Flashback Friday and the World Series ahead

There already has been a bit of a buzz about how the World Series matchup between the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies is a rematch of sorts from 42 years ago. There has been a lot of talk about Steve Carlton, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Jose Cruz, Terry Puhl and all those players competing in that 1980 series and about how extremely competitive the series was, with four extra-inning games out of the five played. There are a few things that may not get mentioned but are critical to understanding that series.

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The ALDS morphs into the ALCS

We’ve heard it a number of times in the last few days, but the Astros are the first team in MLB history to win at least one playoff series in six consecutive seasons. And they are also the first team to move on to the Championship series in six straight seasons, including 2020, when they had to win two series to progress that far. Beyond that, the team has won 11 (and counting) playoff series in those six seasons. Remember that heading into 2017, this team had won 4 playoff series in their history, one in 2004, two in 2005, and the wild card play-in over the Yanks in 2015. Yes, we are spoiled.

ALDS thoughts:

  • Looking back at the very tight, very fortunate series against the upstart Mariners, one thought stuck in my mind. Each of these games was the exact kind of game the Astros would have lost in the old days. Those 1980 and 1986 series where the bullpen yacked up hard-earned leads. The 1999 and 2001 series where big home runs by Brian Jordan and Chipper Jones knocked us off our tracks. Back again to 1986 when a game that never would end ended in 16 innings with our team going home.
  • Yordan Alvarez was the huge, in-your-face, ready-for-TV hero of the series. But there were so many other under-the-counter heroes. This was a team effort, and even with some notable slumping going on, most everyone did something either by pitch, with the glove, or at bat to make this series go the Astros way. Alex Bregman in the first two games was clutch if not prolific at the bat, and of course, Jeremy Pena was heroic in setting the plate for Alvarez in the first two games long before his break-through homer in the 18th inning of game three.
  • The most unsung heroes of the series had to be the bullpen, who threw 20.1 innings of 11 hit, 1 run ball, the single run on a home run off of Cristian Javier. For shame, Cristian…….  And if they had given up just one run in their 12 innings of five-hit ball, they would have had to play at least on Sunday and possibly on Monday and possibly have gone home. Saturday’s marathon was amazing. It is tough enough for the home side pitchers, but from the 9th thru the 17th (a whole nine-inning game) they knew that any false move could end the game in a walk-off, and they rarely faltered. Here’s to Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly, Rafael Montero, Ryne Stanek, Hunter Brown, Hector Neris, Javier, and huge kudos to Luis Garcia. Garcia, who had not pitched in relief since the beginning of 2021 and who had to wonder when/if he would be used, threw 5 strong, scoreless innings in Game 3. What a performance.
  • Framber Valdez and Lance McCullers Jr. both put on strong performances in Games 2 and 3 after Justin Verlander threw one of his worst games of the season in Game 1. Framber got in more trouble than Lance and gave up a couple runs, but still managed to get in 5.2 innings before being rescued by Hector Neris. McCullers had to throw shutout ball and did for 6 innings before leaving the last 12 innings to the bullpen.
  • Most impactful at bat by a most anonymous player? The hit-by-pitch at bat by David Hensley in the 9th inning of Game 1. It would have been an eight-pitch walk, if the last ball hadn’t brushed his uniform. This was a rookie in his first postseason at bat. His team was trailing by two runs, and the veteran ahead of him in the lineup, Christian Vazquez had already grounded out to lead off the inning. He battled through a tough at bat, and frankly, if he does not get on base there, this team would have lost that game and possibly the series.

ALCS thoughts:

  • Looking at “history” related to the Astros and Yankees, the two teams have a history like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in real life. 
    • 2015 – the Astros emerge from a half-decade of tanking to make a surprise visit to the playoffs. They play the Yankees in a one-game Wild Card play-in, and behind Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and the bullpen, they eliminated the Yankees in NYC 3-0.
    • 2017 – In the poster child for home-field advantage, the 2017 ALCS started off with two 2-1 wins at home for the Astros, the Yanks roared back with three straight wins in New York, and then the Astros clinched their second World Series trip with two more wins at home. Somehow garbage can thumping made the Astros soar with a .182 BA in the ALCS, but they won anyway.
    • 2019 – The 2019 ALCS pivoted on two walk-off home runs as Carlos Correa walked off the 2nd game in the 11th inning, which was trumped by Jose Altuve walking off game six and the series with a 2 run homer off Aroldis Chapman.
    • 2022 – In 2022, the teams met seven times, with the Astros taking 5 of the 7 and, most importantly, sweeping a doubleheader coming off of the All Star break.
    • There has been a lot of booing of mainstays like Altuve in the regular season games at New York since the cheating scandal came to light, but it has seemed to only inspire Jose and others to greater heights against the Yanks.
  • Starting Pitching – After playing in an ALDS where they had two days off before they played their Game 3, the Astros will have a different challenge facing them in the ALCS as the teams will play 2 games in Houston, have a travel day off on Friday and then potentially could play 5 days in a row with travel sandwiched in after game 5 on Monday. This would seem to favor the Astros and their deeper pitching staff. Game 2 of the series may be the most interesting matchup of the series. Will the Yankees pitch ace Gerrit Cole on three days rest? That may depend on how Game 1 goes for the Yanks. Will the Astros throw Framber Valdez (next in line) or might they have Lance McCullers jump ahead of him, since he pitches better at home (all evidence from Game 3 against Seattle being to the contrary)?

The Astros behind Justin Verlander, Valdez, McCullers, Game 3 hero, Luis Garcia, Cristian Javier and Jose Urquidy (with Hunter Brown in reserve) have the best and deepest pitching rotation left in the playoffs. The Astros starters were 1st in the AL with a 2.95 ERA, a 1.07 WHIP, and a .213 BA against.

The Yankees were 3rd in the AL with a 3.54 ERA, tied for 1st with a 1.07 WHIP and second with a .222 BA against, which was quite good. Besides Cole (13-8, 3.50 ERA), they have first game starter Jameson Taillon (14-5, 3.91 ERA), 5th game winner over Cleveland, Nestor Cortes (12-4, 2.44 ERA), Luis Severino (7-3, 3.18 ERA) and Domingo German (2-5, 3.61 ERA).  If Cole moves up, would they move up Cortes and have him pitch on 3 days rest in Game 3? A lot will depend on how the series starts for the Yankees to see how desperate they may get.

Bottom Line – Advantage Astros

  • Position Players – The Yankees announced that a couple of their veteran stars have not recovered from injuries and will not be on the ALCS roster. Both DJ LeMahieu and Andrew Benintendi, who have done damage to the Astros in the past will miss the ALCS. Aaron Hicks was injured in the ALDS and will not be on the roster for this round. Marwin Gonzalez, who has been a ghost of his former self will also miss this series against his old team.

The Yankees scored the most runs in the AL this season along with hitting the most home runs. They were 8th in BA in the AL while clocking in with a 2nd best OBP and OPS. We can be upset with how much press Aaron Judge gets, but good Lord, 62 HRs and 131 RBIs with a slash of .311 BA/.425 OBP/1.111 OPS. He might be as good as Yordan Alvarez, you know. The Yanks behind Judge have a series of players who don’t hit much for average, but show some power. Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres all have over 70 RBIs and over 100 Ks apiece. Josh Donaldson has clocked in with 15 HRs and 62 RBIs, but also 148 K’s. The Yanks tried both Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Oswaldo Cabrera at shortstop during the ALDS, with Cabrera’s collision with Aaron Hicks knocking Hicks out for this series.

The Astros were 3rd in the AL in runs scored, and were 2nd in home runs, while only 5th in BA, 4th in OBP and 3rd in OPS. Unlike the Yankees, the Astros position players are healthy heading into the ALCS. The biggest missing piece is Michael Brantley, but they have had to survive a long time without one of their most consistent hitters. The Astros still depend on Jose Altuve to trigger the offense and hopefully he is ready to hit something/anything after an 0 for 18 ALDS. Jeremy Pena was clutch in the ALDS, Yordan Alvarez was a bit of a legend (who struggled in Game 3), Alex Bregman had big hits as did Yuli Gurriel, while Kyle Tucker also had his moments. With Jake Meyers off the roster will Chas McCormick get more bites of the apple? Will the catchers, Martin Maldonado and Christian Vazquez and DH/1B Trey Mancini do anything at the plate?

Bottomline – The Yanks should be favored at the plate, but they have a fair amount of fire power out for this series. We will call this a push.

  • Bullpen – The Astros and Yanks have the top two ‘pens in the AL, whatever way you want to look at it during the regular season.

For the Yanks, high priced, big marquee relievers Chad Green, Zach Britton and Aroldis Chapman have either missed most of the year to injury or succumbed to recent problems but none are on the ALCS roster. Michael King, who was excellent for them, is out for the season. Lucas Luetge, who was good during the regular season, is off the roster. Former A’s starter Frankie Montas is back from injury, but will likely just be available for 1 or 2 innings from the bullpen. His former teammate from Oakland Lou Trivino is one of a stable of relievers backing up closer (we think) Clay Holmes. Miguel Castro, Jonathan Loaisiga, Clarke Schmidt (who struggled in the ALDS) and Wandy Peralta should all see action.

The Astros’ bullpen has been a big part of their success all year and this continued in the ALDS culminating in the 12 innings of scoreless ball in the 3rd game. The ability to pair one inning guys like closer Ryan Pressly, Ryne Stanek, Rafael Montero, and Hector Neris with multi-inning pitchers like Bryan Abreu, Hunter Brown, Cristian Javier, Seth Martinez (brought back up for the ALDS), Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy gives Manager Dusty Baker tremendous flexibility in mixing and matching.

Bottomline – Small advantage for the Astros

Overall – Anything can happen in seven games, but it says here – the Astros in six games. 

Playoff talk and you know who

Your loyal writer has been watching a late afternoon tight game between the Yankees and their slighted fans (the HORROR of having your team play in the afternoon slot) and the underdog Guard(indians) today (Spoiler alert, the Yanks lost). My son, Thomas, texts me “Currently the Greatest Hitter of All Time (slight exaggeration) Aaron Judge has 1 BB, 1 Run scored, and 7 Ks over 2 games in the postseason”. 

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The Devil You Know

The Astros’ ALDS opponent has been revealed and it is a team they know very well from their own division. The Astros have played the Seattle Mariners 19 times each of the last 10 seasons (other than Covid 2020) since they have joined the AL West. They were 12-7 against the M’s this season. (It doesn’t matter).

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With Autumn Closing In…..

Back in the far-off year of 1976, blue-collar rock warrior Bob Seger became an overnight sensation at the age of 31 after spending about half his life chasing the golden musical ring. His huge hit “Night Moves” jump-started his career and pushed him to superstardom.

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