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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

jose-altuve-luis-severino

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

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

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

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

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

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

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

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


Source: FanGraphs

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

2017 ALCS Game Six: Yankees at Astros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

justin-verlander-first-pitches

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

masahiro-tanaka-josh-reddick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.