HOUSTON — All year long, the narratives of the Houston Astros and the Yankees have been intertwined. Entering the season, both were among the favorites to win the World Series. As they plowed through their schedules, quickly emerging as the best teams in their league, a collision in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series — which begins Saturday night at Minute Maid Park — seemed inevitable.
“I heard it from Day 1,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said.
Then the Yankees decided not to upgrade their pitching staff at the July 31 trade deadline, banking on improvement from within, while the Astros pulled off several deals — including one that added the 2009 Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke to a starting rotation that already had Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. At that point, a more direct question arose: How would one strategy compete with the other?
“Let’s find out,” Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ longtime general manager, said then.
The Yankees discovered that their formula of a powerful offense, stout relief pitching and a solid but unspectacular starting rotation was enough to win 103 games and the A.L. East. Their hitting proved worthy in a first-round division series against the Minnesota Twins, and so did their pitching, holding the Twins — the best home run-hitting team in history — to only seven runs.
“But will it be good enough against everyone else?” Cashman asked after the division series.
By everyone, of course, he meant the Astros, winners of the past three A.L. West titles and of a franchise-record 107 games this season. These teams met in the playoffs two years ago, when the Astros eliminated the Yankees in seven games in the A.L.C.S. and went on to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
These Yankees are a better team than the 2017 version. Back then, Greg Bird was the Yankees’ starting first baseman, Starlin Castro was at second, Todd Frazier was at third and Chase Headley was the regular designated hitter.
Two years later, D.J. LeMahieu, Gleyber Torres, Gio Urshela and Edwin Encarnacion are upgrades at those spots. The bullpen might be just as strong and deep as it was in 2017, and the rotation looks hardier than it did for much of the regular season: Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and Luis Severino all pitched solidly against the Twins.
Also the Yankees are healthier now than when they lost four of their seven meetings with the Astros during the regular season. Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, catcher Gary Sanchez, Encarnacion and Severino all returned from injuries just before the playoffs. Encarnacion, the designated hitter, looked as if he hadn’t been out with an oblique injury, going 4 for 13 against the Twins.
“Getting Severino back is a unique challenge because he’s super fresh and hasn’t pitched all year,” Hinch said. “Looks like they had just enough time to build him up to handle some of the workload.”
Other Yankees could return, too. C.C. Sabathia, who missed the Twins series with a sore left shoulder, appears ready to face left-handed batters out of the bullpen. And center fielder Aaron Hicks, who has been out since Aug. 3 with what was originally expected to be a season-ending elbow injury, improved enough to be an option for the A.L.C.S. roster, if only as a bench player.
“Their whole team was hurt both times that I faced them, pretty much,” said Greinke, who is scheduled to start for the Astros in Game 1. He will be opposed in Game 1 by Tanaka, who will be followed by Paxton in Game 2 and then Severino in Game 3.
On paper, the Astros are more well-rounded than the Yankees, starting with their buzz saw of a starting rotation. Cole made two starts against the Tampa Bay Rays in the previous round and allowed only one run while striking out 25 in 15 2/3 innings. Verlander, who may finish first (or second to Cole) in voting for the A.L. Cy Young Award, had one terrific start against the Rays and one poor one on short rest. In Greinke’s only start of this postseason, he was hammered by the Rays for six runs.
Against the Yankees during the regular season, though, Greinke, Verlander and Cole combined for a 3.31 earned run average with 35 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings.
On offense, the Astros scored nearly as many runs as the Yankees during the regular season (5.68 per game, compared with the Yankees’ major-league-leading 5.82) and were a tick behind in home runs (288, to the Yankees’ 306). But the Astros did all of that by striking out at the lowest rate in the major leagues and drawing walks at the highest rate — which will make them a stiff challenge for the Yankees’ hard-throwing, strikeout-inducing pitching staff.
In a shift from last October, Yankees Manager Aaron Boone did not hesitate to to pull his starting pitchers in the Minnesota series, relying on his best relievers for the final four to five innings of each game.
“The team conserved me all season, trying not to use me too much, for the postseason,” closer Aroldis Chapman said.
Because they beat the Twins so quickly, the Yankees have not played since Monday. They used the days off to plan, work out and rest, which was necessary for some of the older players and those who had been dealing with minor injuries, such as Zack Britton, a key reliever who has been battling minor ankle discomfort.
“There’s good and bad to it,” Britton said. “If you’re feeling good, you want to get back on the mound.”
But Boone saw the rest as beneficial. His team had five days off before the division series and then played some of its best baseball of the season. More will be needed if the Yankees hope to move past the team that has been on a collision course with them all year.
Source: The New York Times