It’s easy to pick the Yankees to fall in the wild-card game. By all accounts, it was a remarkably inconsistent season for the defending World Series champs. But after what a little league rivalry has shown us, anything can happen. (Go Yankees!)
Tomorrow’s opponent: The Houston Astros. A better team? Absolutely. Better team who in recent years have failed to capitalize on that better team potential? Not really.
Throughout the year, I and many other baseball minds were writing off the Astros. Their leader, Justin Verlander, was no longer a lock to be a Cy Young winner. (Last year, he posted a ridiculous 2.45 ERA.) They just signed José Altuve to a big contract that is so large it will exceed the Marlins’, which apparently makes him the MLB’s newest shortstop.
Yet some things never change. Their young superstar of a third baseman, Alex Bregman, got stronger as the season progressed. Carlos Correa, their perennial All-Star shortstop, took on a bigger offensive role. Last weekend, the 26-year-old performed the best defensive performance of his career. The scary thing about those parts is that they’ve yet to reach their peak. (While both knew it’d happen eventually, nobody, not even Correa himself, saw a) this being it, b) and c) from a red-hot Verlander.
The Marlins’ free agent signings are crazy expensive, while the Astros are dominated by homegrown talent. But if you’re looking for one key difference between this year’s team and 2018’s, the biggest factor is they haven’t gotten that incredibly important postseason start to clear their minds.
The Yankees were the hottest team in baseball in September, winning 22 of 26 games, the best record in the league at the time. In contrast, the Astros were swept in a four-game series by the Detroit Tigers on the second homestand. Put another way, in September, the New York Yankees went 26-12. The Houston Astros lost 10 of 12. The Houston Astros have a great group, but they’re not nearly as good as the Yankees when they play their best. The Yankees have a great group, but they’re not nearly as good as the Yankees when they play their best.
In some sense, we should expect only more of the same between these two in October. They will likely play the three of the best pitchers on each team, with the star in the matchup likely being Verlander against the Yankees’ budding star James Paxton. New York will likely roll out former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel or be forced to start Verlander (a worthy choice to face the Yankees), with either Verlander, Correa or Charlie Morton (whichever does not start Friday) coming out on top. (I’m voting for Keuchel, but it’s never too early to give someone like Correa a chance.)
This is a team that has very little pitching experience in the late innings. They will likely face a beat-up starter of some kind in the bottom of the ninth, who will then have to work the other side through several batters, finishing his no-hitter or a shutout with (barely) the minimum. As the year’s highlights have shown, a little competition can be a good thing, especially in the late innings. There’s a good chance, despite everything, these two teams will see each other again for a long series, which should be a fun one.
On top of that, the Post-Brock-Moment is about to come back in force. Last week, the Astros outfielder lost his cool and benches cleared when he picked up his bat and smashed into an umpire. A near fight ensued, baseball’s reputation took a hit. (The Astros are masters of deflecting controversy.)