With the AL East having been all but locked up through the final month of the regular season, all of the attention surrounding the Yankees was the quest for the top spot in the American League, and thus a guarantee of home-field advantage through at least the ALCS. Given how important home field was for the Yankees in a playoff series as recent as the 2017 ALCS (and as far back as the 2001 World Series), this was no small matter to be settled.
Alas, through a mix of the Astros just being really, really good and the Yankees still being really, really injured, Houston grabbed the top spot and ensured that if a rematch of 2017 were to happen, it would begin where the 2017 ALCS ended, at Minute Maid Park. Knowing now that a trip to the World Series for the first time in a decade would potentially have to go through four games in Texas, where do the Yankees go from here?
Simply put, not much should change for the Yankees in terms of their battle plan. Home field would have been a great score, especially given the fact that the Yankees haven’t lost a home series since April and were 57-24 in the Bronx this year, which was second best in the American League behind, you guessed it, the Astros, but the Yankees have to reach the ALCS before any of this becomes a potential factor.
There was a large contingent of Yankee fans who were actually relieved the Bombers took the second spot in the AL and thus avoided the red-hot Oakland A’s or the Rays and their annoying ballpark, but the Twins are hardly a pushover, regardless of past head-to-head matchups in the postseason. If the Yankees were to overlook Minnesota and focus on a shot at payback in the ALCS, the Twins could dinger them to death like it was the top of the first inning in the 2017 Wild Card Game.
If the Yankees were to advance past the Twins, then the lack of home field could become an issue, but there are some means to combat that, based on how certain players have performed at home versus on the road this season. The slumping Didi Gregorius has managed a lowly 45 wRC+ in Yankee Stadium this season, but that number jumps to a very respectable 120 on the road. Would he be in the starting lineup in games one and two against Houston, with powerful righties Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole likely on the mound?
What about the starting pitching? James Paxton, at least right now (despite a tight glute), figures to be the obvious choice for Game One, but what about a pivotal Game Two? Masahiro Tanaka has been unbelievably reliable in the postseason, and he was great in a Game One loss to the Astros in the 2017 ALCS, allowing two runs over six innings in a 2-1 loss. Luis Severino pitched 8.2 innings over two road starts in that series and allowed four runs, and his two biggest postseason flops have come in the Bronx. Does he get the ball for Game Two and Tanaka, who has been better at home both this year and in the postseason, in game three? These are the tough decisions Aaron Boone will have to make, but again, those decisions shouldn’t be considered until the Yankees have won three games against Minnesota.
If it comes to a rematch with Houston, the Yankees can comb over their game plan for endless hours, but it really comes down to scoring runs. The Bombers managed just three runs over four games on the road in the 2017 ALCS, which obviously won’t fly against this Houston offense, which has since added Yordan Alvarez and Michael Brantley. But the Yankees are a better offensive team as well, having replaced Starlin Castro with superstar Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier/Chase Headley with DJ LeMahieu/Gio Urshela, and having added Giancarlo Stanton. The Yankees have the sluggers to put up good at-bats against the likes of Verlander and Cole, but can they do it away from home? If they reach the ALCS, their hopes of a pennant will hang on that big question. But let’s get there first.