Before any postseason, newspapers and websites fill with “Keys to Victory” and “X-Factor” stories, which usually detail slumping or middle-of-the-pack players that could change the course of a postseason series if they were able to break out (I’m sure the Nationals consider Howie Kendrick to fit this mold).
Prior to the ALDS against the Twins, the common theme of these conversations when it pertained to the Yankees were the bats of Gary Sanchez, Edwin Encarnacion and Giancarlo Stanton. All three carry prolific hitting potential, had all recently returned from injuries and were being counted on to give Aaron Boone’s lineup more length. After Encarnacion lit up the Twins in the Yankees’ three-game sweep and Stanton’s at-bats looked much better than his last postseason series, it looked like at least those two sluggers could help the Bombers exact their revenge on the Astros in the ALCS.
In Game One in Houston, Stanton legged out a single and blasted a solo home run to right center in a 7-0 win, and it felt like those X-Factors were gaining momentum. Encarnacion was huge in the previous round. Stanton was feeling it. Sanchez was still shaking off the rust, but he was working good at-bats and getting on base in the ALDS.
Then, the bottom fell out.
It began when Stanton was a no-show in the Yankees’ Game Two lineup, nursing a quad strain he suffered running out that single the night before. All of the momentum he built through the postseason to that point was rudely stripped away. Meanwhile, after a rough Game One, Encarnacion slipped deeper and deeper into an offensive abyss, laboring through a stretch where he struck out six times in his first 14 plate appearances, while recording just one hit. In Game Four, he struck out two more times, including with the bases loaded when the Yanks badly needed a big hit to break a stretch of RISP fails that would have given the 2018 Yankees a run for their money.
Sanchez, through three games of this series, also struck out six times, needing just 13 plate appearances to reach that mark. He clubbed a home run late in Game Four to narrow what was a five-run deficit, but up until that point, he had looked lost at the plate, as he and Encarnacion were consistently chasing out of the zone and no longer putting together the type of at-bats that made fans feel confident in their ability against Houston’s tough pitching staff. The ALDS sweep felt like a loooong time ago.
The Yankees managed to win Game Five, but it was without the help of these three. Encarnacion was benched, and Sanchez went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts and a passed ball. Stanton returned to the lineup, but went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts.
Of course, the Yankees’ struggles after the series opener went beyond the three ‘X-Factors.’ Gio Urshela, aside from a couple isolated hard hit balls that resulted in bad luck, struggled badly at the plate once the series shifted to the Bronx. Didi Gregorius couldn’t get things going the way he was able to against the Twins, and Brett Gardner went 2-for-13 with five strikeouts through the first three games of the series.
As the series moves back to Houston, the Yanks need their recently mended sluggers to step up and help DJ LeMahieu, Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres shoulder the load at the plate. Stanton, Sanchez, and Encarnacion still have a chance to redeem themselves in this series.