HOUSTON -- Friday night at Minute Maid Park, the New York Yankees will look to clinch their 41st American League pennant with a win over the Houston Astros in Game 6 of the ALCS. The Astros won the first two games of the series before the Yankees stormed back to win the next three. The Stros will be looking for forced a Game 7 on Friday night.
"[Games 3-5] are behind us, so there's no real reason to look back now. They're in the books," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Thursday. "All we really need to focus on is the game at hand. Our guys are good at that. I think we have to deal with a lot this time of year, obviously, and as the series and the emotion goes along. We've said from the beginning it's a seven-game series. So I guess we really meant it based on how it's turned out. We want it to be a seven-game series to get us to the next level."
Clearly, the Astros are not actually as bad as they looked in Games 3-5, during which the Yankees outscored them 19-5. The Astros went into a team-wide funk at the worst possible time, and now their season is on the line. Here are five things Houston must do in Game 6 on Friday to force a Game 7 on Saturday.
Get a great start from Verlander
Might as well start with the obvious. Pretty much every great series comeback in baseball history starts with a dominant performance on the mound. The Yankees came back from down 2-0 to the Indians in the ALDS because Masahiro Tanaka went out and shined in Game 3. The Yankees came back from down 2-0 in the ALCS to take a 3-2 lead because CC Sabathia stifled the Astros in Game 3. It all starts on the mound, and in Game 6, the Astros will send Justin Verlander to the hill.
"I know this is one of the main reasons I was brought here. I think so far I've done what they've asked or what they've needed of me to help the rotation and help get deep in the playoffs," Verlander said during Thursday's workout. "This is obviously the biggest game for the Astros up to this point for this season. The expectations are there. My teammates, I'm sure, are expecting a lot of me. And I expect a lot of myself. So this is why we play the game. And I love these opportunities to pitch in these atmospheres, these type of games. It should be a lot of fun."
Verlander manhandled the Yankees in Game 2, allowing just one run on five hits and one walk in nine innings. He struck out 13 and threw a whopping 124 pitches, which basically never happens anymore. Only 17 times during the regular season did a pitcher throw 120-plus pitches in an outing. (Verlander was not one of those 17.) Verlander will be on one extra day of rest in Game 6, which figures to serve him well following the long outing in Game 2.
Bottom line: This is the reason the Astros went out and acquired Verlander. To win a game like this. Back up against the wall in the postseason with a trip to the World Series within reach. This is why that trade gets made, to win this game right here. For the Astros to force a Game 7, it has to start on the mound in Game 6. Verlander has take over the game and shut the Yankees down long enough for his offense to get some runs on the board.
Stop chasing out of the zone
During the regular season the Astros led baseball in slugging percentage (.478) and also had the lowest strikeout rate (17.3 percent), which is a fantastic combination. Being able to make that much contact and hit for that kind of power is a great recipe for a dominant offense. Not surprisingly, the Astros also had some of the best plate discipline in baseball. Their 30 percent chase rate on pitches out of the zone was ninth lowest in MLB.
In the ALCS, however, particularly Games 3-5, the Astros have fallen into the trap of chasing outside the zone and getting themselves out on pitcher's pitches. Give the Yankees credit. They've pitched the Astros very well in the series. But the Stros have lost their usual plate discipline and it has cost them offensively. Check out the locations of decisive pitches of their at-bats from Games 3-5:
First things first: That's a lot of pitches out over the middle of the plate going unpunished. That's a big problem. Secondly, the Astros expanded the zone way too often in Games 3-5, particularly right-handed batters reaching outside and left-handed hitters trying to turn on something inside. Pitches they should be taking for a ball are instead being turning into weak outs. That's how an offense falls into a rut.
"It's rare [to struggle like this], because of how much offense we put up through the first six months of the season and even in the Division Series," Hinch said following Game 5. "The playoffs, as we talked earlier today about advanced scouting and exposing weaknesses, if they get you to crack a little bit outside of your game plan then they've got you. We haven't stayed in our game plan quite well enough to make adjustments."
As a team, the Astros are hitting .147/.234/.213 in the ALCS, which is almost impossible to believe. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa are 10 for 37 (.270) in the series and the rest of the Astros are 12 for 113 (.106). Yikes. You can see the frustration starting to boil over as well. There have been several thrown bats and helmets the past few days. To get the offense back on track, the Astros have to be more disciplined at the plate, and not give the Yankees those extra few inches outside with wild swings.
"You've got to get good pitches to hit, and swing at those pitches. But if it was that simple I think we would have corrected it right about the third inning of Game 3," Hinch said Thursday. "We're obviously going to have a game plan going against a pitcher. If we can stay disciplined in that game plan all the better. ... But for us it's trying to find the pitch to hit and that's about it. If he doesn't give it to you the game will tell you to take a little bit more. Easier said than done. If this offense is as good as it's been for this season, we are one good stretch from getting back to where we need to be."
Avoid the bullpen
This ties into the Verlander point. Houston's bullpen is a bit of a mess right now. The team's relievers have allowed 18 runs in 28 innings this postseason. Even Ken Giles, their ace closer and one of the best relievers in baseball this season, has allowed a run in all four postseason appearances so far. If the Astros have a lead, they're still going to turn it over to Giles in the late innings, because he is their best option. Hinch & Co. want to avoid the middle relievers, however. Their Game 6 pitching scenarios, ranked:
- Verlander complete game.
- Verlander to Giles.
- Verlander to middle relievers to Giles.
The less the Astros have to rely on guys like Chris Devenski and Will Harris, who were very home run prone in the second half and have both melted down at some point in the ALCS, the better. The same goes for Joe Musgrove, Luke Gregerson, Francisco Liriano, Brad Peacock and pretty much everyone else out there. The deeper Verlander goes in Game 6, the more likely the Astros are to win. It's that simple.
Use that home-field advantage
The Astros at home this postseason: 4-0. The Astros on the road this postseason: 1-4. Their one road win was Game 4 of the ALDS, which punched their ticket to the ALCS. Houston was a better team on the road (52-28) than at home (48-33) during the regular season, though that doesn't mean a whole lot now. They got run over in a raucous Yankee Stadium this week despite that great regular-season road record.
Astros talked about how loud it was at Yankee Stadium:— Brian McTaggart (@brianmctaggart) October 19, 2017
"New York is no joke," Keuchel said.
"This is a wild place to play," Springer said.
"We earned that home field. We had 101 wins for a reason. We don't automatically flush those down the toilet because we lost a couple of games in New York," Hinch said. "We want our crowd to be loud. We want to take the lead that makes the crowd louder. There will be a big moment, whether it's Altuve or Correa or [George] Springer, comes up with a big hit and this place will explode. And that's why we're going to play at home because we earned it."
If nothing else, the shift back to Minute Maid Park represents a change of scenery and something of a fresh start. That's on top of the inherent advantages of playing at home, like having your fans behind you and getting to sleep in your own bed. Being able to play Game 6 at home when you're trying to force a Game 7 is much preferable to having to go do it on the road. The Astros will be in their own ballpark Friday night and they have to use that advantage the way the Yankees used their home field advantage in Games 3-5.
Get a little lucky
This isn't to say the Astros have been unlucky so far in the ALCS. It doesn't seem that way to me. They haven't hit an inordinate number of rockets hit into gloves, haven't seen many weak dribblers turn into base hits for the Yankees, stuff like that. The Yankees are up 3-2 in the ALCS mostly because they're outplayed the Astros in the five games so far, not because they're out-lucked them.
Now, that said, there is always going to be some element of luck in baseball, and the Astros could use some of it in Game 6. They need a Yankees infielder to boot a ground ball, or for that line drive to stay fair rather than slice just foul, or get some breaks on borderline pitches. That sort of thing. The Yankees were able to come back in the ALDS in part because the Indians made seven errors in Games 4 and 5. They got a little lucky. Now the Astros could use some of that luck to keep their season alive Friday night.