Four more wins, and the New York Yankees will be back in the World Series.
Granted, this scenario manifests pretty often for the most decorated franchise in sports, but this year has been different. Most expectations for the season were modest at best in the Bombers’ first full season committing to their youth. After 91 wins and an ALCS berth, those projections look downright goofy.
But there’s nothing silly about their series opponents, the Houston Astros. The franchise that lost 111 games in 2013 has joined the elite with a 101-win campaign this year.
Ahead of Friday’s Game 1 in Houston, likely a sentimental favorite outside the metropolitan area after the city was hammered by Hurricane Harvey in August, here’s a look at the three most important players for each team.
The likely AL Rookie of the Year and MVP, who led the AL with 52 home runs, looked more like a wide-eyed youngster than the most feared hitter in the game in the ALDS. Judge’s abysmal 1-for-20 showing at the plate against the Cleveland Indians — with 16 strikeouts and no home runs — won’t cut it again.
The right fielder’s track record against Houston isn’t awful, but he’s not feasting on the AL West champs, either. He’s a career .273 hitter in 22 at-bats against the Astros with one solo homer as his lone run-scoring contribution.
The longtime Yankee outfielder made his second All-Star team this year, and he was especially effective when facing Astros pitching. Sporting a blistering .429/.452/.750 slash line in 28 at-bats, Gardner has homered twice and driven in eight runs against the ALCS foes during the regular season.
Gardner’s postseason track record during his 10-year career is spotty, but his 2-RBI single in Game 5 on Wednesday capped the Yanks’ 5-2 clincher. Every team with Fall Classic aspirations needs players like Gardie to come through in the clutch.
An up-and-down campaign hasn’t scared off manager Joe Girardi from giving the Japanese righthander the ball for Game 1, even knowing it’s possible he could be called upon to start three times this series. His 4.74 ERA was more than 1 1⁄2 runs higher than his career figure entering 2017.
But as impressive as Tanaka was in his Game 3 victory over the Indians (7 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 7 SO, 1 BB), he struggles mightily against Houston. In 17 1⁄3 career innings over four starts against them, he’s been torched for 20 runs and served up nine homers. His 10.38 ERA is his worst mark against any team in the majors. Can the talented righty raise his game in time?
The former AL Cy Young winner has dined on the Yankees throughout his career, pitching to a 1.41 ERA in six starts against them. In his lone appearance against the Bombers this year, the lefthander went six innings, striking out nine and allowing one unearned run on five hits in a May 11 victory.
Keuchel, who will start Game 1, missed the bulk of June and July with a neck issue. After pitching to an underwhelming 4.24 ERA from his July 28 return through the end of September, he held the Boston Red Sox in check by allowing one run on three hits in 5 2⁄3 innings of their ALDS Game 2 victory. Beware of a dangerous lefty rounding into form.
Perhaps the only player who could challenge Judge in the league MVP race is the diminutive second baseman. At 5-6 — more than a foot shorter than the Yankees’ slugger — Altuve led the league in hits for the fourth consecutive season and batting average for the third time in that span.
Altuve’s figures against the Yanks this season are unimpressive (28 ABs, .250/.290/.286, 2 RBIs), but he’s coming off a scary performance against Boston. His numbers in the series (15 ABs, .533/.632/1.133, 3 HRs) look like they took place against Double-A arms. Don’t overlook the little man with a big bat.
While Altuve has not been a Yankee-killer this year, his double-play partner at shortstop certainly fits the bill. The former top pick in the 2012 draft lit up the Bombers for 14 hits in 28 at-bats this season, launching two homers and driving in 10 runs in seven games — he had 74 RBIs in his remaining 102 games.
Correa, 22, wasn’t spectacular against the Sox. He hit .235, but his two home runs and six RBIs provided value when he did make solid contact.
Although a righthanded hitter, the first-time All-Star is a career .288 hitter against both lefties and righties with little difference in his power numbers (.500 SLG vs. LHP, .497 vs. RHP).