Thoughts Before the Biggest Game of the Season (So Far)

My heart is already pounding. The Yankees and Luis Severino will take on the Astros and Gerrit Cole this afternoon at 4:08 pm for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. The series is knotted up at one apiece, and while the actual concept of a swing game is much more complicated than it is often described, it sure does feel like this is a must-win game for both teams. It especially feels that way for the Yankees, who left a very winnable game started by Justin Verlander—and therefore a 2-0 series lead leaving Houston—on the table on Sunday night. That one still stings.

Anyway, here are some scattered thoughts before we all curl up into a ball at our desks and start breathing into a paper bag later this afternoon.

1. Marquee Pitching Matchup: It’s difficult to imagine a better pitching matchup, from a raw baseball perspective, than what we’re getting today. It’s a bit uncomfortable from a Yankee fan’s perspective though, I can tell you that. Here are Gerrit Cole’s numbers since his May 17 start:

  • Cole since May 17: 16-1, 2.01 ERA (2.50 FIP), 40.3% K%, 5,5% BB%, 156.2 IP

That’s on top of his outrageous postseason, when he struck out 25 men and allowed just 1 run in 15 innings to the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS. He throws an easy 99 mph with a disgusting curveball (usually in the same tunnel) and often makes batters look foolish. There is not a tougher opponent in baseball right now. I don’t know what the Yankees will do to counter him, but my guess is that they attack him early in the count. That’s what they did against both Greinke and Verlander this weekend. If he tries to get a fastball over the plate early in the count, expect the Yankees to swing. That’s what I would do. The whole “work the count and get him out of the game” approach sounds good in theory but is quickly self-defeating if Cole pumps two strikes and you find yourself down 0-2. I can only hope that the offense, which is probably the best in baseball, can make him pay for whatever mistakes he makes. When he leaves one over the plate—and even the very best pitchers do that—the Yankees have to capitalize. Easier said than done, but what a matchup this will be. So that’s “fun.” [Laughs nervously.]

On the other hand, the Yankees will be sending out the most talented pitcher on their roster in Luis Severino. Nobody loves Masahiro Tanaka more than me and James Paxton, prior to Sunday, has been lights out. But there’s nobody more talented than Severino on the Yankee staff, and I’m glad he’s on the bump today. We all know how good Severino is, but he’s also had success against Houston in the opportunities he’s been given. Check it out:

  • Severino Career Numbers vs. Houston: 2-1, 3.86 ERA with 24 H and 33 K in 25.2 IP, opposing batting line of .240/.303/.370

He did surrender 4 runs in 8.2 IP in the 2017 ALCS, for what it’s worth, but I think this is mostly a fairly encouraging matchup. There’s also this to consider:

  • Astros vs. Fastballs over 95 mph: .233 batting average, .318 wOBA (.325 xwOBA), .404 slugging, 88.9 mph average exit velocity

If the Astros have a weakness offensively, it is the high-velocity fastball, as surprising as that is. That’s actually good news, because Severino certainly brings the heat. In other words, if Severino brings his best fastball, he can have some success against the Astros today.

He is a good matchup against them, and I’m glad he’s getting the ball in the biggest game of the year. Before the season and injury, this is how you’d line it up. No question about it. It’s pretty amazing that he’s in this position at all given the injuries he’s battled all year. Besides, it feels like we’ve been waiting three years for the defining playoff start of Severino’s career. There’s no better day to go out there and get it than today. I believe in Luis and think he will deliver in a big way, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be hyperventilating all day.

2. All Hands on Deck Bullpen: I am curious, though, how quickly Aaron Boone will turn to the bullpen today. He’s been extraordinarily aggressive in that regard all postseason, much to my pleasure—even if I would have stuck with Tanaka for another frame on Saturday—and I don’t expect that to change. Like it or not, that’s the formula and the Yankees seem dedicated to sticking to it.

My guess is that Severino, who should be stretched out to 100 pitches at this point, is slated for two turns through the Astros lineup at most. He is a good matchup against the Astros, but so too are many of the Yankees’ flame-throwing bullpen aces and we all saw on Saturday how faithfully the Yankees are sticking to the “no third time through the order” rule. I have no problem with this. That formula has worked in literally every single game so far this postseason. It shouldn’t break today, either.

The only exception I can think of is if Severino looks the way we all know Severino can look. It’s been about 15 months thanks to injury, but we’ve all seen it before. Severino has that “Cole Factor” about him as a pitcher. He is one of the very few pitchers in baseball who can emerge from the dugout and carve up a lineup as good as the Astros, blow fastballs by the best hitters in the league, and make it look easy. We saw that very performance last May. He can bring it with the best of them, and you always know that kind of performance when you see it. If Severino looks like that today, then Boone has to stick with him. May we get that scenario.

3. Turning the Narrative Around: Speaking of, what more can we say about the Yankees’ pitching staff this October? They’ve played 5 games and allowed just 10 runs, including pitching a shutout in Minute Maid Park, across 46+ innings pitched. You couldn’t possibly ask for more out of the pitching staff without veering into the realm of the unreasonable. The Yankee staff has absolutely, 100% stepped up to the task in October. They are putting the Yankees in a position to win every single game.

Here is something amazing: not once in those 46+ innings have the Yankees allowed more than one run. There have been zero crooked numbers against the Yankees since the postseason began. There haven’t even been many sustained rallies by the opposition, with most of the damage done by the solo shot. The Yankees are pitching like they want to win the pennant. I can say nothing more encouraging about the outlook for the remainder of this series than that. I have been on an emotional rollercoaster the past 36 hours—I wish I cared about sports like a normal person instead of, well, you know—but when I’m getting really anxious, this is what I remind myself. It (sometimes) works.

4. Chad Green, Reliever Extraordinaire: A huge part of that success has been Chad Green, who is a pitcher I just absolutely love. We’ve written about Green a lot here at Views, so you know that already, but my goodness has he been up to the task this postseason. He’s allowed just 2 hits in 4 innings of work with no walks and 3 strikeouts this October and he escaped a huge jam for James Paxton on Sunday night. He looked as good as he’s looked all year.

That’s probably because of the Astros’ struggles with high-velocity fastballs. One of Green’s biggest strengths as a pitcher is the fact that his fastball plays up, meaning it looks even faster than it is. That’s because it’s a high-spin fastball, so it drops less than hitters expect, and because of his deceptive delivery. Green seems to keep the ball hidden for a long time before it just explodes out of his arm. He is a deadly weapon and I am glad he’s on the Yankees’ side.

Now, with that said, I was surprised to see Green attack Alex Bregman with two straight sliders to open their at-bat on Sunday. Check it out:

I think Bregman was surprised, too. He took both pitches before swinging at the two-strike fastball, which he hit 100 mph for an out. Green may be a one-trick pony, or at least he always has been, so man was it impressive to see him change the tune against one of the best hitters in the game the other day.

5. Busting Some Slumps: With all that said about the pitching prowess, though, Edwin Encarnación and Gary Sánchez are slumping in some serious ways right now, and it couldn’t be coming at a worse time. In some regards, this isn’t surprising because both hitters missed a considerable amount of time down the stretch battling frustrating injuries. Some struggles are to be expected. That said, look at Gary’s strike zone plot from Sunday:

And Edwin’s:

That’s a lot of middle-middle and middle-up activity right there and both of them either just missed or swung through them. The Astros do not seem afraid of either hitter right now, and why should they be? They’re a combined 6-for-40 (.150) in the playoffs so far. Astros pitchers are daring the two hitters to hit their fastball and they haven’t been able to do it.

If the Yankees are going to win 3 out of the next 5, they’re going to need Edwin and Gary to right the ship. The thing with those two hitters is that they absolutely can turn things in around with just one swing, and with the way these two teams are matched up, one swing can make all of the difference. Ask Gary, who probably has the defining series moment on the Yankees side in the 2017 ALCS despite similar struggles in that series. Besides, I feel like both of them were close to connecting on Sunday. Let’s hope the Yankee Stadium crowd energizes them again and the Yankee offense comes roaring alive against one of the best in the business.

6. Giancarlo Stanton’s Injury: This just sucks, doesn’t it? The Yankees are optimistic that Giancarlo will play today. Supposedly he swung in the cage yesterday and felt fine, so fingers crossed, but if he can’t make it back, it’s just another huge, huge blow for a Yankee offense that will need every weapon they can get as they prepare to potentially face Cole and Justin Verlander three times in the next five games.

Stanton was just starting to really look locked in, too. A shame. Hopefully he returns today and mashes and makes all of this concern count for nothing.

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1 Comment

  1. JG (Ben Francisco)

    Big game but I think the Astros need it more. If they lose with their best guy then they will be in a 2-1 hole on the road with neither of their big guns (likely) going the next two games.

    I think it will come to a big home run by….

    Gary Sanchez!

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