Wow. Who could have guessed it? We finally have our American League Championship Series matchup, and while everyone guessed who one of the teams had a good chance of being by midseason — the powerhouse Houston Astros, who nearly went wire-to-wire in the American League West — few predicted the scrappy, underdog New York Yankees to make the postseason, let alone the ALCS, in what was essentially a rebuilding year for the franchise.
As much as a team that’s spending over $200 million on payroll alone can be said to be “rebuilding.” Let’s be honest: the last couple years had just lured us into a false sense of security when it came to the Yankees. Sure, we knew they’d eventually be good again — and no matter how often their front office and ownership dropped buzzwords about fiscal responsibility and tightening the belt, they’d do so with one of the largest payrolls in the game — but we didn’t think it would be this soon. We were supposed to have another year or two of third or fourth place finishes to prepare ourselves.
Then Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Luis Severino, and Aaron Hicks of all people happened, and the youth movement was suddenly bumped up by a year or two. The Yankees developing a cadre of young perennial all-stars is scary, of course, because they can afford to keep most or all of them as they wish, while also signing away your favorite player. The main question of this offseason is “what contract finagling will they do to prepare for a run at Bryce Harper next winter?”
But before all that, there’s a league championship series to contest. The Yankees are effectively playing with house money; all the pressure is on the Astros, somehow, to see this thing through. Here are a few ways that might play out over the next four, five, six, or hopefully seven games:
Joe Girardi will keep pitching Chapman like a rental. For better or worse, New York closer Aroldis Chapman has been one of the main heroes of the Yankee postseason so far — his appearances in Games 3 and 5, going five outs and six outs respectively, were necessary to seal up the Yankees comeback. They also came after Chapman endorsed Girardi’s firing on social media after the gaffe to end Game 2 in Cleveland’s favor. Girardi’s response so far has been to put the team on Chapman’s shoulders and see if he can carry it, no matter how many outs it takes — only one year after Chapman ripped Cubs manager Joe Maddon for using him too much in the playoffs during Chicago’s march to the World Series. And so far, that response has worked out beautifully for everyone involved…but Houston’s offense is a much bigger beast than Cleveland’s.
The Astros shouldn’t get cute. As fun as the bizarre decision was to have Justin Verlander make the first relief appearance of his adult life in the rain in a playoff game with a man on first base, it’d be best if that sort of thing stayed out of Houston manager AJ Hinch’s playbook for the seven-game series against New York. Boston had a middling offense and, by the end of the season, a compromised rotation — New York can hit, and Severino, CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka look far more formidable right now than the Boston starters did at any point in their division series. If the Houston offense gets going, the Astros will win this series; there’s no upside to complicating that with goofy role-switching antics, as amusing as they are to watch for fans with no emotional investment in either team.
We’re probably going to hear the umpire’s names. The playoffs have featured a number of…interesting strike zones so far, with the most notorious to-date being the zone in Game 4 of the Houston/Boston series. Home plate umpire Mark Wegner’s low strike on the corner was so generous that Dustin Pedroia erupted on him in the second inning in an embarrassing display that would have gotten him ejected in a non-playoff game, and did get John Farrell run from his last game as manager of the Boston Red Sox. It’s in everyone’s best interest that nothing like that happen again this postseason, though with both Laz Diaz and Hunter Wendelstedt on the ALCS umpiring crew the possibility is certainly still in the cards.
Some of that isn’t on them; people are going to lose their minds about calls going against their team regardless of whether or not those calls are correct — that’s how being an emotionally invested sports fan works. But nowadays it’s a rarity when at least half of a series’ oxygen isn’t consumed by complaints about whether this or that is a strike or a ball. With all the K-zone overlays modern broadcasts are so fond of, this is likely to get worse, not better.