Following Tuesday night’s game, the Yankees appear a lock to make the playoffs. According to FanGraphs, the team has a 99.8% chance to secure a postseason position. The Red Sox maintain a formidable nine game lead in the loss column, but save for a complete meltdown, a Wild Card Game appearance remains likely.
After that, however, the picture gets fuzzy. It’s not clear who the Yankees would face in a potential one-game playoff. Surely it will be a team from the AL West, but who? The Mariners, Athletics, and Astros all have significant playing time against each other down the stretch. The outcome of those contests will likely determine the other Wild Card team, and therein lies the possibility of a nightmare scenario. The Yankees could face the Astros with Justin Verlander on the mound.
Think that sounds farfetched? It shouldn’t. As of this morning, the Astros hold just a one-game lead on the division. They’ve gone 11-14 over their last 25 games. That includes a sweep at the hands of the Mariners. The Astros also have several key players on the disabled list, including Jose Altuve, Lance McCullers Jr., and Brian McCann. The defending world champions will have to play for the division.
Should the unthinkable happen and the Astros lose the AL West, one has to anticipate a Wild Card Game with Verlander on the mound. While the 35-year-old has fallen back down to Earth of late, he remains one of the game’s top pitchers. He owns a 2.50 ERA with a 3.03 FIP over 158.1 innings. His 11.71 K/9 represents a career high, which is ridiculous to think about. Although he’s been susceptible to the long ball (1.25 HR/9) this year, Verlander stands out as arguably the most intimidating Wild Card starter possible.
That holds especially true when considering his recent success against the Yankees. Verlander made two starts against the Bombers this season. On May 1st, he tossed eight innings of shutout ball, allowing only three hits in the process. Incidentally enough, the Yankees won that game; that was when Gary Sanchez broke Ken Giles. Then, on May 28th, he allowed one run over 6.2 innings at Yankee Stadium. The lone offense came when Greg Bird hit a solo homer in the seventh inning.
Verlander’s showing in the ALCS last year further illustrates his danger. The right-hander allowed just one run over 16 innings against the Yankees. He struck out 21 over the span, while surrendering only 10 hits. Just three of those went for extra bases, all doubles. The Bombers have no answer for the Astros’ version of Verlander.
If that’s not intimidating enough, consider Houston’s lineup. Despite numerous injuries, the team owns a 109 wRC +. That’s good for third in baseball. On the bright side, the Astros have worked a meager .207/.250/.304 batting line against the Yankees this season. That gets somewhat weighed down by a complete-game shutout Luis Severino tossed at Minute Maid Park back in May, though. Ace Severino is now missing in action. If the Yankees rolled this rendition out against the Astros, expect a far worse outcome.
So, how can the Yankees avoid facing Houston in the Wild Card Game? A lot of that remains outside their control. So much will be determined by how the AL West shakes out down the stretch. What they can do, however, is play to win — every single day. They can’t take any games for granted. It’s so easy to think of the division as out of reach, to focus on getting healthy and ready for the one-game playoff, but that could lead them right into this trap. Focus on winning as many games as possible, and maybe shave three or four games off Boston’s lead come Labor Day. Then the AL East suddenly comes back into play.
This Yankees team is really good. Fans and writers alike give them a lot of flack because they’re not Red Sox good. They could win 102 games and still end up as a Wild Card team! That goes to show the importance of winning the division. Heading into 2018, that was the Yankees’ goal, and it should remain so now. Keep trying, or else they could face the possibility of stepping into the box against Justin Verlander with the season on the line.