird, another was slow as hell Gary Sanchez, and another time the runner moved to second base on a wild pitch on the first pitch of the next at-bat. So, really, it’s only three stolen base opportunities.

Morton allowed only four stolen bases in five attempts this year, but throughout his career, he has been very susceptible to basestealers. Runners are 32-for-38 (84%) stealing bases against him since 2014. So yes, the Yankees can run on him. Should someone who can run (Gardner, Hicks, Jacoby Ellsbury, even Judge) reach base, they should test Brian McCann‘s (or Evan Gattis’) arm. The offense is not clicking right now, so those extra 90 feet can be very valuable.

* * *

If the Yankees are going to come back to make the ALCS interesting, it has to start tonight, at home against Houston’s third starter. They’re not going to see Keuchel or Verlander until at least Game Five — ‘Stros skipper A.J. Hinch has already all but confirmed Keuchel will not start Game Four on short rest — so this is the time to make a move. Against the third and fourth starters at home. Morton had a very good regular season overall, but he’s also had some stinkers, including last time out in the ALDS.

Thoughts prior to Game Three of the 2017 ALCS

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

After two close games at Minute Maid Park, the ALCS now shifts to Yankee Stadium for Games Three and Four and, hopefully, Five. The Yankees are down 0-2 in the series and hey, they’ve been here before. They just came back from down 0-2 against the Indians in the ALDS. That doesn’t mean they’ll do it again. But it shows it can be done. Anyway, I have some thoughts, so let’s get to ’em.

1. The Yankees are down 0-2 in the ALCS because their best players are getting outplayed by Houston’s best players. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa have outhit Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez (by a lot), and Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander have outpitched Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino (by a lot). Heck, Altuve and Correa are 8-for-15 (.533) with a double and a homer in the series, and all the other Astros combined are 3-for-43 (.070) with a double. Good grief. The Yankees aren’t going anywhere without Judge and Sanchez producing, the same why the Cubs aren’t going anywhere without Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo producing (they’re 1-for-14 combined in the NLCS). They survived Judge’s brutal ALDS. They won’t survive this series against the Astros with Judge and Sanchez doing nothing. The Yankees’ best players are getting outplayed by the Astros’ best players. Plain and simple. That’s why they’re down 0-2 in the series.

2. Another reason the Yankees are down 0-2: poor execution. The Astros are making every single play and even going above and beyond to make great plays. Brett Gardner getting thrown out at third on the would-be triple last game? It was a bad send by third base coach Joe Espada, but it also took an excellent set of relay throws by the Astros to get the out. They executed. Greg Bird getting thrown out at the plate in Game One? Marwin Gonzalez made a wonderful throw from left field while Bird didn’t get the best jump from second base, especially considering it was a 3-2 count with two outs. Gonzalez executed and Bird did not. At this point of the postseason, the talent gap between the remaining teams is quite small. I know the Astros won ten more games than the Yankees this season, but the Yankees had the better run differential. The talent gap isn’t enormous by any means. So, then, when the talent gap is small, the difference in a short series comes down to execution. The team that makes more plays — and this could be executing relay throws, or executing a single pitch, or fielding a ground ball, whatever — is the team that often wins, and right now, the Astros are the team making the plays in the ALCS. Not the Yankees.

3. Speaking of poor execution, that final play of Game Two was straight up bad by Sanchez. It was bad. I know the throw short-hopped him and everything, but that’s a play a Major League catcher has to make, and Sanchez didn’t. Look where Altuve was when the ball reached Sanchez:

bandicam-2017-10-15-08-11-43-421

Altuve would’ve been out by a mile, which I’m sure would’ve been spun into “wow how’s so amazing look at the aggressive play and how small he is like Marcus Stroman and give him the next three MVPs” even though it would’ve been inexcusably awful to get thrown out at home on that play, with one out in the inning, when you would’ve represented the winning run at third. Anyway, that play by Sanchez was terrible, and the weird thing is that prior to that play, I thought the last five games were his best defensive stretch of the season. It all started in Game Three of the ALDS, when Gary blocked the hell out of all those Tanaka splitters in the dirt, most notably when Tanaka struck out Jose Ramirez and Jay Bruce with a runner on third and one out. Sanchez was fantastic behind the plate basically since the start of ALDS Game Three through the penultimate play of ALCS Game Two. And as bad as that play was, it would be absolutely crazy to move Gary out from behind the plate going forward. You don’t give up on a dude with these tools behind the plate because he struggling to block balls in the dirt at age 24, the same way you don’t give up on a kid like Severino as a starter just because he had some success out of the bullpen.

4. As for Severino, I have zero problem whatsoever with him being pulled from Game Two even though he felt healthy and strong. I was shocked to see, in our comments and on social media (less shocked to see it in the tabloids), some people saying it was mistake and that Severino should’ve stayed in the game if he said he was fine. That is insane to me. One, you can’t trust players to be honest about their health. There’s that “you better be out there unless your arm fell off” tough guy mentality that exists in baseball that pushes players to play hurt even when it is a detriment to themselves and their team. And two, this is your 23-year-old franchise pitcher, who is already in uncharted workload territory. Severino is up to 204.2 total innings this year between the regular season and postseason. His previous career high was 162.2 innings. Then he windmills his arm and gives the trainer and Joe Girardi reason to believe something is up, and some people didn’t want him pulled? Crazy talk. I’m happy and very relieved there is nothing seriously wrong with Severino. Even during a postseason game, I am 100% cool with Girardi playing it safe and pulling Severino. I don’t care how mad Severino was. The Yankees will have to protect the kid from himself at times, and this was one of those times.

5. The strikeouts are, obviously, very bad. They’ve become extreme of late too. And it’s not just Sanchez and Judge. Gardner is 2-for-7 with five strikeouts (1.000 BABIP!) in the ALCS. Bird and Starlin Castro are both 2-for-7 with three strikeouts. The strikeouts are a problem up and down the lineup. The Yankees have struck out 10+ times in their last seven games this postseason — the only game they didn’t strike out 10+ times was the Wild Card Game — and in Game Five of the ALDS, they became the first team in history to win a postseason game while striking out 16 times. Overall, the Yankees have a 31.6% strikeout rate this postseason. Remove Judge and it’s still a 28.8% strikeout rate. That’s just too much. (The postseason average is a 25.0% strikeout rate.) And the solution is not simply make more contact. It has to be quality contact. The Astros had the lowest strikeout rate in baseball during the regular season and they’ve struck out only nine times in two ALCS games, yet their offense is hardly firing on all cylinders. Which team had the second lowest strikeout rate during the regular season? The Indians, and they’re sitting at home. Ramirez (10.7%) and Francisco Lindor (12.9%) had two of the 15 lowest strikeout rates in baseball during the regular season, and they went 4-for-38 (.105) combined in the ALDS. It’s not just contact. It’s quality contact. The Yankees aren’t getting enough of it right now.

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

6. On one hand, going to Houston and allowing four runs total and leaving down 0-2 in the series is beyond frustrating. That’s tough to swallow. On the other hand, seeing the pitching staff handle that deep power/contact lineup the Astros run out there has been reassuring. The Yankees can hang with the Astros. As bad as Judge and Sanchez have been, and as good as Keuchel and Verlander were, these were two one-run losses and very winnable games. A bounce here or a borderline call there changes everything. The Yankees could’ve easily left Houston with the series tied 1-1. Heck, it wouldn’t have taken much to leave up 2-0. It can be easy to overlook the pitching staff given how the series has played out, but man, they’ve been phenomenal. The pitchers have done their part so far. All postseason, really.

7. Remember when Aaron Hicks wasn’t going to play in the postseason? Gardner and Judge sure as heck aren’t going to come out of the lineup, then Jacoby Ellsbury had that late season hot streak that had everyone thinking he’d start in the postseason. Instead, Ellsbury faded in the final two weeks of the regular season, and here’s Hicks playing wonderfully on both sides of the ball again. He’s 8-for-29 (.276) with two doubles and a homer in the eight postseason games, and he’s catching everything in center field. I am a Hicks believer. I think the Aaron Hicks we saw in the first half is the real Aaron Hicks. Maybe he won’t post a .420 OBP and a .550 SLG or whatever it was over a full season, but I think the tools for .280/.380/.480 with very good defense are there. Aside from Gardner and Didi Gregorius (and Bird), Hicks has been the Yankees’ best player this postseason, and it wasn’t that long ago that it looked like he would be stuck on the bench. Funny how that works.

8. These next two games are crucial for obvious reasons. The Yankees have to win to keep their season alive, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. If the Yankees are going to make a comeback in this series, it has to start these next two games, which are at home against Houston’s third and fourth starters. Don’t underestimate Charlie Morton and Brad Peacock! They’re good. They combined for a 3.31 ERA (3.10 FIP) in 278.2 innings during the regular season. But they’re not Keuchel and Verlander. Morton and Peacock are as easy as it’s going to get for the Yankees in terms of opposing starters this series. They’re facing them at home in Yankee Stadium. Want to win the series? These are the pitchers you have to beat and the games you have to win before the rotation turns over and Keuchel and Verlander are back out there. At some point the Yankees have to beat Keuchel or Verlander and win a game in Houston to win the series. That’s just how the math works. And that’s only if they beat Morton and Peacock at home. So do that today and tomorrow.

Fan Confidence Poll: October 16th, 2017

Regular Season Record: 91-71 (858 RS, 660 RA, 100-62 pythag. record), second in ALE
Postseason Record: 4-4 (31 RS, 26 RA), won AL WC Game, won ALDS, down 0-2 in ALCS
Opponents This Week: ALCS Game Three vs. Astros (Mon.), ALCS Game Four vs. Astros (Tues.), ALCS Game Five vs. Astros (Weds. if necessary), ALCS Game Six @ Astros (Fri. if necessary), ALCS Game Seven @ Astros (Sat. if necessary)

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Sunday Open Thread

The Yankees and Astros have an off-day today and thank goodness for that. I think we can all use a little break after those two frustrating losses. The ALCS resumes tomorrow night at Yankee Stadium. In the meantime, I recommend checking out Jonah Keri’s piece on the basically impossible task of evaluating managers. The only thing we see is the on-field decisions, and even then we don’t have all the information (who’s available, etc.). That’s only a very small part of the job though. The important stuff happens behind closed doors in the clubhouse.

Anyway, here is an open thread for this Yankees baseball-less day. The Dodgers and Cubs will play Game Two of the NLCS tonight (7:30pm ET on TBS), plus there’s all the day’s NFL action. The Jets play at 1pm ET and the Giants play at 8:30pm ET. The Islanders play later tonight on the West Coast. Talk about those games or anything else here, as long as it is not religion or politics. Get that outta here.