Facing Justin Verlander is a challenge at the best of times. Facing him in an elimination game sounds even less pleasant, yet that’s the challenge now facing the New York Yankees.
The Houston Astros took Game 4 of the ALCS 8-3, setting up a Verlander vs. James Paxton rematch Friday night at Yankee Stadium. With the Astros ahead 3-1, the Yankees must now beat both Verlander and Gerrit Cole to stave off elimination. Houston, on the other hand, needs just one win in the next three games to advance and face the Washington Nationals in the World Series.
You never know what’s coming next in baseball, but the Yankees are faltering at the worst possible time, with four errors on defence and little offence to speak of. The Astros have simply outplayed them. But before we look too far into to the future, let’s take some time to appreciate some standout moments and performances from Houston’s Game 4 win.
Pitching, defence and three-run homers
Entering play in Game 4, Springer already had a .902 OPS in October compared to his .849 regular season mark. He also has 13 career post-season homers now, tied with Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones, Matt Holliday, Jim Edmonds and Miguel Cabrera on the all-time leaderboard.
Just a few spots down that list you can find Carlos Correa, who added to Houston’s lead with a three-run homer of his own off Chad Green in the sixth. Correa, whose walk-off homer ended Game 2 of the ALCS, now has 10 career homers in the playoffs.
Piecing it together
Meanwhile, Houston’s pitchers continued to overmatch New York’s MLB-best offence. Zack Greinke held the Yankees to one run over 4.1 innings despite walking five (including one with the bases loaded). After Greinke left, relievers Ryan Pressly, Will Harris and Joe Smith were among those with scoreless outings for Houston.
Better late than never
After a characteristically strong regular season in which he hit 34 home runs with an .841 OPS, Gary Sanchez’s offence completely disappeared early in the playoffs. Through six games, he had just two hits in 21 at-bats compared to 10 strikeouts.
But the 26-year-old delivered some much-needed offence for the Yankees Thursday, hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the sixth inning. This was no Yankee Stadium cheap shot, either; the ball left Sanchez’s bat at 111 m.p.h. before landing in the left-centre field seats.
The end for Sabathia?
CC Sabathia walked off the mound at Yankee Stadium for what may have been the final time Thursday after sustaining an injury while pitching to Springer in the eighth. If that’s it for the left-hander, he leaves quite a legacy in New York: eleven seasons, a 3.81 ERA and a World Series championship. Combined with his time in Cleveland and Milwaukee, those numbers may well lead him to Cooperstown.
As a sign of respect for the soon-to-be-retired 39-year-old, the Astros applauded as he left the field. Of course Sabathia could pitch at Yankee Stadium again – it would just require a memorable comeback that sends the Yankees to the World Series.
Right into the fire…
The Yankees’ decision to start Aaron Hicks again made complete sense. With Hicks on the mend and Giancarlo Stanton still recovering from a quad injury, manager Aaron Boone went with the healthier option.
Batting Hicks third made less sense – at least on paper. The switch-hitter had just five plate appearances since August 3, and just one start. Under those circumstances, would Hicks really be the hitter you’d want getting an extra at-bat late in the game?
And even setting aside the lack of recent at bats, Hicks just isn’t an offensive difference maker, especially within the context of the Yankees’ stacked lineup. His OPS+ of 103 lagged behind the production of Gleyber Torres (128), Edwin Encarnacion (123), Sanchez (119) and Brett Gardner (117), but those four hitters followed him in Thursday’s batting order.
“I just like what I’ve seen,” Boone told reporters in New York before the game. “I feel like it’s very Aaron Hicks type of bats, as far as controlling the strike zone and his normal discipline. And just like him up in that spot as a guy that can potentially get on base a bunch and create traffic there at the top of the order.”
As it turned out, Boone’s hunch was right. Hicks reached three times, with a first-inning single and walks in the fifth and ninth. For someone who has missed so much time, his batting eye looks to be in mid-season form.
If only more of his teammates were seeing the ball just as well. Until that changes, it’s going to be tough to beat Houston once, let alone three times.