The Bronx Bombers suffered two heartbreaking losses to begin the American League Championship Series by a combined score of 4-2. But the hole they're in isn't nearly as deep as some would like you to believe. Here's why the Yankees could and should still win this series and advance to the Fall Classic:
1. The Yankees could easily be up 2-0 right now
If Aaron Judge had gotten a better jump on Carlos Correa's home run ball in the fourth inning of Game Two, he would have caught it easily. Instead of tying the score the next inning on Frazier's ground-rule double, the Yankees would have taken a 1-0 lead.
Yankee hitters scorched the ball three times against Verlander in the third inning, but came up completely empty. Todd Frazier opened the inning with a drive that sent left-fielder Marwin Gonzalez to the wall to make the catch. Then right-fielder Josh Reddick had to go high up on the wall to snare Chase Headley's bomb, robbing him of a home run or an extra-base hit. Brett Gardner made the final out of the frame trying to stretch a double when Reddick played the ball perfectly and lasered a throw to relay-man Correa. He fired a strike to third baseman Alex Bregman, who tagged Gardner's outstretched arm a fraction of a second before the speedster touched the bag.
New York could have taken a 2-0 lead into the ninth. I like the team's chances when Aroldis Chapman has a two-run cushion and only needs to get three outs.
Of course, that didn't happen. Still, if either Did Gregorius makes a better throw or Gary Sanchez makes the scoop on the final play, then Jose Altuve is out by ten feet. In that case, Chapman has to record just one more out with the potential winning run in scoring position to send the game to extra innings. I like his chances there as well. I like the Bombers' lineup versus Houston's bullpen even more, particularly since Ken Giles would likely not have been available after throwing 37 pitches the night before.
The bottom line is this: The Yankees lost Game Two because the Astros played flawless baseball and got every single lucky break imaginable, while New York paid dearly for a few mistakes at critical moments and were incredibly unlucky throughout. The luck factor also hurt the Yankees in Game One, as did Greg Bird's baserunning snafu. The series opener was also eminently winnable.
These things happen all the time in baseball, but tend to even out over the course of a series. It's time for turnabout.
2. Yankee pitching has been outstanding
How about the fact that Yankee pitchers succeeded in limiting one of baseball's most potent offenses to only two runs in consecutive games? Considering two of those runs could have been prevented by the defense, calling New York's pitching performance outstanding might even be an understatement.
Houston is the only team in baseball that scored more runs than the Yankees this year (896 to 858) while hitting only three fewer home runs (241 to 238). That's 5.53 runs per game and 1.47 homers per game for the AL West champs. The Astros also led the majors with an .823 OPS.
American League Batting Champion Jose Altuve scored two of Houston's four runs in this series. Carlos Correa drove in three, while Yulieski Gurriel got the other RBI. The rest of the Astros lineup as been completely shut down by Yankee pitching.
Will this continue? We have every reason to believe that it can. CC Sabathia is set to start Game Three. He has been the Yankees' stopper this year, with nine of his 14 regular-season wins following a New York loss. Although suffering from a lack of run support, Game Four starter Sonny Gray has pitched very well for the Yankees following his trade from Oakland. His 122 ERA+ since donning the pinstripes is better than his career average. Can you name a better fourth starter, anywhere? The pitching match-ups for the next two games favor the Yankees, big time.
I also like Tanaka in the rematch with Keuchel scheduled for Game Five. Ditto regarding the Severino versus Verlander do-over slated for Game Six.
Tanaka has performed much better at home this year, where he notched a 3.22 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, and .670 OPS against. On the road he pitched to a 6.48 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, and .875 OPS against. He was nearly perfect in the elimination game versus the Indians in the Division Series last week at Yankee Stadium.
Severino will be well-rested after his abbreviated 62-pitch effort in Game Two, which was nevertheless his most impressive postseason outing to date. Verlander, meanwhile, threw 124 pitches in his complete game win. Odds are against him being able to go as long or be as effective in consecutive starts. Also remember, that despite the outcome of that game, he gave up hard contact throughout. Most of the rockets off him just happened to result in outs.
Finally, I really, really like the possible Game Seven rematch between Sabathia and Charlie Morton. You simply won't find a better big-game pitcher than CC. If this series goes seven, Sabathia will be ready to step up and help the Yankees punch their ticket to the Fall Classic.
3. The Yankees have a better lineup than Houston
Forget about the season totals. Top to bottom, the Yankees have a better lineup than Houston.
The Bronx Bombers saw six members of their starting lineup miss significant time due to injuries this year. Gregorius, Castro, Hicks, Holliday, Sanchez, and Bird all spent weeks — or in some cases, months — on the disabled list. They are all healthy now.
Sure, the Astros have AL Batting Champion and MVP candidate Jose Altuve. They also have a superstar in Carlos Correa. Former Yankees Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran are big bats, but they're not nearly as productive as the players who replaced them. Judge and Sanchez are the top run producers in the league at their respective positions. It's not even a close contest. Didi actually had more homers and RBIs than Correa.
I'm not going to go through a man-by-man stats comparison. There's no point, since the Yankees didn't get all of their players healthy at the same time until very recently. Suffice to say, the Yankees have a tough out at every spot in the batting order. Don't get me wrong, the Astros have a potent offense, but I believe the Yankees have the edge.
4. New York wins the battle of the bullpens
Tyler Clippard was Houston's big bullpen acquisition for their championship push. He was a throw-in in the Yankees' deal with the White Sox that brought Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, and Todd Frazier to the Bronx. Chicago later flipped him to the Astros.
Kahnle, Robertson, Chad Green, Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, and Adam Warren could close for just about any team in baseball. But they're not just typical closer material. Each can come into a game in just about any situation, fresh inning or not, with or without men on base, and pitch multiple innings if needed. They've all done it with success. They've all been used in various roles by Joe Girardi, who interchanges his bullpen pieces as much as he does the lineup, and each has proven his versatility.
In short: Yankee relievers merely need to pitch to their ability and they will dominate this series. The Astros relief corps would have to dramatically overachieve just to keep pace.
5. The next three games are in Yankee Stadium
The Yankees scored two runs in 18 innings at Minute Maid Park. If you think that trend is going to continue at Yankee Stadium, then you haven’t been watching the same ball club I have all year.
This team was designed for the House That Ruth Built. They scored more runs (451 to 407) and hit more dingers (140 to 101) at home this year than on the road. They also pitched better: 3.54 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and .656 OPS versus 3.96, 1.29, and .705.
Don't forget to include the crowd factor. Many teams have to pump in artificial noise or repeatedly prompt the fans to "get loud." That has never been the case at Yankee Stadium.
It was reported that the press box was shaking during the first four postseason home games because the crowd was so electric. At the baseball cathedral in the Bronx, the fans are not merely spectators. They are an integral part of the energy, and the players feel it. With these next three games at Yankee Stadium, the fans will be ready to show the world which team is truly the one to beat.
The Yankees are coming home. If they simply play solid Yankee baseball on their own turf, they will head back to Houston only one win away from clinching their 41st World Series berth.