ALDS Takeaways: LeMahieu’s dream year continues, Yankees out-slug Twins

New York Yankees' DJ LeMahieu follows through on a solo home run against the Minnesota Twins during the sixth inning of Game 1 of an American League Division Series. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Ideal world, the first Friday of the MLB post-season offers the rare combination of quality and quantity. This time of year, every game matters, so you’re assured of high-stakes baseball. And even if one or two of the four scheduled games happens to disappoint, you’ve got selection.

This Friday, both ALDS games proved memorable.

In Houston, Tyler Glasnow looked impressive through four innings before Jose Altuve took him deep in the fifth to get the Astros’ offence started. That was more than enough support for Justin Verlander, who turned in a vintage pitching performance to help the Astros win 6-2 for a 1-0 lead in the series.

In New York, the Yankees and Twins showed off the power that made them the first two 300-homer teams in baseball history. But on a night that five homers left the yard, the most pivotal swing of the game might have been a Gleyber Torres double. With the game tied 3-3 in the fifth, Torres fell behind 0-2 against Tyler Duffey before working the count full and hitting a two-run double. The Yankees never looked back on their way to a 10-4 win that gives them a 1-0 advantage in the ALDS.

Soon enough, it’ll be time for Game 2. For now, let’s focus on what stood out from the ALDS openers (as for the NLDS, look below for David Singh’s commentary of the Dodgers vs. Nationals game)…

LeMahieu’s dream season continues

Though he was something of an afterthought when the Yankees signed him in January, DJ LeMahieu soon emerged as one of New York’s most important players. He hit .327 with 26 home runs during the regular season, leading an injury-plagued Yankees team in wins above replacement (6.0).

With production like that, he had earned his two-year, $24 million contract (and then some) before the ALDS even began. After Game 1, that deal looks even better. LeMahieu drove home four of the Yankees’ 10 runs, hitting a solo home run in the sixth inning and adding a bases-clearing double in the seventh.

As debuts go, that’s tough to beat.

Another test for Boone’s patience

Last year, a 100-win season ended in disappointment for the Yankees, who lost the ALDS to the Red Sox in four games. Looking back, Aaron Boone accepted some responsibility for the early exit, acknowledging he stuck with his starters too long at times.

On Friday, he had the chance to forge a new path. With one on and two out in the top of the fifth inning, James Paxton was just one out away from escaping. But with three runs on the board for Minnesota and Nelson Cruz due up, Boone went to his bullpen. Two batters later, the Yankees were out of the inning with no further damage.

From there, Boone mixed and matched, using six relievers, including J.A. Happ. The final tally: 14 outs for Paxton, 13 for the bullpen.

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The aging sluggers strike back

With each passing year, baseball’s best players seem to get a little younger. Stars like Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto and Yordan Alvarez aren’t alone – they’re part of a broader trend that’s seeing players peak earlier than before.

Across the league, those emerging stars are worthy of the spotlight. Aging DHs, on the other hand, haven’t been in vogue for years. Not only that, their salaries have dropped off considerably as they’ve fallen out of favour. But for one night at least, we were taken back to the era where any team without a slugging designated hitter was incomplete.

Starting at DH for the Yankees was Edwin Encarnacion, the 36-year-old with 414 career home runs. Starting at DH for the Twins was Nelson Cruz, the 39-year-old with 401 career home runs. Neither player disappointed.

Cruz, the MLB home run leader for the decade of 2010-19, took Paxton deep with two out in the third inning. And Encarnacion, the runner-up in home runs this decade, hit two doubles, both of which left his bat at more than 110 m.p.h.

At a time that so many teams have moved away from a traditional DH, it was almost nostalgic to see Encarnacion and Cruz do what they do best. Better still, if Cruz’s track record offers much indication, he might not be done yet. He now has 17 post-season home runs in just 42 career games.

Verlander doing what Verlander does

One of my favourite playoff stat lines belongs to Derek Jeter. He was productive in the post-season, of course, with a .308 average and .838 OPS. But beyond the rate stats, I’ve always appreciated how closely his playoff totals resemble a full regular season stat line. He played 158 post-season games, hit 20 home runs and finished with exactly 200 hits.

We’re not quite at that point with Justin Verlander yet, but we could be pretty close by the end of the month. Friday’s start – a dominant outing in which the Rays managed just one hit over seven innings – was the 25th playoff start of his career.

Including his Game 1 win, the 36-year-old now has a 3.05 ERA with 9.9 strikeouts per nine in 159.1 career post-season innings (he’s also 14-7 for those inclined to track such things). Incredibly impressive, and yet when Verlander pitches like this it’s almost expected.

As Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters in Houston after the game, “We got Verlander’d.”

So how many more lineups will have the pleasure of facing the eight-time all-star this month? Back in 2017, when the Astros won it all, Verlander made five starts in October. Another extended playoff run could push Verlander’s career playoff innings past 180 and give him close to 30 starts. At that point he’d be approaching a full season’s worth of playoff baseball, much like Jeter.

In the meantime, the Rays have another Cy Young candidate to contend with Saturday, and this one may be pitching even better than Verlander. Over his final 22 starts of the season, Gerrit Cole had a 1.78 ERA with 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings. And yet this won’t be a mismatch. Pitching for Tampa Bay? Blake Snell, the defending Cy Young winner.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

Don’t forget about Altuve

Before the Astros became the Astros, Jose Altuve was the centrepiece in an otherwise unremarkable lineup. Even now, his 31 homers and .903 OPS would still stand out on many teams.

But in Houston, where seven of the nine starters have an OPS of at least .875, Altuve’s no longer required to generate all the offence. Not that the Astros will complain when he does.

For anyone keeping track, that’s nine home runs in 33 career playoff games for a five-foot-six player known best for his contact skills.

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