ALCS Takeaways: Yankees finally get to Keuchel

New York Yankees' Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro celebrate after Game 5 of baseball's American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017, in New York. The Yankees won 5-0 to take a 3-2 lead in the series. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

After coming from three runs behind to win a dramatic American League wild-card game, and coming from two games behind to win an even more dramatic division series, the Yankees are now one win away from doing it yet again.

After Wednesday’s 5-0 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS — a series the Yankees once trailed two games to none — New York will have a pair of chances in Houston to complete their latest comeback and earn a World Series berth.

This is how things go in the MLB post-season, when it’s not always about the most well-rounded, perfectly-constructed team, but about the group that can get hot at exactly the right time. That’s what the Yankees have been doing this October. And here’s how they did it Wednesday night.

Yankees finally figure out Keuchel

Considering he came into Wednesday having allowed only seven runs over 57.2 career innings pitched against the Yankees, the Astros had to be feeling pretty good about their Game 5 starter, Dallas Keuchel.

But Wednesday was the day the Yankees figured him out, as Keuchel crashed out of the game after only 4.2 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits in the process.

To be fair, Keuchel didn’t pitch particularly poorly. He struck out eight — with 14 swinging strikes — and worked almost exclusively at the knees. But the Yankees made the necessary adjustments to put runs up against left-hander, earning all of their hits on pitches in the bottom half of the zone and making the most of their opportunities.

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New York got to Keuchel with two out in the second, as Starlin Castro roped a double to deep left-centre field at 111 m.p.h. (his hardest-hit ball of the year) before Greg Bird stayed with a two-seamer on the outside black and served it into right field to give his team an early one-run lead.

And another run came in the third, when Aaron Judge, who has suddenly rediscovered his swing this series, drove a double down the left-field line, which allowed the speedy Brett Gardner to score all the way from first.

And it was a Judge walk that set up a third run in the fifth, when Keuchel wanted no part of the Yankees slugger with two out and a runner on second. Pitching around Judge meant Keuchel had to deal with Gary Sanchez, who had struck out twice earlier but this time lined a well-located breaking ball into left field, cashing the run.

Didi Gregorius was next, and he snuck a weak grounder up the middle that was far from well-hit but still got the job done, giving New York a fourth run and driving Keuchel from the game.

Tanaka spins a gem

Like Keuchel, Masahiro Tanaka also owned the bottom half of the zone, but Houston’s hitters couldn’t figure it out the way New York’s did. Tanaka ended up going seven strong, striking out eight while allowing only three hits and a walk in a dominant performance.

Tanaka stranded a baserunner in each of the first three innings, pitched a clean fourth, and then put two runners on with only one out in the fifth, working himself into his most imposing jam of the evening as his team’s bullpen sprang to work behind him.

But that’s when the 28-year-old found another level, absolutely carving up George Springer with a beautiful four-pitch sequence for a strikeout before getting Josh Reddick to chase a 1-2 splitter to end the inning. Tanaka roared as he came off the mound in a rare display of emotion from the right-hander.

Getting through the sixth and seventh was a piece of cake, as Tanaka retired six Houston batters in order. At 103 pitches, and with a shutdown bullpen waiting to replace him, Tanaka exited the game there, becoming the first Yankees pitcher to throw two seven-inning shutouts in a post-season since Roger Clemens in 2000.

Adding on

The Yankees got all the insurance they would need — they didn’t actually need any, but whatever — in the seventh inning when Houston reliever Brad Peacock, pitching for the first time in the series, left a slider right in Gary Sanchez’s happy zone. The 24-year-old Yankees catcher did what he does with pitches like that, belting it 416 feet to left for a solo shot.

The homer was also notable because it marked the first time in Yankees history — that’s 116 years of history – the club has had four players with three home runs or more in a post-season. Joining Sanchez to set that mark are Judge, Bird and Gregorius.

That’s not just good news for the Yankees this October — it’s good news for many years to come. Judge, Bird and Sanchez are all extremely early in their careers and controllable through 2022, with Judge and Sanchez not eligible for free agency until 2023.

Gregorius, meanwhile, is somewhat older but still only two years into his four years of arbitration, meaning the Yankees can keep him around at manageable salaries until 2020. The nucleus of this Yankees batting order, which is now one game away from a World Series appearance, isn’t going anywhere.

What’s next

Houston now goes home with a pair of must-win games looming at Minute Maid Park. The Astros simply must figure out a way to score some runs as they’ve now scratched across only nine over the first five games of the series. But that won’t be easy against Luis Severino, who held Houston to only a run on two hits in game 2 of this series.

Justin Verlander will take the hill for the Astros, and will have to at least come close to replicating his masterful Game 2 performance, when he allowed only a run over nine innings while striking out 13, if Houston is going to live to fight another day.