The Yankees and Astros are at a deadlock entering this final stretch of the regular season. Entering Thursday, Houston led by one game, and both have similarly dominant records playing at home. Home-field advantage in the American League, and possibly for the entire playoffs, would not only set the table for which teams these two juggernauts face in the ALDS, but also who would be favored in a potential ALCS clash.
The scenario is certainly familiar. Home-field largely dictated the outcome of the last postseason meeting between these two teams, when the home team won every single game of the 2017 ALCS. The regular season record between New York and Houston this year even mirrors the trend, as Houston swept all three games in Minute Maid Park while the Yankees took three of four in Yankee Stadium. There’s no guarantee that a postseason meeting in 2019 works out as binary as it did then, but it could certainly be a large factor.
It’s also the only significant competition left for the Yankees. The AL East is all but decided, and other than a two-game set against the Rays beginning on Tuesday, the Yankees cannot really play spoiler for any club still in the hunt. Therefore, it would seem that the Yankees would put their main focus on winning this race, and going 100% for it. That’s not the case, however.
The 2019 Yankees continue to have their season dictated by injuries, even when it revolves around getting their guys back. Giancarlo Stanton returned to the Yankee lineup on Wednesday, and Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion are pushing to return right before the season ends. These are significant players to the Yankees, and even though they’ve found production almost everywhere they’ve turned this year, they’ll want to get these guys as many reps as they can to work them back into the roster before the games become do-or-die.
What then happens if Stanton is slow getting his bat back to speed, or Sanchez is a bit uncomfortable getting behind the plate to start? If you subscribe to the “Home-field matters at all costs” camp, the logical choice would be to sit them out a bit, but the Yankees clearly won’t do that. They would want Stanton to deal with strikeouts in September, and get his groove back to catch up in the home run department come October. Little things like that may end up costing the Yankees a game or two though, which will be pivotal in surpassing the Astros.
In a way, the Yankees have already begun this process. In their most recent road trip, Aaron Boone opted to go with relievers like Cory Gearrin, Chance Adams, and Jordan Montgomery in key situations during winnable games against the Tigers and Blue Jays that the Yankees ultimately lost. The reason for this is twofold: one, it saves the Yankees’ top relievers like Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino from being overworked heading into the postseason, and two it gives Boone a chance to see what his options are for the lower end of the bullpen.
Montgomery in particular is an arm that could go either way for the roster crunch, depending on how the Yankees utilize their starters. Getting him an outing or two was important to moving these decisions forward. Many fans were pleased that Luis Severino came out sharp in his season debut, but if he looked like a mess suddenly the eligibility of guys like Montgomery or Jonathan Loaisiga becomes much more critical for the Yankees to consider. It may not have been the optimal way to go for getting the most regular season wins, but it shows that the Yankees were committed to making these thorough decisions, and have been for a while.