Back in spring training, the Astros bristled at any suggestion that the Yankees were the team to beat this season, a claim lobbed at the defending world champs due to the winter blockbuster that brought Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, to the Bronx.
At the time, we sided with the Astros. They had the World Series trophy, and therefore the bragging rights. That’s how it works.
But no longer.
Nearly four months later, the Yankees have settled the debate — at least until October — by winning five of the seven games between these two clubs, a statement punctuated by Wednesday night’s 5-3 victory in the Bronx.
For now, we’re leaving the Red Sox out of this. Boston currently has the best record (39-17) in the American League, so obviously they’ll have something to say come playoff time. That’s a different discussion. What went down at Yankee Stadium this week, and earlier this month in Houston, was a rematch of last October’s thrilling ALCS, only these seven games turned out differently.
Luis Severino beat the Astros again, this time striking out 11 over seven innings Wednesday as he improved to 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA against the champs this season. Gary Sanchez snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a two-run single off Dallas Keuchel. David Robertson handled the top of the Astros’ order in the eighth and Aroldis Chapman whiffed George Springer, who came to the plate as the tying run, to seal his 12th save.
Aaron Boone was reluctant to attach too much significance on humbling the Astros in May, but he wasn’t a Yankee last October. For him, there’s no lingering pain from that ALCS loss, no score to be settled. To the new manager, Houston is just another obstacle. And from what Boone has witnessed so far, his Yankees are every bit the equal of the world champions. If not better.
“When we walk out through those doors, we walk out with the expectation that we’re a great team,” Boone said afterward. “We put together a game plan and they execute it. The greatest trait of those guys in that room is that they never competing.”
Conventional wisdom gave the Astros the edge to repeat this year because of their rotation superiority, led by Justin Verlander, who beat the Yankees twice in that ALCS to earn MVP honors. During this regular-season series, however, the Yankees showed there’s a way around that blue-and-orange wall. Survive the starters, then pummel the softer Houston bullpen. In the seven games, the Yankees outscored the Astros, 27-20.
Maybe the Yankees were fortunate to miss Gerrit Cole entirely. But they outlasted Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton for two of the wins, and beat Keuchel twice.
“They have really good pitching over there,” Austin Romine said. “So we have to grind. You just have to keep chipping away.”
Keuchel entered Wednesday with a 1.74 ERA in seven regular-season starts against the Yankees, second only to the Red Sox’s Chris Sale (1.73) among active pitchers. He also was 3-1 with a 1.61 ERA in four career starts in the Bronx, so in theory, Keuchel should have been a Verlander-caliber threat at Yankees Stadium for the series finale.
But Boone loaded up on righty bats for the occasion, leaving Didi Gregorius as the only lefthanded hitter — with Ronald Torreyes gone, the manager really had no other option at short. The Yankees scored their first three runs without the benefit of an extra-base hit (five singles, two walks, a sacrifice fly) as they relied more on savvy than pure slugging ability. A pair of doubles by Gleyber Torres and Aaron Hicks added insurance runs in the sixth, but the Yankees never left the yard — getting out-homered by the Astros’ backup catcher Max Stassi, who shocked Severino by turning around his 99-mph heater in the fifth.
That was the only scratch on Severino, however. And should these two teams meet again in October, as everyone anticipates, the Yankees’ ace has proven that he’s capable of shutting down the defending champs — anywhere, anytime. The Yankees improved to 11-1 in Severino’s starts this season, the best mark in the majors, and when asked if he expects to see the Astros again, he smiled.
“I don’t know,” Severino said. “But I’ll be ready. And my team will be ready to compete.”