MLB NEWS ARCHIVE
Surging Yankees will give favored Astros tough battle
The Houston Astros got some good news and some bad news on Wednesday night.
The good news was that they would have home-field advantage for the American League Championship Series, with Game 1 set for Friday at Minute Maid Park.
The bad news? The New York Yankees will be in the other dugout.
As good as the Astros were this year, cementing themselves as a playoff team maybe as early as July, the Cleveland Indians were the best team in the American League. Cleveland won 102 games to the Astros' 101, had a 22-game winning streak and went 45-12 from Aug. 2 to the end of the regular season.
The Yankees took the Indians out on Wednesday night in the decisive Game 5 of their AL Division Series with a 5-2 win at Progressive Field. Gone is the team with the best record, best pitcher (Cleveland's Game 5 starter, Corey Kluber) and (statistically) best bullpen.
The Indians had a 2-0 series lead and lost three straight potential clinchers to New York, which also won the winner-take-all AL wild-card game. Cleveland last lost a third straight game on Aug. 1. But being the best team all season long doesn't mean you have the best team at the end of it.
And the team that is playing the best at the end wins a postseason series. That may be New York and thus the bad news for the Astros.
After winning four elimination games of the playoffs, the Yankees have something going on here.
The Wednesday night victory almost perfectly illustrated what that "something" is.
Its foundation was built upon the three veterans who played on the last great Yankees team, the 2009 World Series champions.
--CC Sabathia held Cleveland down for four innings to allow the Yanks to grab a lead against surprisingly ineffective Indians ace Kluber.
--David Robertson came out of the bullpen in the fifth to give New York the first 2 2/3 innings of 4 2/3 innings of no-hit relief.
--Brett Gardner was 3-for-5 and had 12-pitch at-bats against Cleveland's top relievers, Andrew Miller and Cody Allen.
Most of the rest of New York's regulars are young players coming of age. No, MVP candidate Aaron Judge did not have a good series (1-for-20, 16 strikeouts). But shortstop Didi Gregorius was awesome on Wednesday, hitting a pair of home runs in his first two turns against Kluber to put New York up 3-0.
Other key Yankees contributors were in different uniforms a year ago.
Aroldis Chapman, closer for the Chicago Cubs when they won the 2016 World Series, signed for a second stint with New York in the offseason. He got the last six outs for the save Wednesday.
Todd Frazier, acquired from the Chicago White Sox in July and a major clubhouse presence since, was alert after Gardner's 12-pitch battle with Allen ended with an RBI single. Frazier, who went from first to third base on the hit, saw a miscue in the field and sprinted home with another insurance run.
About the Gardner at-bat against Allen with two on in the ninth? Nothing embodied the way these Yankees never yield like that. It was epic and will be remembered as one of his best moments on a ballfield.
As if that were not enough, New York has some intangibles in play as it goes into the series with Houston. It has looked into the abyss. New York blew a five-run lead in Game 2, with manager Joe Girardi making mistake after mistake.
Girardi said of his team, "They picked me up." It was Frazier, still fairly new to the club, who said before all of them, "We have your back."
"We were down two games to none," Frazier said. "It's the resilience. ... We're never out of it. We have what it takes."
The last team to look as low as the Yankees did after Game 2 might have been the 2004 Boston Red Sox following a 19-8 ALCS loss to the Yankees that put them down 3-0 in the series. After Boston won four straight elimination games, they didn't lose again en route to the World Series title.
Before we get carried away with the Yankees, there is a grim reality they must overcome vs. the Astros.
Houston's pitcher for Game 1 is left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who has bludgeoned the Yanks a bunch of times, including the 2015 AL wild-card game. Newly installed ace Justin Verlander hangs over the series. The Astros' lineup includes MVP favorite Jose Altuve as well as two others -- George Springer and Carlos Correa -- who will finish among the first 10 in voting.
The Astros are the favorites, and they have home-field advantage now.
In the teams' regular-season meetings, Houston won five of seven, all waged before July 1. Still, New York scored 51 runs to the Astros' 43. Little of that probably matters.
By virtue of winning the ALDS with Boston on Monday, Houston will be rested and ready. Don't think the Yankees won't be.
The fulcrum in the series with Cleveland was the stellar starting pitching by the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka and Luis Severino, and they likely will go in Games 2 and 3 after Sonny Gray starts Game 1. Robertson may not pitch in the first game and Chapman just an inning if needed. But the best remaining bullpen in the AL shapes up well.
Houston has been the better team all season. The question in this series is whether the Astros are the better team now.