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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Yankees hope to turn off the juice at Minute Maid

Fans react after Houston Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole

Fans react after Houston Astros pitcher Gerrit Cole strikes out leadoff Tampa Bay Rays batter Austin Meadows in the top of the first inning of their MLB American League Division Series playoff baseball game five at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas on Oct. 10, 2019. Credit: LARRY W SMITH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

HOUSTON

As far as intimidation factor goes, Minute Maid Park isn’t a name that strikes fear into opposing teams. Orange juice doesn’t really have that effect. Makes me think of waffles and bacon, personally.

But the Astros’ home-field advantage beneath this retractable roof is something to respect, if not be concerned about, and the Yankees are very familiar with the phenomenon. In 2017, they suffered all four of their ALCS losses at Minute Maid, including the final two after winning three straight in the Bronx.

This April, the Yankees lost all three in Houston, blowing late-inning leads in two of them, which were started by Justin Verlander and Gerritt Cole. But as much as Minute Maid is a haunted house for the visiting Yankees, they’re certainly not alone.

The Astros were 60-21 (.740) at home this season, one better than the 59-win Dodgers at Chavez Ravine. The Yankees were 57-24 in the Bronx, and you can see by those numbers that it was no coincidence that these teams all won more than 100 games.

Which is mostly the point here. Sure Minute Maid is loud, and when the Astros are rolling at the plate, or Cole is racking up strikeouts, the decibel level feels as if it can almost swallow a team. The momentum is real, and the example that always comes to mind is Seattle’s long-demolished Kingdome, where the jet-engine noise shook the building as the Mariners rallied to knock off the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series.

In my experience, the only stadium that even came close to generating the eardrum-crushing volume of the Kingdome was the old Metrodome, since replaced by Target Field in Minneapolis. But it wasn’t the stadiums that made the difference. Those buildings rocked because of the team’s success on the field, and the same holds true for these Astros, a deeply talented, entertaining 107-win club.

  “This place is loud,” Astros centerfielder George Springer said. “The fans are close to the field and it’s a loud, fun place to play. The energy from the start is always fantastic.”

Baseball is different from other sports in the sense that fans can’t really influence the action between the lines, like drowning out a quarterback’s snap count or rattling a free-throw shooter. A crowd can make life uncomfortable for visiting players, but those who have been through such harassment before typically don’t get shaken up by it, like the Yankees’ Game 1 starter Masahiro Tanaka.

“One thing I can say is that we’re been here in 2017,” Tanaka said through his interpreter. “We know what it’s like in here. So I think that experience will definitely help going into the game.

“The part is just really going into the game with good focus and concentration and really pitch your game.”

Generally speaking, despite their disappointing performance of late, the Yankees should have no problem with the Minute Maid atmosphere. They’re used to being the center of the storm. It comes with putting on the uniform. The issue is solving the Astros, regardless of the Minute Maid soundtrack. 

“Well, they’ve got a really good team,” Brett Gardner said. “They’ve got a great product on the field, and the last few years, they’re played really well, so any time you go into somebody else’s place, and they’ve got a good team, it’s hard to play — just like it’s hard to play at our place.

“We haven’t played our best baseball here. But hopefully we’ll start [Saturday] night.”

The Yankees aren’t a team that can be bullied by their surroundings, as the Twins seemed to be while getting swept in the Bronx. Minute Maid Park hasn’t beaten them. That’s just been the scene of the crime.

“I think our guys relish this,” Aaron Boone said. “Clearly the Astros have shown they have a real home-field advantage here — not only this year, but even going back now a few years. And I think a lot of us are aware of how loud this place can be.

“But I do feel like our guys will relish in that, embrace that and hopefully find a way to have success through it all. I don’t worry about that affecting our guys and our performance.”

The Astros aren’t invincible, either. The Red Sox won three straight at Minute Maid Park last year to knock them off in the ALCS, so it’s not as if supernatural forces reside there. Just a great team. The Yankees will treat everything else like background noise. 

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