Yankees-Astros Opening Day Is Wild-Card Game Part II

New York Yankees vs. Houston Astros

Opening Day for the Yankees will be a repeat of the wild-card game as they host the Astros with Masahiro Tanaka on the mound against Dallas Keuchel. Let’s just hope the 2016 season doesn’t being with the same result the 2015 season ended with after the Yankees were shut out at home.

With the Yankees and Astros opening the 2016 season on Monday in the Bronx, Ryan Dunsmore of The Crawfish Boxes joined me to talk about the wild-card game, the Astros having a true ace once again in Dallas Keuchel, watching the development of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa and what the expectations for the Astros are following their successful season.

Keefe: I knew the Yankees were going to lose the wild-card game and every Yankees fan should have known it. Not only had the team limped to the finish line at the end of the season and blown a sizable lead in the division to the Blue Jays after the trade deadline, but they were dominated by Dallas Keuchel in June and August. In those two starts, both wins, here was Keuchel’s combined line: 16 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 21 K.

Sitting in Yankee Stadium during the wild-card game and watching Keuchel once again shut the Yankees down, allowing just three hits over six shutout innings with a walk and seven strikeouts was devastating. I thought if the Yankees could get Keuchel out of the game relatively early, which they did, that they could come back against the Astros’ weak bullpen, but they couldn’t even do that.

Through Keuchel’s first 47 games and 38 starts in the majors over 2012 and 2013, he was 9-18 with a 5.20 ERA. In the last two years, he’s gone 32-17 with a 2.69 ERA and won the AL Cy Young last season. After having the Roger Clemens-Andy Pettitte-Roy Oswald era and then going through a serious starting pitching drought in Houston, what’s it like to have that true ace again?

Dunsmore: It has been an absolute joy to have an ace back on the team, especially because it is Dallas Keuchel. As you referenced, Keuchel wasn’t expected to be a star at the end of those turbulent years he was pitching out of the bullpen. But he was worked his butt off perfecting his location and learning the “art of pitching”.

Keuchel will never be a flamethrower, he sits around the high 80s and the upper 90s. But what he does best is keeping the ball down and reading the batter’s swing. The scary part is that type of game translates well as Keuchel ages.

Keuchel is the perfect fit for this young, energetic team and the beard helps in the same city with James Harden.

Keefe: The Astros won Game 1 of the ALDS against the Royals. They had a 4-1 lead in Game 2 before losing 5-4. They won Game 3. They had 6-2 lead in Game with six outs to go before giving up seven runs and losing 9-6, and they had a 2-0 lead in Game 5 before eventually losing 7-2.

Were you upset after the Astros’ season came to an end, considering they held a lead in all five games and were six outs away from advancing in Game 4. Or because this version of the Astros arrived early, were you OK with the way the season ended since the team did reach the postseason and did win the wild-card game?

Dunsmore: I admit I was upset the Astros dropped the game for one reason and one reason only: the Royals didn’t hit the ball hard during the comeback during Game 4. Kansas City dinked and dunked its way to setting up the comeback. That is not to take away with the Royals, they battled in each at-bat and found a way to win.

You’re correct in your second part of the question. The ALDS loss gave the Astros experience, experience the team desperately needed. The loss will linger in the back of their minds, but losses fuel good teams like the Royals were fueled by the World Series loss the year before.

Keefe: I remember what it was like to have a first-round draft pick and shortstop finally get to the majors and be everything you imagined he would be. Carlos Correa, the 2012 first overall pick, burst onto the scene when he was called up to the Astros last season, hitting .279/.345/.512 with 22 home runs and 68 RBIs in just 99 games. He won the AL Rookie of the Year and became a catalyst at the top of the lineup for the Astros.

Correa won’t be 22 until September and is already one of the best players in the majors. Even though you had to suffer through nine postseason-less seasons, and four straight 92-plus loss seasons before last year, you’ve made it through to the other side and now get to reap the benefits of star young players. It’s easy to say it was worth it now, but when you were going through the last decade as an Astros fan, did you think you would get to see this day?

Dunsmore: I don’t think I’m a good example for your average Astros fan, I continued to watch 92-plus loss teams. So it did make things sweeter to see Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s plan “The Process” come full circle. It is really satisfying to see a team build a winner with prospects. The Crawfish Boxes staff has been able to watch prospects come through the system to now become key cogs in the Astros playoff team. There is more investment.

Your average Houston fan checked out for six years and didn’t come back until the final months of last season. As is the case with Houston sports not called football.

Keefe: It’s very rare that I truly like non-Yankees players, but Jose Altuve is one of those players, and he’s easily my favorite non-Yankee in the majors. To do what he does at 5-foot-6 and 165 lbs. (both of which seem like a stretch) is amazing. A career .305 hitter and three-time All-Star in five seasons, Altuve had been one the bright spot on some awful Astros teams. It seems like he’s been in the league for a decade, but he’s still just 25 and won’t turn 26 until May 6.

How long did it take you to realize how good someone of that stature could be?

Dunsmore: It honestly didn’t take long to fall in love with Jose Altuve. You can see the hustle at every moment he is on the field. He doesn’t have a gear lower than 100 percent.

He was originally told by an Astros scout to go home during international tryouts, but he returned the next day to win a contract. I think the Astros front office has to know how special Jose Altuve is since that day.

That is why the Astros have pushed him through minors from Double-A to the majors in 2011. He’s shown the hustle that everyone loves since he was still wearing those terrible black and brick uniforms.

Keefe: Last year, the Astros won the second wild card, beat the Yankees in the Bronx and had nearly beat the defending AL champions and eventual World Series champions in the ALDS. But seemingly every team in every sport suffers a devastating loss before they can eventually win and maybe what happened in Game 4 of the ALDS ends up being the Astros’ devastating loss.

The Astros were supposedly ahead of schedule with their success last season and now that the team has once again had success and has reached the postseason, their youth has experience in big spots and they’re no longer a team on the rise.

After the team’s success last season and now that they are the favorite to win the AL West, what are your expectations for the 2016 Astros?

Dunsmore: I expect the Astros to make the playoffs. I won’t say they are AL favorites or World Series favorites. The team seems like a few developing prospects (flash to A.J. Reed and Colin Moran) away from winning it all. The pitching staff has a high floor, but isn’t blowing anyone away if Lance McCullers is on the shelf for a long time.

If Houston wins the division, I will be happy and roll the dice from there.