NEW YORK — October is the time of year where a team’s flaws, no matter how small, lead to its ultimate downfall. On Tuesday, the Astros’ bullpen—seen by many as its lone liability—fumbled a three-run lead before it could record five outs, allowing the Yankees back into the ALCS. They hoped on Wednesday, with a chance to move one game closer to the World Series, New York’s weakest link would finally snap. Instead, it only grew stronger.
With seven scoreless innings in a 5–0 win, Masahiro Tanaka continued a dominant run of starting pitching this postseason that’s come against two of the best offenses in baseball. New York’s bats—Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez in particular—have been celebrated heartily this fall, and its bullpen has been credited with an assist on several late comeback wins. The Yankees’ starting rotation, though, may quietly be its most dangerous weapon.
After Luis Severino’s uncharacteristically disastrous start in the wild-card game, in which he allowed three earned runs and recorded just one out, Yankees starters have posted a 2.29 ERA across 55 innings, averaging nearly six innings per start. Their ERA is the second-lowest this postseason to only the Washington Nationals, whose starters had a 2.22 in 28 ⅓ frames before elimination. Many expected New York’s brilliant bullpen to work tirelessly this October, but instead it’s watched from centerfield as the rotation spins gem after gem.
“It's just not a starting rotation where you necessarily lean on them for seven or eight innings very often,” said manager Joe Girardi. “We lean on our bullpen, and they get a lot of the attention.”
The rotation’s collective numbers during the season aren’t all that bad—they rank fifth in ERA and ninth in innings pitched—but it struggled to find consistency outside of Severino’s Cy Young-calibur season. That’s why general manager Brian Cashman acquired two starters near this year’s trading deadline. Tanaka, who’s looked unhittable in three postseason starts, had the worst year of his career. CC Sabathia had three great months, and three bad ones. Sonny Gray, one of the team’s midseason acquisitions, sputtered to the finish line, allowing 19 runs in 35 ⅓ September innings.
No one would have blamed you for questioning the ability of the Yankees’ rotation to shut down Cleveland, let alone Houston—the only team that scored more runs than New York this season. It was supposed to be their one weak spot. Yet 10 games later, they’re on the brink of the Fall Classic.
What’s happened to the Astros this series is unprecedented. After scoring 24 runs in their four-game ALDS win over the Red Sox, they’ve mustered just nine in five contests against the Yankees. Their leadoff hitter, George Springer, is 1-for-14 after hitting .412 in the ALDS. The guy behind him in the order, Josh Reddick, is hitless in 18 at-bats. Only four players have multiple hits.
“It’s rare, because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series,” said Astros skipper A.J. Hinch. “We’ve swung the bats very well and to this day I believe we’re one good game from coming out of it.”
Time has run out on that one game, and now it must come against Severino in a win-or-go home Game 6. As far as links on a chain go, he’s about the strongest the Yankees have.