This ALCS will do more than send either the Yankees or Astros to the World Series. It also could serve as a referendum on the significance of the starting pitcher, a topic that’s been subject to considerable debate heading into October.
Thanks to Wednesday’s rainout, Astros manager AJ Hinch was able to reshuffle his rotation to have three No. 1s lined up for the next four games, if the series stretches that long: Zack Greinke for Thursday night’s Game 4, followed by Justin Verlander for Game 5 and then Gerrit Cole waiting for his assignment, depending on Houston’s status.
Hinch entrusts the trio to go as deep as possible and usually gives them the benefit of the doubt. For all of the Astros’ cutting-edge tech resources, they still can afford an old-fashioned mindset when it comes to the Big Three at the front of their rotation. Hand over the baseball, then have them go as hard as they can for as long as they can.
If there’s a road map for those 27 outs, either Greinke, Verlander or Cole will be driving that bus during most of that route. The bullpen is a means to an end, not the focus of the Astros’ pitching operation, and leaves the team’s fate mostly on their shoulders.
“There’s a ton of confidence when all of our guys are starting the game,” Hinch said. “But clearly when we have Greinke, Verlander and Cole, it’s one of the best trios in baseball.”
The Astros shocked the baseball world in July when they traded for Greinke to form what they felt could be an impenetrable wall come October. Faced with the same pressure to bolster their rotation, the Yankees mostly shrugged.
Brian Cashman wasn’t blown away by the options, and he never thought Greinke would be a fit in the Bronx — never mind accept a trade to the Yankees. Instead, Cashman remained confident in last winter’s $66-million bullpen makeover. He figured his rotation, as constituted, would provide enough for his relief corps to shut the door.
Obviously, the Yankees didn’t see Domingo German’s domestic-abuse suspension coming, but Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton and Luis Severino are a formidable front three as well. It just became a matter of how far the Yankees’ playoff strategy would allow them to go, and through the first three ALCS games, everyone’s suspicions were confirmed.
Tanaka again has been an October ace. Despite his dominance of the Astros in Game 1 at Minute Maid Park, though, Aaron Boone pulled him after six scoreless innings in which he allowed one hit and threw only 68 pitches.
The next night, in Game 2, Paxton allowed too much traffic in 2 1⁄3 innings, leaving Boone no choice but to yank him.
Back in the Bronx, Severino showed incredible resilience in Game 3, somehow getting the Yankees into the fifth inning despite throwing 36 pitches in the first. In their bullpen-forward thinking, five innings from a starter is plenty in the playoffs. But with this ALCS now condensed — four games and no breather in between — Boone finds himself facing a renewed emphasis on his starters and perhaps a shift with his in-game tactics.
“That’s the line you’re walking all the time,” he said. “If we’re going to win this series, our bullpen will still play a huge role, obviously. But we’ve got to be able to get a little bit of distance out of our starters probably if we’re going to ultimately be successful in these next several games. So that’s the balance you’ve got to strike and we’ll do it the best we can.”
Heading into Thursday’s Game 4, the Yankees’ rotation carried an impressive 2.39 ERA, 1.22 WHIP and .227 opponents’ batting average in six starts but averaged only 4 1⁄3 innings. The Astros had a 2.90 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and .197 OBA, with the added bonus of averaging 6 1⁄3 innings in eight starts.
Those are a significant two innings that separate these rotations.
Whenever asked about this ALCS, the Yankees, to a man, brought up needing to beat either Verlander or Cole at least once to get to the World Series. They haven’t done it yet, and they’ll get a Verlander rematch in Friday’s Game 5.
“There’s nothing taken for granted in this game,” Verlander said Thursday. “No matter how good Cole has been in the second half, no matter how well I’ve pitched in certain situations before, each game is a new opportunity for that not to happen, you know?
“So honestly, no matter how confident you are rolling into a game, every playoff game is like a reset button, and you’ve just got to go out there and see what happens.”