Two years ago, the heroics of Yankees named Greg Bird, Chase Headley, Gary Sanchez and rookie Aaron Judge convinced me, after three straight victories over the Astros in the Bronx, that the ALCS was over.
It wasn’t, actually. But the Yankees had to win only once in two tries at Houston's Minute Maid Park to earn a trip to the World Series. And after kicking around the Astros all week, with the Stadium rocking, there was an aura of inevitability about them. The Yankees, energized by the daily surge of Bronx adrenaline, looked unstoppable.
The party is coming, I wrote back then. Don’t worry.
Well, so much for that prediction.
The Yankees weren’t able to finish the job that year, and the Astros went on to beat the Dodgers in the World Series. But that unhappy ending isn’t the point. This is more about those three games, the same ALCS middle the Yankees will begin with Tuesday afternoon’s Game 3 at the Stadium. And this October, if history repeats itself, they won’t need to risk a return trip to Houston.
“Time to regroup and get ready for Tuesday,” Judge said as the Yankees dressed and packed up after Sunday’s heartbreaking 3-2 loss in 11 innings. “I always like our chances going home, especially for three. It’s time to roll. It’s the postseason. We’re going to get it done.”
In our view, Judge stopped precariously short of going all Namath, Messier or Ewing on the guarantee front because he wasn’t pushed on what he meant by “it” in that sentence. Judge could have been referring to shrugging off Sunday’s disappointment or winning Game 3 or maybe the offense emerging from its mini-funk.
But Judge also is growing into a bolder face of these Yankees, and he’ll show an edge on occasion. After hammering that go-ahead two-run homer Sunday night off Justin Verlander, Judge could be seen yelling as he rounded the bases. He even flashed a championship belt gesture to the Yankees’ dugout a few feet before he crossed the plate. Judge has no problem wearing his emotions along with the pinstripes, and if he’s able to do the same during the next three games, the Stadium will shake to its foundation.
It was the Astros who had the sport’s best home record this year, a mark that increased to 64-22 after the first two games of the ALCS, and keeping the lid closed on Minute Maid Park over the weekend helped amplify both the crowd noise and the brain-frying steam whistle from the outfield train. Still, the Yankees earned a split there -- after getting swept back in April — and the ballpark was morgue-silent during their 7-0 rout in Game 1.
The timing of the Yankees’ return to the Bronx, however, could not be much better. Not only did they get Monday’s off day after Sunday’s exhausting 4-hour, 49-minute losing effort, but they’re back in friendly, familiar surroundings again and the Stadium crowd will get to direct its vitriol at Astros ace Gerrit Cole in Game 3.
The Yankees owe the Rays a big thank you for that perk, It was Tampa Bay that extended the ALDS to a fifth game and forced Houston to use Cole with its playoff survival at stake.
As far as a ’17 repeat is concerned, the Yankees haven’t lost a series at home since April 14 after dropping the first three series of the season to the Orioles, Tigers and White Sox. They also beat the Astros in three straight games in the Bronx (June 20-22) before Justin Verlander stepped up to prevent the sweep in the finale. Aside from that series, Houston has suffered three consecutive losses to the same team only four other times this year, including the Rays and Reds and twice to the A’s.
The benefit of switching venues to the Bronx, however, is less about rattling an experienced champion like the Astros than providing a spiritual boost to the Yankees, who at 57-24 had the third-best home record behind Houston and the Dodgers during the regular season. The Yankees actually hit 20 more home runs on the road than they did at the Stadium, where they swatted 143, but lefthanded hitters such as Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius (along with several of the Yankees' righthanded hitters) have tailor-made swings for the short porch in right and still should be able to find the seats despite this October’s allegedly de-juiced baseballs.
“We know this isn’t going to be an easy series by any means,” Aaron Boone said after the Astros evened it up Sunday night. “But over time, I’ll take our guys and their approach.”
Taking that approach back to the Bronx can only help, and having success against the Astros there is a familiar feeling as well. Even if it’s no guarantee that the same thing will happen again.