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How does Yankees/Astros compare to history’s great ALCS rivalries?

The Yankees and Astros is just the latest great ALCS rivalry for this franchise.

New York Yankees’ Chris Chambliss jumps for joy after connec Photo by Vincent Riehl/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

When a baseball historian sits down to write about the late 2010s and early 2020s, there are many angles that they could use to approach the era. The expansion and normalization of advanced statistics and Statcast data, the rise of — and backlash against — the three true outcomes approach, and the growing tensions between the players’ union and ownership that resulted in the 2021-22 lockout would all tell gripping narratives that would bring these last few years to life on the page. The possible angles are endless.

If one were to use the great rivalries of the American League in this period, they would find a rich selection. Tensions between the Yankees and Rays have, over the last three years, been at their all-time high. Oakland spent three years trying desperately to catch the Astros in the AL West, only to be replaced in that role by the Mariners once they decided to blow it up this past winter. Although the historic rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox has cooled off in recent years, they have had their more than their fair share of moments in that span. At the end of the day, however, every discussion about the AL’s greatest rivalries of this generation begins and ends with the one between the Yankees and Astros.

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Three Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Let’s put aside the sign-stealing scandal for a moment. For the last six years, the Houston Astros have run the American League. They’ve made the ALCS every season — even in the COVID-shortened season in which they finished with a 29-31 record and only made the postseason due to the expanded playoff field. They’ve been to three World Series, winning once. They’ve won 101 or more games four times in this span, and 106 or more twice. Aside from 2020, at least one Astro has been in the top five for AL MVP since 2015.

And the team that has been in their way more than anyone? The New York Yankees, who took them to the verge of elimination in 2017 (but unfortunately, could not close it out despite winning three memorable home games), lost on Jose Altuve’s walk-off shot in Game 6 against Aroldis Chapman in 2019, and now have a two-game deficit here in 2022. Add on the fact that the last gasps of the late-2000s/early-2010s Yankees got bounced in the 2015 Wild Card Game at Yankee Stadium by the rising tide of the Astros juggernaut, and it’s clear to see why there is certainly no love lost between these two franchises.

As one of the oldest and most storied franchises in baseball history, it should not come as a surprise that the Yankees have been in this situation before. Since the first ALCS was played in 1969, they have made 18 appearances in the series, going 11-6 in their first 17. Over that span, two major rivalries emerged: Yankees/Royals from 1976-80, and Yankees/Red Sox from 1999-2004.

After the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics took control of the AL East and West in the first half of the 1970s, the Yankees and Royals dominated the league in four out of five seasons from 1976-80, including three straight from ‘76 to ‘78 (neither team made it in 1979). Just how rare is a sustained period of utter dominance like this? No other pair of AL teams have more than three matchups in their entire history.

And boy, were those matchups filled with true vitriol. There were legendary moments abound, such as Chris Chambliss’s walk-off home run in the win-or-go-home Game 5 (remember, the ALCS was a best-of-five series until 1985) that sent the Yankees to their first World Series for the first time since 1964. Then in 1977, the 102-win Royals took the Yankees to five games once again, but the Yankees scored three runs in the top of the ninth to overcome a 3-2 deficit and send the Royals home in heartbreaking fashion for the second-straight season.

Little would change in 1978, as the Yankees would only need four games to dispatch their foes and advance to their third consecutive World Series. Their rematch in 1980, however, saw the Royals’ fortunes change, as they bulldozed the Yankees in a three-game sweep that was capped by a late George Brett homer off Goose Gossage in the clincher.

Even as the two teams faded away over the 1980s, the hatred between these two teams hung around for years after. In fact, many know it more for a game that happened after all four ALCS showdowns, the infamous Pine Tar Game. This rivalry would not have happened, however, if they had not repeatedly stood in each other’s paths to the Fall Classic.

The same cannot be said for The Rivalry, the one that needs no introduction: the Yankees and Red Sox. New York and Boston have been rivals for as long as there have been European settlements on the Atlantic coast, and that rivalry has carried over into baseball. While the two teams have had many bitter contests over the last 120 years, few periods have been as intense as the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

The 1999 matchup was the first time that the two teams faced each other in the postseason, as the Wild Card had only been introduced a few years prior; the Yankees were at the time the defending World Series champions, while the Red Sox were playing in their first ALCS since 1990. While Yankees fans certainly remember it fondly, it wasn’t exactly an exciting series, as the Yankees steamrolled them in five games.

After a few up-and-down years for the Red Sox, they returned to the playoffs in 2003, dispatched the A’s, and took on New York in the ALCS again. This time, the series became much more famous, featuring bad blood with Pedro Martínez, tight baseball, and a Game 7 for the ages: an epic come-from-behind, extra-innings victory that ended with a walk-off home run by Aaron Boone in the 11th.

Boston, however, got their last laugh a season later, completing the most unlikely of comebacks, which is all we’re going to say about that. Although both teams generally remained playoff regulars and regular-season rivals for the remainder of the decade, they would not meet in the postseason again until the 2018 ALDS, when the key members of those previous cores had long since retired.

The Yankees and Astros rivalry has not yet been as memorable as these two, at least for New Yorkers; while there have been some epic moments for the ages, so far, nearly all of them have come at the expense of the Bronx Bombers. No matter how — pick your adjective: frustrating, infuriating, heartbreaking — this rivalry has been, however, one thing is clear: it’s driven the American League for the last six years, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.