With a rainout pinning the Yankees’ hopes to winning three games in four days against the Astros, one might think they’ll have to veer off-script. Find a new way to win.
Though coming two years apart, the Bombers’ past two postseason wins against the Astros provide a blueprint for what they need in order to win Game 4 and subsequent games in the series.
It all starts and ends with Masahiro Tanaka. Despite a lackluster regular season in which he had to contend with a disappearing splitter from his repertoire, the veteran right-hander turned his year around at the exact right time, just as he did in 2017 and ’18.
You’ve surely seen the stats by now. Tanaka the only pitcher in MLB history to allow two or fewer runs in each of his first seven postseason starts, surpassing a mark set by Sandy Koufax. His postseason ERA is in the top four all-time.
The Yankees are now a far cry from where they were going into the postseason, when Aaron Boone said James Paxton might be the only starter they use traditionally. Now, Tanaka and Paxton have to take full starts with the bullpen up against it in a four-games-in-four-days stretch.
Luckily, we’ve seen how Tanaka can handle this offense. He did it twice in the regular season, albeit with few swings and misses and the aforementioned lackluster splitter, but he dominated Game 1 of the ALCS. Go back two years, and he shut out a similar offense for seven innings in the Bronx. If he can somehow repeat the performance from earlier this series, Boone would have to let him go further into the game.
But Boone can’t let him go deep regardless of his performance. If Tanaka’s not on his A-game, then Boone has to pull him earlier and deal with the bullpen-related consequences later. Game 4 is that much of a must-win.
Still, the Yankees need length and quality length at that from Tanaka. A three-inning start could still lead to a win, but the bullpen game looming in Game 6 becomes dicey at best.
“We’re going to have to get some innings out of our starters, there’s no question about it,” Boone said Wednesday. “So hopefully — obviously Masa is coming off a real good start in Game 1 where he was able to give us six innings. So between him and Paxton these next two days, they’re going to need to give us some innings if we’re going to be successful.
“But again, you’re kind of — we’ve got to go out and win a game. So I’ll be aggressive in that sense but we do have to get some bulk innings out of some people, there’s no question.”
Beyond the pitching, the offense needs to wake up. Three runs in two games somehow worked for the Astros to earn a split in Game 1 and 2 in Houston, but it’s been and will be untenable for the Yankees. This has never been a team that strives to win 2-1 games, even with the baseball itself potentially producing fewer home runs.
What the team could really use is a good ole fashioned blowout, something the Astros aren’t likely to allow. A blowout means a chance to rest your top relievers and save them for the essential innings in games to come.
But the offense needs to score anyway. Giancarlo Stanton’s return would give the Yankees’ a tremendous boost, and the extra off day makes that a more realistic possibility. The team needs more depth in its lineup than Aaron Judge, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres working good at-bats, though that’s a strong base.
With or without Stanton, the team will need more from the other six players who started in Game 3 other than the aforementioned trio. Aaron Hicks worked strong at-bats after two months off, but the team could use more proper aggression from Edwin Encarnacion and a slump-busted Gary Sanchez, just to name an option or two.
Down 2-1 to Houston, the Yankees are in an unenviable spot. They still have a chance to wrest control of this series, even without an off-day, and it starts with Tanaka and Game 4.