ALCS Takeaways: Giles move backfires for Astros; Yankees even series

New York Yankees' Gary Sanchez reacts after hitting a two-run scoring double during the eighth inning of Game 4 of baseball's American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The Astros came so close to taking a 3-1 lead in the ALCS, but a late rally against Houston’s best reliever allowed the Yankees to tie the series 2-2.

From this point on it’s essentially a best-of-three set. Both teams are two wins away from representing the American League in the World Series.

First, some observations after a back-and-forth game in the Bronx…

GILES STRUGGLES IN BIG SPOT
On paper the move made sense. Modern bullpen orthodoxy says you call on your best reliever in the game’s highest leverage spots, even if it means using your closer a little earlier than usual.

When A.J. Hinch called on Ken Giles in the eighth inning Tuesday, there was little reason to question the move. There were runners on the corners with nobody out and a two-run lead to protect, and Hinch went to his closer.

And yet a well-made plan is still just the start of a solution. The players themselves have to deliver and in this case Giles didn’t. Five batters after he entered, the Yankees had taken a lead they would not relinquish and Hinch returned to the mound for another pitching change.


BABY BOMBERS DELIVER

Aaron Judge homered for the second consecutive night to get the Yankees’ offence started Tuesday, and that wasn’t even his most memorable hit of Game 4. The 25-year-old hit a game-tying double off Giles in the eighth and scored two batters later when Gary Sanchez doubled him home to give the Yankees the lead.

That’d be impressive production from anyone, and it’s especially remarkable considering that Judge and Sanchez were members of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders as recently as last August.

(As a side note, that’s 55 home runs for Judge this season: 52 in the regular season, one in the wild-card game and two in the ALCS.)

GURRIEL’S BIG MOMENT
Only in Houston could a bat this good blend in. Anywhere else, a .299 hitter with an .817 OPS would be celebrated. But the Astros combined for an .823 OPS as a team this year, so Yuli Gurriel’s first season in the big leagues passed by relatively quietly.

Signed to a five-year, $47.5 million contract last summer, Gurriel hit 18 home runs and kept the strikeouts to a minimum while generating 2.6 wins above replacement. He kept producing in the ALDS with nine hits in 17 at bats against Boston.

Now, the 33-year-old has a signature playoff moment. With one out and the bases loaded in a scoreless sixth inning, Gurriel stepped in against David Robertson, one of Joe Girardi’s most trusted relievers. Robertson has been exceptionally tough to hit this month with just one run allowed in 10 playoff innings entering play, but Gurriel connected for a game-changing bases-clearing double down the third base line.

McCULLERS JR. AT HIS BEST
Lance McCullers Jr. made just six starts after the all-star break because he was dealing with back discomfort and arm fatigue, so the Astros couldn’t have been completely sure what to expect from the 24-year-old in his first career post-season start.

If nothing else, they had a good idea of how he’d attack the Yankees. McCullers struck out 132 batters in just 118.2 innings this year by pitching backwards. He threw curveballs with nearly half of his pitches (though, to be fair, this is not your traditional looping curveball; the pitch often approaches 90 m.p.h.). On Tuesday, McCullers doubled down on his regular season strategy, throwing curves with 43 of his 81 pitches.

The results were tremendous: six-plus innings with just two hits and one run allowed. Through three games, Houston’s three starters have combined for a 0.82 ERA with 26 strikeouts in 22 innings.

IMPERFECT, BUT GOOD ENOUGH
The Yankees played some sloppy baseball on a few occasions Tuesday, compromising their chances early on.

In the fourth inning, Judge mis-read a fly ball off the bat of Sanchez and was called out in the aftermath of a long replay review (if you missed it, Grant Brisbee of SB Nation details the play’s intricacies here). At second base, Starlin Castro made a pair of errors, including one that allowed Marwin Gonzalez to score. And in the eighth inning, Chase Headley tripped rounding first base and was nearly thrown out at second.

Look closely enough at most games and you’ll find mistakes. That’s true of all teams, even those that reach October. On Tuesday, at least, the Yankees made up for it with some well-timed hits.