HOUSTON – Punchless and on the verge of getting punched out of this American League Championship Series, the New York Yankees need do little more than hop on a plane to enhance their chances of a turnaround.
A juggernaut at midseason, a mystifying, frustrating squad in the second half, the Yankees have little time for reflection or vast adjustments in order to dig out of a 2-0 hole to their longtime nemesis, the Houston Astros, in this ALCS.
They are on the brink, but come Saturday, they will be back at Yankee Stadium, where they played .704 ball (57-24) compared to .519 (42-39) on the road.
They lost both games at Minute Maid Park, including a 3-2 setback in Thursday night’s Game 2, but neither of those games were started by Gerrit Cole or Nestor Cortes.
Cole will start Game 3 at Yankee Stadium and Cortes Game 4 and the Yankees are a different team when they start (40-21, .656) as opposed to anyone else (59-42, .584).
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Solace, sure, as the squad grabbed one more sleep in Houston before flying back to New York on Friday morning, a needed day off before Saturday’s Game 3.
Yet is what ails this team incurable, even with their aces on the mound?
They have struck out 30 times in two ALCS games (the resourceful Astros have just eight whiffs) and are batting just .169 (37 for 219) in seven playoff games, including a too-difficult five-game survival against the Cleveland Guardians.
ALCS GAME 2: Astros ride Alex Bregman homer, Framber Valdez gem to beat Yankees
STRUGGLING: No swing in Yankees, striking out 30 times in two games
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“We’re going to go into this off day, take a step back, take a breath and reflect on what we need to really work on and adjust to get going again,” catcher Kyle Higashioka said after he struck out three times against Astros starter Framber Valdez in Thursday’s loss. “Good things happen when you put the ball in play. We saw that the series before against the Guardians.
“We just need to simplify our approach and get back to basics.”
Easier said than done when you’re facing Valdez and Game 1 starter Justin Verlander, who have combined to win 20 postseason games in their career. The opposition will be no less stout in New York; likely Game 3 starter Lance McCullers tossed six shutout innings in the Astros’ ALDS clincher at Seattle, while likely Game 4 starter Cristian Javier tossed seven no-hit innings at Yankee Stadium to key a combined no-hitter on June 25.
“We got to score,” says Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “They’re about as tough as there is to score against. But we got to figure out a way and it takes all of us from a game plan standpoint to every guy in that lineup just doing their part to make it a little more difficult on ’em.”
And just how? The Yankees ranked 13th in the majors in strikeouts, worse than all but three playoff teams, and including this ALCS, they’re 2-7 against Houston this year.
“I think we gotta shorten up a little bit, put the ball in play,” says slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who reached on Valdez’s throwing error and scored the Yankees’ final Game 2 run. “You never know what happens when you put the ball in play.
“I don’t think we’re trying to do too much. We all have to make mid-at bat adjustments in order to put the ball in play. The game is extremely fast. They’re reading swings, reading body language. You’ve got to be able to counteract that.”
Failing that, there’s always run suppression.
Cole was the backbone of New York’s ALDS conquest, winning Games 1 and 4, the latter facing a 2-1 series deficit. Cortes started and won Game 5 on short rest. They’ll once again be faced with saving the season.
“Regardless, if (the series) is 2-0 or if it’s 1-1 or it’s 0-2, it can’t affect the way I go about my business,” says Cole. “I mean, like, we all have a job to do. We play each and every game in and of itself, play each and every pitch within each and every game until there’s no more pitches to play, win or lose.”
Says Boone: “Certainly feel no one better than Gerrit to hand the ball to get us right back in this.”
Different year, different team, but the scenario is so far playing out like 2017, when the home team won every game of that Astros-Yankees ALCS – the Astros winning Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 at Minute Maid Park, and the Yankees grabbing the middle three at home. Aaron Judge and Verlander and a few others were around for that one and now, five years later, the Yankees have little choice but try to repeat the feat, or come close to it.
“We’ve been in this spot before,” says Judge, who narrowly missed a go-ahead homer in the eighth inning and has struck out just once in eight at-bats. “We’ve been in these situations before. Every single guy knows what he needs to do.”