HOUSTON – The Yankees all along were fairly certain this series was coming.
As were the Astros.
Though “one game at a time,” and “one series at a time” utterances from players in clubhouses is as much a part of baseball as sunflower seeds in the dugout, players from both clubs as far back as June recognized the likelihood of a collision course in the American League Championship Series.
What was long seen as inevitable became reality Tuesday afternoon when the Yankees bested the Guardians in Game 5 of their Division Series.
Wednesday night brought Game 1 of the ALCS at Minute Maid Park, the start of the third meeting in the last six seasons on the LCS stage between the clubs.
The Yankees fell in seven games in the 2017 ALCS and in six games in the 2019 ALCS. Tack on the loss in the 2015 AL wild-card game, it’s three times in seven years the Astros have eliminated the Yankees from the postseason.
“My ultimate goal is to go out there and win a World Series and that’s a team that’s kind of always been in the way,” said Aaron Judge, a 2013 draft pick of the Yankees who was on both the 2017 and ’19 teams that fell to Houston. “They’ve got a great ballclub, so you kind of have to go through Houston to get to your ultimate goal of winning a World Series. I’m looking forward to it.”
Luis Severino, who will get the start in Game 2 against Framber Valdez, was also on the ’17 and ’19 teams.
“I think about that we [lost) here,” Severino said Wednesday of the first thing entering his mind when he walks into Minute Maid. “That's the only thing that came to my mind. I think all the guys that have been here since then, they have to remember that. They have to remember that feeling [of losing] and try to not feel the same way this year. Try to be better, try to go out there with that mentality.”
The Astros won five of seven meetings this season, though no one should make too much of those as Houston outscored the Yankees, 27-22, in the games, hardly an eye-popping number.
The Yankees split the four-game set at the Stadium Jun 23-26, with both victories coming on walk-off hits.
“October’s a different ballgame,” Judge said after the Yankees were swept in a doubleheader here July 21 that dropped his team to 64-30 and pulled the Astros within 2 ½ games of them for the league’s best mark, which Houston accomplished in a second half that was far better than the Yankees’. “Things are completely different. Teams are different. This is just kind of the practice test. Every team we play it’s a little practice test, see how we stack up. Take your notes, then get ready for the real thing [in October].”
The Yankees struggled against the Astros' rotation but so did pretty much everyone else as Houston ranked second in the majors with a 2.95 ERA from their starters. The Yankees ranked fourth with a 3.51 ERA from their rotation.
“That’s certainly a fair outlook,” Gerrit Cole said June 26 of the feeling of inevitability of an October matchup. “Obviously, a complete team. We all know that good pitching and defense wins a lot of games in October. Obviously, you’re going to have to have clutch hitting and magical offense as well, but there’s just not a lot of weaknesses over there. They can beat you in a lot of different ways, the same way we can beat you in a lot of different ways. So certainly a fair assumption. But we have to get there first.”
The Astros made it there before the Yankees by sweeping Seattle in the AL’s other Division Series. Though it was a three-game sweep, the games were far from easy as the Astros needed to rally from a four-run deficit in Game 1 – winning it on Yordan Alvarez’s walk-off three-run homer – and a one-run deficit in Game 2 to Seattle ace Luis Castillo. Game 3 was an 18-inning marathon that ended, 1-0.
The Yankees survived elimination games against the Guardians in Games 4 and 5, which set up yet another crack at a team that has been the thorn of thorns in the side of the franchise when it comes to this time of year.
“The narrative’s not going to change until you beat them in the playoffs,” Boone said after the doubleheader sweep here. “We beat them four of six last year…where did that get us? I understand it’s a big story. I understand the season that we’re in. It’s not going to matter [until] October. We think we’re really good. They’re really good…ultimately, we may have to slay the dragon. If it comes down to October [against the Astros], the proof will be in the pudding.”