This past weekend was by far the Yankees’ biggest series of the season, punctuated by the biggest hit of the season to cap off the biggest win of the season. To come away with a series split as part of a larger 9-4 run against the Rays, Blue Jays, Rays, and Astros is as well as any team could hope to do. And the fact that they had very real chances to win those four losing contests is a testament to how special this team is.
It’s worth reflecting on what the Yankees showed during this crucial four-game set. Fittingly, we’ll go with four points.
1. The starting rotation and bullpen are still legit
Yes, Jameson Taillon gave up six runs in Game 1, and yes, Michael King and Lucas Luetge each surrendered a run in the no-hit game to make the Yankees’ task of coming back all the more difficult. Nonetheless, the Yankees’ starters and relievers were by and large typically excellent against the next-best offense in the American League.
Taillon shook off a pair of three-run homers to give the Yankees 5.2 innings to spare the bullpen, something which cannot be overlooked. Luis Severino logged a quality start and really only made the one mistake to Kyle Tucker. Gerrit Cole looked every bit the ace pitcher he is, his outing also marred by one lone mistake. Nestor Cortes locked it in for a decent stretch, when the outing easily could have gone sideways after the Jose Altuve home run on the first pitch.
The bullpen was what really impressed me in this series. Knowing how thin the depth currently stands, you have to say they pitched marvelously across the four contests. Luetge, Albert Abreu, and Miguel Castro combined to give the Yankees 3.1 scoreless one-hit innings on Thursday, without which there would have been no comeback and walk-off. Castro, Ron Marinaccio, and Wandy Peralta logged three no-hit innings on Friday to ensure that the team was still in it until the final out.
Yesterday was the most outstanding five innings pitched by the bullpen all season. For Castro to give them two scoreless with three strikeouts; for Peralta and Clay Holmes to lock down the eighth and ninth; and for King to Houdini his way out of a bases-loaded jam in extra innings starting with the zombie runner on second and strand them all while throwing by far the hardest pitch of his career — just really, really magnificent work.
2. There is a clear strategy on how to attack Yankees hitters
Getting no-hit for the first time in almost two decades — and for the no-hitter to be part of a larger 16-inning hitless streak across three games — is not fun. The largest factor in that hitless span was the performance of the opposing starting pitchers, and specifically the way they attacked the Yankees with the four-seamer.
Out of 133 four-seamers thrown for strikes (this includes swings on pitches out of the zone) by this trio of Houston starters, only two went for hits — solo shots by Giancarlo Stanton against Justin Verlander and then José Urquidy — while one resulted in Josh Donaldson reaching on an error. That leaves 130 four-seamers that were either taken for strikes, whiffed, fouled away, or hit into play for an out. Thus, it would appear future opponents have a clear roadmap for how to attack the Yankees lineup — four-seamers at the belt or higher and in the zone.
For a Yankees team that leads MLB in performance against the four-seamer (.406 xwOBA), it’s hard to know what to make of this. On one hand, a significant number of those pitches were belt-high and not necessarily on the corner, which would appear to be a particularly concerning development. On the other hand, the vastly larger season sample size says that this weekend was just a blip in an otherwise fastball-mashing campaign. So for now, I won’t get too worried about it, but it is something I will be monitoring in the coming weeks.
3. The Astros are the rightful 1B to the Yankees’ 1A in the American League
This series was a litmus test — not necessarily for validating the legitimacy of the Yankees’ record entering the series — but more to confirm that the Yankees and Astros are indeed the two best teams in the AL and are quite evenly matched. It’s hard to find a weakness on this Astros squad. The first six hitters in their lineup — Altuve, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Tucker, and Jeremy Peña — all place in the top-31 of offensive production by wRC+. They’re third overall in baseball with a 116 team wRC+. Their starting rotation places third in ERA (3.26) while the bullpen places first (2.63) and second in FIP (3.23).
I think the Astros have proven that they have the manpower to match up with the Yankees in every phase of the game. Make no mistake folks: This team is every bit the AL juggernaut that the Yankees are. Altuve and Alvarez are two bona fide superstars capable of taking over any game. Alvarez leads the AL in wRC+ (198) and crushed that three-run home run off Taillon in the first game of the series. Altuve damn near swept the series singlehandedly, going 5-for-14 with a pair of home runs. (Please Yankees fans, stop chanting “F**k Altuve,” it’s not working.) The Yankees cannot let this duo be the guys to beat them in future meetings.
4. THIS TEAM DOES NOT QUIT!
One thing cannot be denied: These Yankees hitters save their best at-bats for when it matters most. They brought the winning run to the plate at least once after the seventh inning in every single game. But more than that, the quality of AB’s improved as the game leverage got higher.
After getting almost completely blanked from the second through the eighth on Thursday, the Bombers worked a pair of walks to set up the Aaron Hicks game-tying home run off closer Ryan Pressly. The blast was then followed by a pair of singles and a walk to set up Judge’s walk-off hit down the left-field line.
In the second game, Stanton and then Donaldson stepped to the plate as the winning run when DJ LeMahieu and Anthony Rizzo reached ahead of them. Then an inning later, LeMahieu had a chance with two outs as the potential winning run once Hicks and Matt Carpenter worked a pair of hard-fought walks. Even in the no-hitter, Joey Gallo came mere feet away from giving the Yankees the lead in the eighth after walks from Hicks and LeMahieu.
At last, in the series finale, LeMahieu’s game-tying home run in the eighth wouldn’t have been possible without Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s one-out single. Following his seventh-inning homer to break up the no-hitter, Stanton had a shot to win it in regulation during the eighth as well, thanks to two-out walks from Judge and Rizzo. IKF’s sac bunt with two strikes in the tenth had a chance of being one of the most clutch plays in the game before being obviated by Judge’s walk-off bomb.
These Bomber bats seem to find another gear and lock it in to a new level of focus with the game on the line, and that I feel is the most impressive part of this ballclub with the games only becoming more important from here on out.