Now, although everyone should be putting money on the Cubbies, we here at Baseball Essential respectfully want to take a look at alternate timelines in which other teams have a shot at October glory.
Two such teams, the Houston Astros and New York Yankees, are set to do battle Tuesday night in the A.L. Wild Card Game. After a six-month, 162-game season, just nine more innings will decide who moves on to the ALDS and who abruptly heads home for the winter.
These two Wild Card teams were once the creme de la creme of their respective divisions. The Yankees held a commanding seven-game lead on the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL East as late as July 29, and the Astros were still a half-game up on the Texas Rangers in the AL West back on September 14.
As we know, Toronto and Texas rode the backs of their newly acquired aces to steamroll the competition in the second half and will now play each other in the “other” ALDS.
Therefore, there’s already an overarching sense of disappointment for both the Astros and Yankees well before the first pitch is thrown. Each team was well on its way to avoiding this frightening win-or-go-home scenario, and in a blink of an eye, the offseason is at their doorstep.
Of course, one team will win and move on. Which one? Well, that’s hard to say, considering it’s just one random game and the pitching matchup is as even as it can get.
Cy Young favorite Dallas Keuchel gets the ball for Houston on three days’ rest. The 27-year-old lefty went 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA and 216 strikeouts in 232 innings. In layman’s terms, he was incredible. His much-talked about 15-0 record and 1.46 ERA at home has to be countered with his 5-8 record and 3.77 ERA on the road. Not terrible, of course, but it’s a fact — he’s a beatable pitcher away from Minute Maid Park.
The ‘Stros as a whole are very beatable away from Minute Maid Park, going an unsightly 33-48 on the road in 2015. Of course, any team would want to hit in Yankee Stadium, but only Luis Valbuena and Colby Rasmus can reasonably consider that infamous short porch in right field — Houston’s remaining threats are right-handed pull-hitters.
Aside from closer Luke Gregerson, Tony Sipp and Will Harris are Houston’s best bets out of the bullpen. The bullpen also has one starter for this game, Mike Fiers, but look for him to only enter the game in nothing short of a dire situation.
Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka toes the rubber for the Yankees. His 12-9 record and 3.51 ERA in 154 innings isn’t that impressive, until you consider that he pitched the entire year with a partial UCL tear. No matter how small the actual tear is, Tanaka has pitched hurt and career-derailing Tommy John surgery always seems to be right around the corner. However, that hasn’t stopped him from being the Yankees ace he was signed to be, and certainly won’t stop him now.
Tanaka in a way is the inverse of Keuchel, in that he prefers the road grays to the pinstripes. Tanaka’s ERA is half a run lower on the road than it is at the Stadium, and what’s even more alarming is his 17 home runs allowed in 14 home starts. If he loses tonight, it’s because he gave up the long ball. If he wins, well, it’s because he didn’t.
The Yankees’ lineup did not fare particularly well against Keuchel in the two games they faced him — 16 scoreless innings, in fact — but regular season outcomes often carry little weight in the postseason. Joe Girardi will trot out a right-handed heavy lineup, most notably including Chris Young, Carlos Beltran, and Alex Rodriguez. All three are veterans who destroy left-handed pitching, and having them in the middle of the lineup bodes well for the Yanks.
What would my three keys to victory be for each team? Well, for the Astros:
- Get a lead quick. The Yankees have trouble catching up when they fall behind early, and when they have a lead, they rarely relinquish it. It also would do wonders for Keuchel to have some breathing room, pitching on three days’ rest.
- Lay off of Tanaka’s splitter. If they do, he’ll have no choice but to give them pitches to hit. His fastball isn’t anything special, averaging 93 mph.
- Keep your eyes on the prize. Not one member of the Astros played on their 2005 NL Championship-winning team. They are all young and fairly inexperienced, and can not let the “moment” of playing playoff baseball in Yankee Stadium get to them.
As for the Yankees?
- WAKE UP! The Yankees lost six of their last seven games to close out the regular season. They haven’t hit at all for weeks, and a few days off isn’t likely to change that — hence why many people are going with the Astros in this game. They can not afford to sleep through the first few innings.
- Get a lead early. See above.
- Don’t give Tanaka a long leash. After a terrible start against Boston and nursing a hamstring strain, it’s hard to think that Tanaka is 100 percent. At the first sign of trouble, Girardi should not hesitate to go to the bullpen. No one needs rest. It’s now or never. All hands on deck.
Overall, I believe that these two teams are very evenly matched. They both have their aces on the mound, powerful lineups, and shutdown bullpens. Anything can happen tonight, but if I were a betting man, the Yankees use their home-field advantage and playoff experience to find a way to move on to the ALDS.