The Yankees have dug themselves into a hole they’re not likely to come out of before season’s end, down nine games in the AL East to a surprisingly formidable Red Sox team, while also trailing the Rays and Jays. However, at 44-42, they’re only 4.5 games back from the Athletics for the second Wild Card spot, their best bet at earning a chance to compete in some October baseball. With Houston owning the best record in the American League, this upcoming set could represent a preview of the Yankees’ ALDS matchup if — and that’s a big “if” — they were to make and win a Wild Card game. Given the two teams’ acrimonious recent history, a series win could provide a much-needed morale boost to an up-and-down Yankees club, while a couple of losses could send them into another tailspin.
Friday: Nestor Cortes Jr. vs. Jake Odorizzi, 8:10 PM ET
After burning both Michael King (now on the 10-day IL) and Domingo Germán on Wednesday, the Yankees will roll with Nestor Cortes Jr. and hope to string together enough back-end relief pitching to fill the remaining innings, or else they might just hand the ball over to a lucky fan. Cortes made his first start of the season last week in the second half of the Sunday doubleheader against the Mets, and he threw 3.1 innings of one-run ball, though only going 59 pitches. With Kluber and Severino still yet to return from injuries, the Yankees’ starting rotation opens up this important series in perhaps its most vulnerable spot of the season.
Fortunately for them, they will get a chance to return fire against the soft-throwing righty, Jake Odorizzi. Odorizzi’s currently sporting the third-best ERA (3.70) of his seven-year career, but his mediocre peripherals tell a different story. After more than 200 career starts under his belt, Odorizzi is a viable big-league pitcher, but not much more than that.
It’s exactly this kind of featherweight matchup where the Yankees’ big bats need to walk the walk if the club has hopes of playing meaningful baseball in a couple of months.
Saturday: Gerrit Cole vs. Zack Greinke, 7:15 PM ET
Saturday’s marquee matchup presents Gerrit Cole with a tall task in his first return to Minute Maid Park in front of fans. Through May, Gerrit Cole had recorded more fWAR (3.1) than any pitcher in baseball, even more than anyone whose name rhymes with “Dacob JeGrom.” Since then, MLB cracked down on Cole’s favored sticky stuff, causing his RPMs to plummet while his ERA soared. Cole’s fWAR total has actually dropped all the way to 2.8, good for just the ninth-best in the majors. Since the start of June, Cole has pitched through a terrible 5.24 ERA on a .756 opponent OPS, watching his season ERA climb from 1.78 all the way to 2.91. For the Yankees’ sake, Cole needs to figure it out sooner than later, but having to face the best offense in baseball on Saturday will do him no favors.
Meanwhile, Cole’s former teammate Zack Greinke continues to remain atop the rotation even as a 37-year-old. Greinke’s strikeout capabilities are far from what they used to be — his 6.6 K/9 is on pace to be his worst since 2005 — but he’s getting outs and soaking up innings for Houston. He’s been susceptible to the long ball though, giving up nearly a dinger per start, so if the Yankees are going to get to him, that’ll be the avenue of choice.
Sunday: Jameson Taillon vs. Framber Valdez, 2:10 PM ET
Despite stumbling out of the gates on his way to a relatively bad luck 5.05 ERA (4.07 xERA), Taillon is coming off of his best and longest start of the season, having gone seven innings while allowing just a single run. He owned the top of the strike zone with his 80th-percentile spinning fastball, earning nine strikeouts on 101 pitches, also season-highs in each category. If the Yankees want to have a chance at winning their second series in a row, they are going to need more of the Taillon they saw in Seattle, especially if Gerrit Cole can’t get out of his rut.
Unlike Taillon, Framber Valdez has fallen upwards to a sparkling 2.86 ERA on a less shiny but still stellar 3.29 xERA. He works off of his excellent curveball to limit the damage done in the air with a fly ball rate half of the league average, despite occasionally being hit hard on the ground. However, he doesn’t throw particularly hard (92 mph average four-seamer), meaning the fastball averse Yankees could stand a chance if he happens to hang a cement-mixer or two.