Yankees, Astros to renew rivalry for first time since controversial ALCS

Ben Wagner joins Martine Gaillard to break down how the Toronto Blue Jays should deal with the latest development regarding George Springer's health and why Randal Grichuk has been so effective at the plate this season.

My guess is this is one post-COVID-19 makeup tour date the performers would rather not honour. If the Houston Astros have become tired of wearing that sign-stealing scandal, welcome to the Bronx. The three games series between the teams opens Tuesday, the first time the Astros and New York Yankees have met since Game 6 of the 2019 American League Championship Series and since Rob Manfred levied a huge penalty against Houston for electronic sign-stealing during the 2017 season — a World Series title run that including another win over the Yankees in the ALCS.

With fans. Just a shade under 11,000 mind you… but fans nonetheless. Yankees fans. Bleacher fans.

You remember how Game 6 turned out, right? Jose Altuve homering off Aroldis Chapman to walk it off, then going out of his way to prevent teammates from pulling off his jersey. We’d know later on about banging trash cans and sign stealing and all that. But was Altuve really wearing some kind of buzzer contraption underneath the jersey? That shot, plus, a post-game interview shot that appeared to show… well … the bottom line is it’s baseball’s version of the Zapruder film.

“There’s a lot of speculation about it,” Chapman would say in the early days of spring training in 2020. “It’s a popular video right now. If you look at his actions, it’s a little suspicious, right? But at the end of the day, I just don’t know.”

LOL. Sure you do.

The pandemic limited the 2020 regular season to 60 games and as a result the Astros never did get to face the Yankees. They didn’t meet in Grapefruit League play this spring either, since as part of pandemic-inspired protocol teams from Florida’s west coast didn’t play teams from Florida’s east coast. The Yankees are in Tampa; the Astros in West Palm Beach. Safe to say there are plenty in the industry wondering whether or not the baseball gods had a hand in the fact the Astros haven’t ventured to the Bronx before fans weren’t allowed back in the stands. And if you think the relatively limited number of fans at Yankee Stadium can’t create havoc, here’s exhibit A from a game against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 16, when the Yankees were losing 8-2 to the Tampa Bay Rays on the way to falling to 5-8 — and this is when the Yankees fans were mad at their own players

“You can go there and expect a lot of… I’m sure there will be some chaos,” Astros outfielder Myles Straw said Sunday. “But it’s nothing we haven’t heard this year or in spring training, And it seems whenever it gets loud or we get booed is when we play our best baseball.”

None of the Yankees much wanted to go anywhere near the topic following Sunday’s sweep-capping win over the Detroit Tigers. Manager Aaron Boone reminded everybody not to throw stuff on the field. Chapman said he just wanted to win all three games, or at least take two of three. Catcher Kyle Higashioka couldn’t contain a smirk when he said: “I don’t think there’s any question about how the fans react to them. As to whether or not they deserve it? I think the fans will let them know.”

As an outfielder, Straw figures to bear a lot of the abuse from the fans despite the fact that he wasn’t part of those Astros teams. But it’s Altuve, third baseman Alec Bregman and shortstop Carlos Correa who have borne the brunt of the anger directed at the team from fans returning to ballparks who have brought back long memories along with proof of negative COVID-19 tests. Opposing players took note of their presence when the game returned in 2020. Remember the now legendary “poor baby” pout/meme that Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly flashed at Correa after striking him out?

“I think we’ve handled it well,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said Sunday. “You can’t expect a very warm welcome. Rather cold, actually. Like I said the other day: we have only four or five guys here who were even there when it happened. Are people booing the person, the uniform, or the organization? What you gonna do? You can’t control what people do.”

“We get booed wherever we are,” added Astros catcher Martin Maldonado. “It feels like we’re playing playoff baseball every game.”

I’d watch Chapman. He became the focal point of the Rays/Yankees rivalry last season after throwing a 101 miles per hour pitch over the head of Mike Brosseau. That, of course, led to Rays manager Kevin Cash making his now-famous “I have a damned stable full of guys who can throw 98 miles per hour,” threat. The Rays/Yankees bitterness has become personal at times, but mostly between the managers. Yankees/Astros will, you’d think, be deeper.

FAIR OR FOUL

• FAIR is being blown away by the success of the bullpens of the Toronto Blue and the Oakland Athletics. The Jays saw putative closer Kirby Yates shut down with Tommy John surgery in spring training and then lost Julian Merryweather due to an oblique injury. The A’s, who lost bulldog closer Liam Hendriks to the Chicago White Sox in free agency, put Trevor Rosenthal on the IL for surgery to alleviate thoracic outlet syndrome. He had signed a one-year, $11-million contract. Yet going into a four-game series that starts Monday night at RingCentral Coliseum, the Blue Jays bullpen was fourth in the Majors with a 2.61 ERA while the A’s are 8th at 3.55. While the A’s are second-last in relievers strikeouts per nine innings, they have limited opponents to a batting average of .197 in their last 18 games after being touched up for a 6.03 ERA and .275 opponents average over their first 11 contests.

• FOUL is losing sleep over the status of Blue Jays outfielder George Springer. Six years is a long time, and it’s obvious that teams across the board are being more careful with injuries coming off a disjointed 2020, including a 60-game regular season. If a day off here and there gets Springer out of the DH role and into a defensive position more quickly, then let’s have at it.

Load management didn’t originate with Kawhi Leonard. It’s been done for years in baseball… it just never had a fancy name.

• FAIR is wondering whether the Yankees have turned a corner with their starting pitching en route to .500. Even allowing for a three-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers this weekend, Yankees’ starters have given up three runs or fewer in 14 of their last 15 starts. Corey Kluber struck out 10 in collecting his 100th win on Sunday while Jameson Taillon struck out eight, allowed three hits and an earned run on Saturday.

The Yankees are counting on both bounce-back candidates and Taillon, who has had two Tommy John surgeries, hit 96 miles per hour for his first win in two years. Kluber’s calling card was a change-up that induced 13 of 18 swinging strikes, and manager Aaron Boone suggested he will need to lean on it even more at this point in his career.

Kluber was limited to 36 2/3 innings the past two seasons due to a broken forearm and oblique strain, and Brett Gardner says the Yankees are well aware of the work the two pitchers are putting in. “It’s a reminder of how hard this game can be and what different individuals have to deal with,” he said. “The season doesn’t stop for anyone.”

The Yankees will take just one of these risks working out leading up to the trade deadline and the return of Luis Severino in July. Severino, who had Tommy John surgery in February 2020, is scheduled to face hitters for the first time next Tuesday.

THE ENDGAME

Much like the Blue Jays, the best team in the American League is dealing with a run of bullpen injuries. And the response of the Kansas City Royals might be providing something of a template, if not for 2021 than certainly 2022.

The Royals have moved Jakob Junis to the bullpen and will have their top pitching prospect, Daniel Lynch, make his Major League debut Monday night at Kauffman Stadium against Cleveland. This after bringing up another top prospect from their alternate site — Kris Bubic, who’d been optioned on March 19 after pitching just 7 1/3 innings — and putting him in the bullpen. The two will join Brady Singer to give the Royals three college pitchers from the 2018 draft: Singer was selected 18th overall out of Florida and is 5-8 (3.70) in 17 career starts; Bubic was chosen 40th overall out of Standford; and Lynch was selected 34th overall out of Virginia. Like the Blue Jays’ Alek Manoah, Lynch hasn’t tossed an inning above Single-A due to the interruption of the 2019 minor league season.

“We looked at spring training as an opportunity to really develop him, to put him in high leverage situations,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said of Lynch. “He probably pitched more with guys from our major league roster than any other starter. We’re going to be open-minded about things going forward, but I looked at the nagging injuries so far with our high-leverage relievers and felt this was the best thing for the month of May. We’ll evaluate where our pitching is at the end of the month — the whole team, frankly.”

Lynch credits a coach with deep Blue Jays roots for “helping me further understand my identity as a pitcher.” Dane Johnson was fired as the Blue Jays’ bullpen coach in 2018 after 19 years in the organization, and was hired as the Royals’ triple-A pitching coach after spending a year as a pitching consultant with the Miami Marlins. “He really helped me at the alternate site by telling me to focus on my delivery when I was throwing my good fastball, that all my other pitches would come off that delivery,” said Lynch. “When I play catch or throw my bullpen all my focus is: ‘Am I throwing my fastball where I want to?’ Dane did a good job of blending analytics without getting too far into the weeds. I’d throw and then we’d check to see if my release point was the same and what my spin-rate was. He really simplified things for me.”

Jeff Blair hosts Baseball Central with Kevin Barker from 2-3 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan.

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