After failing to hit in Houston against the Astros in the ALCS in 2017 and 2019, the Yankees continued that trend in the 2022 ALCS, scoring just two runs and having 16 straight batters retired between the third and eighth innings in Game 1.
1. As I stood in unison with the rest of Yankee Stadium during the ninth inning of Game 5 against the Guardians on Tuesday, I wasn’t foolish enough to join in the chant reverberating throughout the Bronx.
“WE WANT HOU-STON! WE WANT HOU-STON! WE WANT HOU-STON!“
No one should “want” Houston. I get that at that moment the Yankees and Yankees fans didn’t have a choice. The Astros had already advanced to the ALCS three days earlier after sweeping the Mariners and there was no other option. Beat the Guardians and face the Astros, or lose to the Guardians and go home. I joked that I would rather lose to the Guardians than suffer a third ALCS loss to the Astros in six years and fourth elimination by the Astros in eight years. I was only half-joking.
Normally, it would be humiliating to lose in the same round of the postseason to the same team for a third straight time and to be eliminated by the same team in the postseason for the fourth time in eight years, especially this team. However, it really won’t be humiliating if the Yankees are eliminated by the Astros in the ALCS because the roster, talent and management gap between the two is that wide. And after Wednesday’s 4-2 loss in Game 1, the Yankees are 25 percent of the way and three losses away from being eliminated by the Astros once again.
2. I went into Game 1 thinking of it as pretty much a throwaway game. The Yankees were being forced to start Jameson Taillon, a pitcher they went out of their way to prevent from starting a postseason game, including trading away good, young starting pitching talent to acquire Frankie Montas. (That turned out well.) And on the other end, they would be facing a well-rested Justin Verlander coming off seven days rest. The soon-to-be AL Cy Young winner at age 39 has spent his career shutting down the Yankees in the playoffs dating back to the 2006 ALDS, and including the 2011 ALDS, 2012 ALCS, 2017 ALCS, and 2019 ALCS. Verlander could have been a Yankee these last six years if Hal Steinbrenner had been willing to take on his salary at the 2017 waiver deadline. The Astros were willing to take on his salary from Detroit and he has shoved it back in the Yankees’ face in now three different postseasons. (The Yankees could have had him for this season as well, but they only offered him $25 million for one year, and the Astros offered him $25 million per year for two years, so he went back to Houston. Two years and $50 million is nearly what the Yankees are paying Josh Donaldson for this year and next.)
Verlander wasn’t his usual dominant self against the Yankees in Game 1. Yes, he finished the game with one run allowed over six innings, striking out 11 and retiring the last 11 he faced, but the Yankees had runners on against him early (something they never seem to have against him) and couldn’t capitalize (something they never seem to do against him).
It started in the first at-bat of the game when Gleyber Torres (a continual awful choice for the leadoff spot given his approach) was ahead 3-1, and rather than take a pitch and possibly draw a walk, took the kind of swing you would expect to see on an 0-2 pitch and weakly grounded out to third. The Yankees eventually had two runners on in the first before Donaldson struck out in one of the least competitive at-bats you will ever see. (That is, until you saw his next two at-bats.)
3. In the second, Harrison Bader hit his fourth home run in six playoff games to give the Yankees their first lead over the Astros in eight games this season. That lead didn’t last long. In the bottom of the inning, after getting two quick outs, Taillon allowed a single to No. 8 hitter Chas McCormick and then a double off the wall on a 1-2 pitch to career-.634 OPS Martin Maldonado. To that point, Taillon had allowed a lot of hard contact, and the only reason the Astros hadn’t put the game out of reach was because of Aaron Judge’s spectacular diving catch on an Alex Bregman line drive that saved two runs from scoring in the first. Taillon ended up giving the Yankees 4 1/3 innings of one-run ball, which was drastically better than when he allowed six runs on 10 hits in his lone regular-season start against the Astros.
4. Aaron Boone decided to go batter-to-batter with Taillon in the fifth inning, despite Taillon facing the top of the order for a third time. After he retired Jose Altuve (who remains hitless in the postseason, and yet the Astros are undefeated in the postseason), he allowed Jeremy Pena to double off him for the second time and Boone went to Clarke Schmidt to face the 3-4-5 hitters. The only thing Boone hates more than giving his relievers a clean inning to work with is playing Oswald Peraza, so he waited until a runner was in scoring position to go to his bullpen. It was a spot that had “Lou Trivino” written all over it and Boone went with Schmidt instead. After intentionally walking Yordan Alvarez, Schmidt walked Bregman to load the bases. I was about ready to go to bed and catch up on the sleep I have been deprived of because of the week-long ALDS until Schmidt got Kyle Tucker to ground into a 5-4-3 double play to end the inning. Between Taillon getting 13 outs and allowing only a run and Schmidt pitching out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam against the heart of the order, I began to think Maybe they can steal this game. It was an unintelligent thought to have.
That’s because there were still four innings to play, and the Yankees were already in their bullpen. There would be a lot of decisions by Boone for the remainder of the game, and the more decisions needed to be made by Boone, the worse off the Yankees would be. It didn’t take long for that theory to prove out as Boone stayed with Schmidt for the sixth and Yuli Gurriel crushed a solo home run off him to lead off the inning and give the Astros a 2-1 lead.
The fifth-inning had “Lou Trivino” written all over it, but the sixth inning screamed “LOU TRIVINO!” Instead, Boone stayed with Schmidt and he gave up the home run. Even after the home run, Boone stayed with Schmidt, and two batters later, McCormick (again, the No. 8 hitter) went deep to extend the Astros’ lead to 3-1. Then, Boone decided to go to Trivino. Why pitch him in a tie game when you can bring him with the Yankees trailing by two runs? Of course he retired the next two batters to end the inning, including striking out Altuve.
5. From then on, the rest of the game was a mere formality. The Astros added an insurance run in the seventh when Pena hit a solo home run off Montas (ironic he was pitching in relief in a game started by Taillon when he was acquired to pitch in the postseason over Taillon). The Yankees did bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the ninth in Matt Carpenter, but the Yankees’ version of Barry Bonds from the regular season struck out for the fourth time in the game. Carpenter is now 0-for-6 with six strikeouts in the postseasons, though his plate appearances have come again Trevor Stephan, James Karinchak, Justin Verlander and Ryan Pressly. Those are the only six plate appearances Carpenter has had since August 8, and it’s hard enough to hit those names, let alone after a two-and-a-half-month layoff. That doesn’t change the fact that I would continue to use Carpenter (though with the left-handed Framber Valdez starting in Game 2, you can bet Carpenter won’t be starting.)
6. Carpenter had a bad night, though so did all of the Yankees except for Anthony Rizzo, Giancarlo Stanton and Bader. From the second out of the third until Rizzo’s home run with two outs in the eighth, the Yankees didn’t get a single baserunner. What Boone, Schmidt and Montas did was bad, but it truly didn’t matter with the offense performing their traditional postseason disappearing act in Houston. That game might as well have been a game from the 2017 ALCS or 2019 ALCS. The Yankees scored two runs on two solo home runs, didn’t capitalize on the few chances they had with runners on base, struck out 17 times and at one point went 16 straight batters without getting a baserunner. After having the worst batting average (.182) of a team to win a division series in league history, the Yankees followed it up with the same kind of offensive performance they have put together all season against the Astros.
7. The Yankees have now played eight games against the Astros in 2022, and this is what the Yankees’ offense has done in those games:
June 23: No-hit for seven innings, 10 strikeouts
June 24: One run
June 25: No-hit, 15 strikeouts
June 26: No-hit for 6 1/3 innings
June 30: One run, 11 strikeouts
July 21: Two runs
July 21: Five runs off a starter who isn’t in the Astros’ playoff rotation and a reliever who is no longer in the majors, 10 strikeouts
October 19: 16 batters retired in a row from third inning until eighth inning, 17 strikeouts
8. It’s going to be hard for the Yankees to survive another series (especially one against the Astros) with Aaron Judge contributing little to nothing at the plate, and in Game 1, he contributed nothing at the plate. The Yankees tried to get past the Astros in 2019 with only Torres and DJ LeMahieu hitting and it inevitably didn’t work out. They won’t get past them this year either if Rizzo, Stanton and Bader are going to be the only bats to provide offense.
9. Donaldson can’t be counted on to provide offense. He just produced the worst season of his career despite being healthy for all of it. He can’t hit elite pitching, can’t touch high-90s velocity and has no clue how to put a breaking ball in play. In Game 1, he struck out with two runners on in his first plate appearance, struck out on three pitches with runners on second and third and one out in his second plate appearance and struck out on three pitches in his third plate appearance. He did draw a walk in his fourth plate appearance, which is the extent of his offense through six postseason games. Continuing to bat Donaldson fifth because of his name and as if he’s still the same player he was three to seven years ago is infuriating. He’s undeserving of batting fifth in the lineup (as much as Torres is undeserving of leading off), and if he’s not going to be benched outright (which he should be) then he needs to be moved down.
10. To be honest, this is the least upset I have ever been after a Yankees postseason loss. I’m not upset because the Yankees aren’t as good as the Astros, and I’ve known that since late June. Even with a fully healthy Carpenter, LeMahieu, Andrew Benintendi, Michael King, Ron Marinaccio and Scott Effross, it was going to be extremely difficult to beat the Astros. Without them and without home-field advantage and with the Yankees’ bullpen fatigued from the ALDS and their rotation out of order because they went the distance in the ALDS, it’s going to be nearly impossible to win this series. Just think, in Game 1, the Yankees held Altuve, Alvarez, Bregman and Tucker to 0-for-12 with three walks and they still lost. If Pena (three extra-base hits), who had a .289 on-base percentage this season, McCormick (two hits, including a home run and a walk), who is their 8-hitter, and Maldonado (game-tying double), who is among the worst “everyday” hitters in the majors can win a game in the series, the Yankees may really have no chance.
As I originally thought and wrote after the ALDS Game 5 win, I don’t expect the Yankees with their injuries, first-round bullpen usage and schedule to beat the Astros. After what I saw in Game 1, it’s going to be even harder for the Yankees to upset the Astros than I envisioned. I thought it would take a miracle for the Yankees to get back to the World Series for the first time in 13 seasons and the second time in 19 years, but what’s more improbable than a miracle? Because that’s what it’s going to take.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!