HOUSTON — Masahiro Tanaka arrived at Minute Maid Park about an hour before his teammates on Friday afternoon. That was the first clue that manager Aaron Boone was changing his rotation for the ALCS.
The second clue — a pretty good one — was provided when Boone announced that Tanaka would start Game 1 against the Astros on Saturday night.
James Paxton, who started the first game of the ALDS against the Twins, will pitch ALCS Game 2 on Sunday night. Luis Severino will get Game 3, as he did in the first round, and then Boone will see what’s happening for Game 4.
Tanaka will oppose Zack Greinke. The Astros will use co-aces Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in Games 2 and 3, respectively.
But first, why was Tanaka at the ballpark so early?
“I just wanted to get my regular work in . . . the work that I put in the day before going into a game,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “And, obviously, I had to come and do this press conference. So that’s why I came in early.”
Tanaka has a 1.54 ERA in six postseason starts, including a five-inning, one-run outing against the Twins in ALDS Game 2. He started twice against Houston this season, allowing three runs in 12 innings in a pair of no-decisions.
Tanaka had a 6.05 road ERA in 2019, but that included two disastrous starts against Boston (one in London) in which he gave up 18 runs in four total innings. Chances are Boone won’t let Tanaka pitch deep enough in Game 1 to allow 12 runs, as he did on July 25 at Fenway Park.
Why switch Tanaka and Paxton for this round? Boone was vague.
“I felt like it was a good decision,” he said. “Tough one to be made, but similar to the Division Series, where I was going back and forth a lot. Just felt like Masa here in Game 1 is the way I wanted to go in the end.”
Before Boone revealed his plan, Astros manager AJ Hinch said he considers Paxton the Yankees’ top starter.
“I think with Paxton, their rotation kind of starts with Paxton and then Tanaka,” Hinch said. “And we know that to be true.”
One thing we really do know to be true is that Boone won’t hesitate to go to his deep and rested bullpen when he thinks Tanaka has done enough.
“We’re going for broke,” Boone said. “We’ll try and do everything we can each and every day to win a ballgame, keeping in mind that everything has an effect on everything.”
The Astros just completed a five-game ALDS triumph over Tampa Bay. Houston was forced to use Verlander and Cole in the last two games, which earned Greinke the Game 1 nod. The righthander allowed six runs in 3 2/3 innings in ALDS Game 3.
Greinke, who has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, did not give much insight into his feelings about starting Game 1. He answered “I don’t know” to the first two questions he was asked.
Later, when asked about facing the Yankees, Greinke said: ”A lot of good hitters. It’s tough to get good hitters out than not as good hitters.”
Tanaka said something similar but used more words when asked about the Astros.
“As far as facing the Houston lineup, obviously it’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “But you try not to do anything sort of different going into the game. You prepare for it. You make your plans and basically you go out there and execute.”