MLB playoffs: Who Yankees fans should root for in Astros-Rays ALDS Game 5

Thursday night at Minute Maid Park, the Houston Astros and Tampa Bay Rays will play the decisive Game 5 of their ALDS matchup. The Astros won the first two games at home, then the Rays won the next two games at home. The Game 5 winner moves on to face the New York Yankees in the ALCS. The loser goes home.

"Honestly, I kind of abide by the 'careful what you wish for,'" Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday when asked about the Astros vs. Rays series going five games. "Sometimes you don't know what you're pulling for. As much as you want a Game 5, maybe that ends up not working in your favor. Who knows?"

The Astros and Rays going to Game 5 is the best case scenario for the Yankees. Houston has to use Gerrit Cole in Game 5, which means he won't be available until ALCS Game 3 at the earliest. The same applies to the Rays and Tyler Glasnow. Also, neither team is getting rest this week. They have to push their players.

Boone and the Yankees will never admit they'd rather play one team than the other in the ALCS -- give them a truth serum and I think they'd say they'd rather play the Rays, but that's just me guessing -- but that doesn't mean we can't break down the matchups, and try to figure out which team New York should want to play.

Here, with ALDS Game 5 looming Thursday night (how to watch), are some reasons the Astros might be the better matchup for the Yankees in the ALCS, and some reasons the Rays might be the better matchup in the ALCS.

The case for the Astros

Season series: Astros win 4-3 (Astros: 39 runs; Yankees: 37 runs)

The season series was pretty much even -- the Astros swept three games at Minute Maid Park and the Yankees won three of four at Yankee Stadium -- and these two teams did have the two best records in the American League. The Yankees are as healthy as they have been all season (they could get Aaron Hicks and CC Sabathia back in the ALCS), so they're close to full strength.

At this point, the best argument for facing the Astros in the ALCS is the fact that their rotation isn't lined up. Justin Verlander started ALDS Game 4 on short rest and won't be available until ALCS Game 2 at the earliest, and even then how will he look following the short rest start? Cole in ALDS Game 5 means he won't start until ALCS Game 3, and his second start won't come until Game 7.

A scenario exists in which the Yankees could beat the Astros in five games in the ALCS while facing Verlander and Cole only once each. That is the dream scenario, obviously. Verlander and Cole are no worse than two of the five best pitchers in baseball at the moment, and the less you see them, the better your chances of winning the series. I think that's pretty obvious.

Because the two horses have been pushed back in the ALCS, it means the Astros will have to lean on their bullpen that much more often early in the ALCS, and the Yankees hammered relief pitching this season. No team was better against bullpen arms during the regular season:

  • AVG: .264 (2nd in MLB)
  • OBP: .343 (6th)
  • SLG: .472 (1st)
  • OPS+: 117 (1st)

Houston's bullpen posted a 3.75 ERA during the regular season, second-best in baseball behind the Rays (3.71 ERA), but its current bullpen is a bit different from its regular season bullpen. Most notably, setup man extraordinaire Ryan Pressly had knee surgery late in the season and hasn't looked quite like himself since returning. He's allowed two runs in one ALDS inning thus far.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch tries to bridge the gap between starter and closer Roberto Osuna with Pressly and Will Harris, while others like Hector Rondon, Josh James and Joe Smith are further down the depth chart. In the late innings, it's advantage Yankees given their bullpen and the way they hit other team's bullpens. The Pressly injury makes this more of a mismatch that it once was.

"He may have been a little rusty. It's a little bit of everything," Hinch said after Pressly allowed two runs in ALDS Game 1. " ... He's doing fine. I'm the last guy that's going to lose confidence in Ryan Pressly. He's going to get the ball again when we need him."  

On the offensive side, the Astros are weirdly susceptible to high-velocity fastballs. Wouldn't have guessed it, but it is true. I mean, every hitter is susceptible to high-velocity fastballs -- the harder a pitch is thrown, the less time the hitter has to react -- but Houston especially so. Here are their regular season numbers against 95+ mph fastballs:

  • AVG: .233 (23rd in MLB -- MLB average is .249)
  • SLG: .404 (18th in MLB -- MLB average is .419)

You'd think a team with Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Michael Brantley, Alex Bregman and George Springer would crush fastballs. Instead, they were one of the weaker hitting teams against 95+ mph heaters. And, of course, I bring this up because the Yankees have one of the hardest throwing staffs in baseball. Their 93.1 mph average fastball velocity was sixth highest in 2019.

Furthermore, pitching staffs shrink in October as teams rely on their best pitchers. There are no No. 5 starters or mop-up men in the postseason, you know? The Yankees carried 12 pitchers on their ALDS roster and will likely do the same in the ALCS. Seven of those 12 averaged at least 94 mph with fastballs in 2019, with James Paxton not far away (93.4 mph). They bring the heat.

For the Yankees, the path to beating any team in a short series is overwhelming hitters with big velocity and strikeout stuff, and having an advantage in the bullpen battle. The Twins had a pretty good bullpen during the regular season and the Yankees put up 14 runs in 12 innings against that unit in the ALDS. If New York doesn't have to face your ace(s) until later in the series, even better.

The Astros, as good as they are, are susceptible to high-end velocity and are at a disadvantage in the late innings, especially since Pressly's knee became an issue. Add in the fact Verlander started on short rest in ALDS Game 4 and Cole has to start ALDS Game 5 period, and it means Houston's rotation is out of whack at the moment. That's all good news for the Yankees.

The case for the Rays

Season series: Yankees win 12-7 (Yankees: 96 runs; Rays: 56 runs)

There is as awful lot of familiarity here. The Yankees and Rays are division rivals, so they play 19 times every year, and this year the season series was pretty one-sided. The Yankees outscored the Rays by 40 runs -- 40! -- in their 19 meetings, and two of those seven losses came in the final week of the season, when New York was mostly auditioning players for postseason roster spots.

The Yankees won the AL East and would have home-field advantage against the Rays in the ALCS, and that's a big deal. They went 8-2 against the Rays at Yankee Stadium this year and outscored them 62-25 in the 10 games. One of Tampa's two wins in New York required a herculean three-homer effort by Travis d'Arnaud.

New York's dominance over Tampa Bay in Yankee Stadium is nothing new. The Rays have won one series in the Bronx since Sept. 2014. They are 1-15-0 in their last 16 series at Yankee Stadium and are 36-14 in their last 50 games at the ballpark. "It's always a hostile environment over there," Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier told the Associated Press about playing in New York in June.

Similar to the Astros, the Rays pitching would be all out of whack going into the ALCS. Glasnow starting ALDS Game 5 means he won't be available until ALCS Game 3. Blake Snell would be on short rest in Games 1 or 2 following his (admittedly brief) ALDS Game 4 relief appearance. Charlie Morton could pitch out of the bullpen Thursday, further complicating things.

Also, Snell is not fully stretched out following his late season elbow surgery. He threw 58 pitches in is ALDS Game 2 start and did not throw more than 62 pitches in any of his three regular season starts after returning. With no obvious fourth starter -- the Rays bullpen gamed ALDS Game 4 -- Tampa effectively has 2 1/2 starters right now, and one of the two starts Game 5 on Thursday.

The Yankees, meanwhile, have two aces up their sleeve. One is Luis Severino, who returned from his injuries late in the regular season and did not face the Rays in 2019. Tampa did not see him at all this year -- that also applies to the Astros, it should be noted -- and anytime a pitcher hasn't faced a team in a while, it's advantage pitcher (in theory). He has the element of surprise on his side.

The second ace: Masahiro Tanaka. For whatever reason the Rays have been unable to hit New York's slider/splitter artist over the last few years. Tanaka held the Rays to five earned runs in four starts and 28 2/3 innings during the 2019 regular season, including a two-hit shutout at Yankee Stadium on June 17.

Dating back to 2017, Tanaka has a 1.79 ERA in eight starts and 58 1/3 innings against the Rays, with two shutouts. Tampa has been unable to solve his kitchen sink approach going back more than two years now. Add in Tanaka's postseason excellence (career 1.54 ERA) and I have to believe the Yankees will be very comfortable with him on the mound against the Rays.

"For what it's worth, it seems like he's tough against us every time here or at our ballpark," Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters, including Eduardo A. Encina of the Tampa Bay Times, following the shutout in June. "He's got our number right now."    

In a weird way, the Yankees might have a pitching advantage over the Rays in an ALCS matchup. The Yankees have a healthy Severino, Tanaka's dominance in October and against the Rays, and they lean heavily on the game's best bullpen. The Rays have 2 1/2 starters and they've had to work their pitching hard in the ALDS just to get to the ALCS. The Yankees are well-rested.

The Yankees have dominated the Rays at Yankee Stadium and Tanaka has dominated the Rays at either ballpark, and these are trends that date back years now, not only a few months. That combined with Tampa's pitching being out of order, Snell not being fully stretched out, and the Yankees being able to rest their guys this week ostensibly gives them a leg up in an ALCS matchup.


We can slice and dice the matchups in any number of ways. At the end of the day, any team can beat any other team on any given night in this game, and weird things tend to happen in the postseason. Look at that first inning in SunTrust Park on Wednesday, or the late innings at Dodger Stadium. October cares not for your regular season trends and numbers.

The Astros, Rays and Yankees are all excellent teams and it's easy to see any of the three advancing to the World Series. Right now, the Yankees have the luxury of resting their players whereas the Astros and Rays have to battle in Game 5 on Thursday before the ALCS opens Saturday. Is one team a better matchup for New York than the other? Yeah, probably, but that doesn't mean any inherent advantage will show up in a short postseason series.

"The biggest thing is we're trying to take care of our house, make sure our players are in a good position," Boone said. "Depending who our opponent is, we feel like we'll be very buttoned up on having a game plan of attacking them. I'm certainly enjoying watching it unfold. But I don't really draw an advantage/disadvantage type thing. I don't worry about that or consume myself with that at all."

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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