The first series of 2017 that carried the “measuring stick” narrative for the Yankees came in late April at Fenway Park.
The Yankees took both games of a rain-shortened series April 26 and 27 against the prohibitive preseason AL East favorite, getting dominant pitching performances out of Luis Severino and Masahiro Tanaka.
Next came a first-place battle against the Orioles at the Stadium April 28-30, with the Yankees winning two of three, including a 14-11 victory in the first game, a contest the Yankees trailed 9-1 going into the bottom of the sixth.
Then there was last weekend’s “how-will-they-handle-it” showdown with the defending champion Cubs at Wrigley, a three-game sweep that ended with Sunday’s (and Monday’s) 18-inning victory.
And so you’ll forgive the 21-10 Yankees if they take issue, albeit politely, with the premise they’ve “risen” to the occasion when they’ve played some of the better teams on their schedule.
They face another one starting Thursday night at the Stadium against the AL West-leading Astros (23-11), another preseason favorite to represent the AL in the World Series.
“I’m aware of what kind of team they have,” Brett Gardner said, “but I think we have a good team too.”
Added Chase Headley: “I just think we’ve played good baseball pretty much against everybody and we’ve played some good teams lately. Honestly, that’s all I can say. I think we’re talented, I think we’re hungry, I think we’re doing most of the little things that we need to do, and we’re confident. I don’t necessarily think that we’ve risen to the occasion against other teams, we’ve just played good and we happen to be playing good teams too.”
The numbers certainly bear it out. The Yankees entered Wednesday ranked first in the AL in runs (180), homers (52), on-base percentage (.357), slugging (.463) and OPS (.820).
“I feel like we can play this way,” Joe Girardi said. “.700 baseball’s a really high clip, I get that, but I told you coming out of spring training I liked this team, and I still like them. There’s power and there’s speed, the bullpen is really, really good and our starters have pitched well. There’s a lot of good things happening.”
It just hasn’t been the offense. As expected, the back end of the bullpen has been terrific, Aroldis Chapman’s first blown save of the season on Sunday notwithstanding, but the rotation has been a surprise. Leading the way have been Severino and Michael Pineda, the two pitchers the Yankees need to have good years to contend.
Pineda, who starts Thursday, is 3-1 with a 3.12 ERA, with 43 strikeouts and five walks. Severino, Saturday’s starter, is 2-2 with a 3.40 ERA, with 45 strikeouts compared to seven walks. Rookie Jordan Montgomery, the fifth starter who goes Friday, is 2-1 with a 3.81 ERA.
The Astros, whose roster includes former Yankees Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran as well as shortstop Carlos Correa, one of the standout all-around players in the game, have their own impressive numbers. Going into their Wednesday afternoon game against the Braves, they ranked second in the AL in slugging (.445) and OPS (.788) and third in runs (161) and homers (45).
And Houston was first in team ERA (3.46), led by lefty Dallas Keuchel, who is 5-0 with a 1.88 ERA this season and is a long-time tormentor of the Yankees, against whom he is 4-2 with a 1.41 ERA in six career starts, which includes the 2015 wild-card game when he threw six scoreless innings.
“Really good team,” Girardi said. “They swing the bats, they pitch well, very athletic. They’re playing extremely well. I think it’s an exciting series. Seems like we’ve had a lot of those lately.”
Astros ace Dallas Keuchel, their starter Thursday night, has always been tough on the Yankees. His career numbers (including wild-card game win in 2015):
Comp. Games 2
Innings 44 2⁄3