HOUSTON — For all the ridiculous things Masahiro Tanaka has done in October—after six one-hit innings in Game 1 of the ALCS, he has a 1.32 career postseason ERA in seven starts—perhaps the most absurd came last week, when he was asked about his brilliance.
“I think it's still a small sample,” he deflected.
The Yankees disagree. New York swept the Twins in the ALDS, so manager Aaron Boone had five days to set his starting rotation for this series. His is a club devoted to analytics, but his decision came down to one word: trust. Tanaka has shown an ability to execute when the team needs him most. Boone believed he would do it again. He went to sleep on Thursday night feeling fairly certain that he would tap the righthander to start Game 1. He woke up on Friday, he said after the Yankees beat the Astros 7–0, “convicted.”
When he arrived at Yankee Stadium, he found Tanaka. “You got Game 1,” the skipper said. “Let’s f------ go.”
Entering this series, the 14th in postseason history between 100-win outfits, the biggest mismatch seemed to be between the starting rotations. The Astros led the American League in wins above replacement from their starting pitchers, with 19.7. The Yankees finished ninth, with 7.9.
Houston’s starters struck out 10.54 men per nine innings, the best figure by a rotation in history. Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who this season became the second pair of teammates each to reach 300 strikeouts, spent the year chasing one another up the league pitching leaderboards. Even they are not sure which of them should win the Cy Young Award. And to that top two the Astros added, at the trade deadline, Zack Greinke, who ranked merely in the top 10 in most of those statistics.
New York’s ace, Luis Severino, made a total of three regular-season starts amid shoulder and lat injuries. James Paxton had a 3.82 ERA. Tanaka’s was 4.45. The trick to beating the Yankees’ pitching seemed to be: Begin the game.
Reliever Zack Britton, though, had been rolling his eyes all month at that particular narrative. “If you look at the ability in our rotation, they’re capable of being dominant,” he said. “It’s just a matter of doing it, and guys are starting to do it at the right time.”
Tanaka has led the way. His favorite pitch has long been his split-fingered fastball, which rarely generates swings and misses but reliably induces soft contact. Yet over the past two years, he has at times struggled to maintain his mechanics while throwing it. As he and pitching coach Larry Rothschild adjusted his grip and the synchronization of his right arm and left leg, Tanaka learned to rely on his other offerings. He found that he also possessed a potent slider and a good four-seam fastball. On Saturday he kept Houston off-balance, throwing his four-seamer high and then pounding the bottom of the strike zone with splitters and sliders. He faced 18 batters. He threw 15 first-pitch strikes. The Astros, who scored the third-most runs in the regular season, only once advanced a man as far as third base. Tanaka has now allowed six baserunners in 11 innings this October. His 2019 postseason ERA sits at 0.82.
Meanwhile, Greinke surrendered three runs in six innings to run his career postseason ERA to 4.58 and this season’s to 8.38.
Houston has at least three more games and will start Verlander and then Cole in two of them. The narrative wasn’t entirely wrong; those pitchers are as good as advertised. The rest of the Yankees’ rotation seems to match up poorly against the Astros’ potent offense. Houston seems unlikely to suffer another shutout. But anything can happen. After all, the postseason is a small sample.