NEW YORK — It’s not 2017, and the Astros aren’t heading to the World Series just yet, but on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, they took a convincing step in that direction by beating the Yankees 3–0 in the AL wild-card game—Houston’s first postseason game in a decade—behind ace Dallas Keuchel. Backed by a typical power display from a homer-happy lineup, Keuchel became the first starting pitcher working on three days’ rest in a postseason game to escape without allowing a run since 2003.
That 2003 start, by Josh Beckett in Game 6 of the World Series, closed out the season of a very different Yankees team, one that featured the famous “Core Four” that anchored their five championships of the 1990s and 2000s. This one, shorn of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, was the first Yankees team to make the playoffs since 2012, but it was a short stay. The team managed just three hits and two walks against Keuchel and relievers Tony Sipp, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson, never getting a runner past second base. In fact, they went hitless against the bullpen.
Indeed, the night belonged to the upstart Astros, who after six straight seasons of sub-.500 ball, including three straight from 2011–13 with at least 106 losses, spent 139 days atop the AL West before a late-season fade forced them to settle for a wild-card berth. Even more so, it belonged to Keuchel, who led the league in Wins Above Replacement (7.2), innings (232) and ERA+ (162; his 2.48 ERA was second), and who is the favorite to win the AL Cy Young award. Having pitched last Friday against the Diamondbacks to keep the team in the hunt for the division title, Keuchel was working on three days’ rest for the first time, but no matter.
“It didn’t take me too much to get up for this game,” said the 27-year-old southpaw afterwards. “Everybody’s been battling 162 games plus, and I knew I wasn’t the only one tired.”
Regardless of the rest, the matchup problems that Keuchel presented the Yankees proved too much. Facing a pitcher who had twirled 16 shutout innings while striking out 21 in two starts against them during the regular season, and who held lefties to an AL-low .461 OPS, Yankees manager Joe Girardi did what he could to shuffle a normally lefty-heavy lineup by using used righty-swinging leftfielder Chris Young in place of Jacoby Ellsbury (with Brett Gardner shifting to center), and rookie second baseman Rob Refsnyder in place of Dustin Ackley. But even with Young working an eight-pitch walk in the first inning, the Yankees simply couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
Taking advantage of the liberal strike zone of home plate umpire Eric Cooper, Keuchel whiffed Gardner and Alex Rodriguez in the first, each looking, but he labored to throw 39 pitches over the first two innings, netting just one swing and miss while allowing just one other base runner besides Young. From there he settled into a groove, needing just 48 pitches to work the next four frames, and at one point retiring 10 batters in a row. He finally found trouble again in the sixth inning, via a pair of singles by Didi Gregorius (erased on a fielder’s choice) and Carlos Beltran, leading to the game’s most awaited encounter, with Rodriguez. A season-high 50,113 fans reached season-high decibel levels in the Bronx as he approached the plate and maintained that intensity as Astros manager A.J. Hinch paid a visit to the mound. The raucousness ended with a whimper, as the 40-year-old slugger flied meekly to centerfield on the first pitch.
“With Dallas, it’s never easy to take the ball away from him,” said Hinch. “You always feel like he’s under control … When I went out there, I told him he was the best guy we have, and he needed to end the inning. It was his guy to get … I actually told him to get the ball on the ground. That would have made me feel a little bit better.”
Said Keuchel, “I knew with [Rodriguez’s] first-pitch swing [in] his second at-bat ... I knew if I could elevate it or get it middle in, I had a good shot to just have him pop it up, and luckily that's what he did. But I was playing blackjack there and it paid off.”
Said Rodriguez, “He’s Greg Maddux from the left side.”
That confrontation was Keuchel’s last of the night. He departed having allowed just thee hits and one walk over six innings while striking out seven over the course of his 87 pitches. Via the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, his 72 game score was the fourth-best by such a pitcher in the postseason on three days’ rest since the turn of the millennium. Oddly enough, or perhaps not, given their near-constant October presence from 1995 through 2012, all of the top five such scores involve the Yankees on one end or the other:
|Josh Beckett||10/25/03, World Series Game 6||Marlins||Yankees||9-5-0-2-9||84|
|Andy Pettitte||10/19/03, World Series Game 2||Yankees||Marlins||8.2-6-1*-1-7||76|
|Curt Schilling||10/31/01, World Series Game 4||D-Backs||Yankees||7-3-1-1-9||75|
|Dallas Keuchel||10/6/15, AL wild-card game||Astros||Yankees||6-3-0-1-7||72|
|CC Sabathia||10/20/09, ALCS Game 4||Yankees||Angels||8-5-1-2-5||71|
By the time he departed, Keuchel had a 2–0 lead, courtesy of solo homers by Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez, emphatic ones that concluded with bat flips. Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka had offered a convincing show of dominance in the first inning, striking out Jose Altuve and George Springer, and going to two strikes against Carlos Correa before getting him to fly out, but his dominance ended there. His first pitch of the second inning, a 93-mph fastball at the lower edge of the zone but straight over the plate, was crushed by Rasmus, who sent it an estimated 401 feet into the rightfield bleachers:
Tanaka’s first pitch of the fourth inning, a hanging slider to Gomez, who missed 13 games in September due to an intercostal strain and was visibly in discomfort after some of his swings, was similarly sent yonder to leftfield, an estimated 424 feet:
The blasts were testament to Tanaka’s biggest vulnerability this year: his inability to keep the ball in the park at Yankee Stadium. In fact, the 26-year-old righty’s 1.75 homers per nine at home was the league’s second-highest rate among starters, a whisker behind the 1.77 per nine of the Royals’ Jeremy Guthrie.
That the Astros would ride the home run to victory was hardly a surprise, a callback to the team’s modus operandi this year and to the path to respectability that general manager Jeff Luhnow has pursued while waiting for his bumper crop of prospects to come to fruition. Houston ranked second in the league in homers (230) and percentage of runs via homers (47.6%). While young blue-chippers Correa (22 in 99 games after being called up) and Springer (16 in 102 games in an injury-shortened season) provided predictable punch, and All-Star Jose Altuve chipped in a career-high 15, the team didn’t have a single 30-home run hitter.
Instead, the Astros received a good share of their power production from relatively low-cost non-stars, imperfect players with low on-base percentages and a fair bit of swing-and-miss in their game—but the ability to punish the right pitch. Evan Gattis, making $526,500, led the team with 27 homers but posted a .285 on-base percentage. Rasmus, signed to a one-year, $8 million deal, hit .238/.314/.475 with 25 homers and 154 strikeouts. Luis Valbuena, making $4.2 million, hit .224/.310/.438 with 25 homers. Chris Carter, making $4.175 million, hit .199/.307/.427 with 24 homers and 151 strikeouts. Meanwhile, catchers Jason Castro and Hank Conger each hit 11 homers, and a total of 11 Astros reached double digits, tied with the 2004 Tigers for the most ever by a team. Oh, and they had two more players with nine homers apiece.
At least based on recent postseason history, teams reliant upon power and with a propensity for striking out haven’t fared particularly well. ESPN’s David Schoenfield recently examined the last five postseasons (by his own admission, a small sample) and found that teams that hit more home runs than their series opponents went just 14–20 in those series, while teams with lower strikeout rates went 25–10.
So it may well be that this year’s Astros aren’t going to become the October darlings that last year’s contact-oriented but somewhat underpowered Royals were. But then very few people expected the Astros to turn things around so suddenly from last year’s 70–92 season, and all expectations are that this is just the first of many contending teams anchored by the likes of Keuchel, Altuve, Correa and Springer. Even if they fall to the Royals, their next opponent, in the AL Division Series, they’ve already made a strong statement this year, first by qualifying for the postseason and then by bumping off the Yankees. They’re playing with house money, and it’s not 2017 yet.