Not If, But When: Astros Dispatch Yankees, Advance to World Series

© Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball isn’t scripted or preordained. There’s no knowing who will win any given game; Jacob deGrom lost to the A’s this year and the Pirates swept the Dodgers. It’s a game of thin margins, and with huge volatility; some games a smashed line drive leaves the park, while others it finds a fielder’s glove. It’s a game defined by its uncertainty – but be honest, you knew the Astros were going to win on Sunday, right?

It sure didn’t feel that way at first. The Yankees shuffled their lineup yet again, and the new configuration paid early dividends. Leadoff hitter Harrison Bader looped a soft liner for a single. Two batters later, Anthony Rizzo flatly refused to get out of the way of a baseball headed in his general direction, as is his custom. He was rewarded with first base, and shortly with a run when Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres followed with singles. Rizzo added to the tally more conventionally in the second, doubling home a run to put the Yankees up 3-0.

Unfortunately for New York, the game moved inexorably forward, and so too did the Astros. Houston’s lineup is beatable, but it’ll take your best. Nestor Cortes didn’t have his in Game 4. He came out with his customary guile, changing speeds and mixing pitches through two scoreless innings. When he took the mound for the third, something changed.

His fastball, never blazing, lost another three ticks on average. He lost command over the pitch, too, throwing five straight outside the rulebook strike zone to Martín Maldonado to start the inning (one was called a strike). By the time he finished walking Jose Altuve, he’d given up on it altogether, looking to land sliders and cutters instead. Jeremy Peña made him pay; he didn’t respect the fastball at all, sitting on the cutter, and when Cortes hung one in an attempt to battle back into the count, Peña unloaded on it for a three-run homer.

As it turns out, injury was to blame. That ill-fated cutter was the last pitch Cortes threw; Aaron Boone and the training staff escorted him off the mound immediately after. That left the Yankees with a lot of innings to cover, with a bullpen they mostly don’t trust. I count roughly three relievers they’ve treated like high leverage arms: Wandy Peralta, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Clay Holmes. Maybe you can include Lou Trivino in that mix, but he was gassed after throwing two innings last night. Three relievers, seven innings? That doesn’t sound like a very good equation.

The Yankees came up with a novel solution: just make the entire seven innings out of those relievers. That sounds desperate. Peralta averaged an inning per appearance this year, as did Holmes. Loáisiga used to be a multi-inning reliever, but he pitched 48 innings in 50 appearances this year.

Seven innings from three one-inning relievers? It’s a long-shot, but when you’re faced with seven innings against the Houston lineup, long-shots might have to do. And it almost worked! Peralta got into early trouble, giving up a run in that fateful third inning, but he soldiered on for 40 pitches, tying a season high, and two-plus innings. Loáisiga came in to clean up after Peralta walked Yordan Alvarez to lead off the fifth, and held Houston off in the fifth and sixth.

In the meantime, the Yankees bats got to work. Aaron Judge had an off night, but Bader and Rizzo picked him up. In the fourth, Bader singled and advanced to second on a passed ball before Rizzo drove him home. That tied the game at four. Lance McCullers Jr., perhaps still suffering from champagne elbow, lasted five innings but gave up four runs, done in by that pesky Bader/Rizzo combination.

Bader wasn’t done. In the bottom of the sixth, after another clean sheet by the New York bullpen, he ambushed a Héctor Neris sinker and deposited it in the left field seats. All of the sudden it was 5-4 Yankees. Were we all wrong to assume we knew how the last chapter of this book went?

As it turns out, we were not. The Astros, as they’ve done in every game this postseason, eked out more runs. Rallies aren’t always pretty, even for good teams. Tonight was a great example of that, as the Astros struggled mightily against Loáisiga but still broke through.

Altuve started the rally in seventh with a broken bat infield single, beating Loáisiga to the first base bag by millimeters. Peña followed with what could have been a disaster, a four-hopper to second base that could maybe, just maybe, turn into two outs if the Yankees hurried. Torres gambled, feeding an off-balance shovel to the front of the second base bag, in position for a charging Isiah Kiner-Falefa to turn two. Kiner-Falefa gambled, taking a direct route to the back of the bag so that he could pull off one of those nifty tag-shuffle-fire pivots for maximum muscle behind his throw to first.

Unfortunately for the Yankees, second base doesn’t exist in a quantum superposition where the front and back of the bag are somehow in the same location. Torres’ feed eluded a lunging Kiner-Falefa and trickled harmlessly through the infield dirt. What could have been two quick outs instead became first and second with only one away.

It felt like a spell had been lifted from the Astros, like this was bound to happen as soon as any Yankee faltered. Alvarez pummeled a groundball single, 109 mph off the bat, to score Altuve and then tie the game on the very next pitch Loáisiga threw. Alex Bregman flicked a 2-2 sinker into right field to plate Peña, this time against Holmes, who entered after that game-tying single. In the blink of an eye, the Astros led again, inevitably.

While the Yankees had to cobble together bullpen innings, the Astros showed off their own strategy: just build the entire bullpen out of closers. Neris (regular season ERA/FIP: 3.72/2.35) gave up the aforementioned home run to Bader in an otherwise clean sixth inning. Bryan Abreu (1.94/2.12) threw a scoreless seventh. Rafael Montero (2.37/2.64) pitched a perfect eighth. That left Ryan Pressly (2.98/2.31) to pitch the ninth, against the Yankees’ most dangerous hitter – and also Aaron Judge.

After summarily dispatching Jose Trevino, Pressly treated Bader with caution. He attacked him with secondaries, mostly out of the zone. In a 2-1 count, Bader went after a front-door slider and pounded it towards first base. For a moment, it looked like he might have a single. Yuli Gurriel had to make a tough play on the ball, and Pressly was slow off the mound. But Gurriel beat Bader to the bag himself. That was the only brief ray of hope; Judge tapped back to the mound on a nasty slider to close the book on the inning, the game, and the ALCS.

The Astros aren’t actually inevitable. Nothing about baseball is inevitable. The other guy lives in a big house too; if any number of breaks had gone differently, we might be looking at a different series. Judge hit a ball roughly two feet short of clearing the fence in Game 2 in Houston; Torres missed Kiner-Falefa’s glove by inches in the seventh inning tonight. Anyone who tells you that those two things were bound to happen is lying.

Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this was always going to happen. The Astros are in the World Series again, just like always. They knocked off the Yankees to do it, just like always. They’re doing it on both sides of the ball, just like always. Next comes the good part: seeing what happens when the mighty Astros meet the plucky Phillies. Nothing is written in advance – well, except the first paragraph of this article, which I wrote on Saturday. Some outcomes you can just see coming, even if you don’t know it for sure.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Narratives are weird things. The Dodgers, Mets, and Braves all lost and people just started blaming the playoffs as a crapshoot. The Astros are 7-0 in the playoffs with 4 one run wins and 2 two run wins. Yet no one felt they were lucky but instead they were just good and inevitable.

In the days when everyone understands that a playoff series doesn’t determine who’s actually the better team, the Astros have either broken the playoff code or just been the luckiest team in playoff baseball the past 5 years (not including 2017 for obvious reasons here). I do feel they have definitely been luck guided but it’s hard to argue that they have been really successful in the postseason with variety of team makeup: strong Frontline starters with strong offense for 2018-2019, cobbled together young pitching with strong offense of 2020-2021, and now a ridiculous deep staff with shallower lineup in 2022.

1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

“Roman stoic philosopher Seneca famously declared that luck is when preparation meets opportunity. He couldn’t have been more right. The people who say a successful person became lucky doesn’t understand the effort it takes in order to achieve success. ”

You don’t win 100+ games on luck alone.
The Yankees of May might have given Houston a better challenge but these weren’t the yankees of may. They were what was left after six months of baseball happened to them.

What makes the playoffs a crapshoot is that it is decided by people, not season average stats. Stats illuminate but don’t compell.

Sometimes luck plays a part to help a win but luck happens all the time. We just don’t notice if the team doesn’t capitalize on the event. Luck alone isn’t enough, you still have to hit tge ball or get the out. One guy did, the other didn’t.

Last edited 1 year ago by fjtorres
1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

This comment would be a great intro into an article on “why the Astros knocked the Yankees out yet again this year”.

Willians Astu-stu-studillomember
1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

I mostly agree with this, but you kind of took a wrong turn at the end. Getting the hit or getting the out is hugely dependent on whether you get lucky. Take the Judge lineout in Game 2. On contact quality alone it was a no-doubt HR. Perfect example of great preparation meeting total lack of opportunity. Another example of lack of opportunity was pulling Muchlinski behind home plate in game 1, after going 1-13 in games he umpired in the regular season.

By Seneca’s definition, Houston was the perfect example of a lucky team. Unlike, say, Cleveland, who got a great opportunity in the form of many bloop hits, but wasn’t prepared to take advantage. Which is why no one is talking about how lucky they are.

1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

I find this funny too. I think what people sometimes forget is that even the the best teams in the postseason usually only win 60-65% of the time.

That said, I think the Astros (1) really are the best team in these playoffs and (2) have really been able to use their advantages. With respect to (2) They’ve now gotten multiple teams who were coming off of a pretty intense series and each time they’ve been rested and able to set their rotation. This doesn’t always work; for whatever reason, the Braves and Dodgers weren’t able to do that in their first series. But that’s what happened here.

With respect to (1): I do think it’s pretty clear that the Astros are the best team in these playoffs. It’s a pretty deep lineup that is half guys who don’t swing at bad pitches (so you can’t get away with a guy with crazy stuff who never bothers to throw strikes), 3 elite pitchers, and potentially the best bullpen in the game. Sure, the lineup isn’t as deep as in the past without Brantley and Correa (and Springer) but an Alvarez-Altuve-Tucker-Bregman lineup grouping is four guys who just don’t swing at bad stuff, and the other guys are decent too. This is always a pretty tough matchup.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

…and other than Verlander (who is a freak, anyway) none of their key players are post-peak.
For now they are the AL yardstick.

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I think if you look at the season as a whole, the Dodgers can rightly take a bow as the best team overall through the first 162 games. However, as the season evolved as seasons do, I’d say the Astros finished the season as the team with the fewest holes and the most areas where they are clearly above average. That may not guarantee success in a short series, but it pushes the odds a lot higher.

1 year ago
Reply to  tz

The Astros pitching is just unreal right now. I don’t know that makes them better than the Dodgers (whose pitching was pretty good and their lineup is much deeper than the Astros). But in the playoffs, where depth isn’t as big of a concern, the Astros have been awesome.

1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

It always takes some luck. Injuries, matchups, weather, and “hot” teams can all work for or against you. But when you are good, it takes less luck and good teams seem to be on the good side of luck more often than less good teams, as fjtorres (and Seneca) pointed out.

Antonio Bananas
1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

I think it’s that most years they are better than the AL field by a big enough margin that it actually is significant.

Pythags vs DIV round opponent during this run:

2017 – .611, beat .574 pythag BOS, won WS

2018 – 675 (JEEZUS!), .605 CLE (but in a dogshit division with no other playoff teams, just a .562 win %), lost LCS

2019 – .660, beat .572 pythag Rays, lost in WS

2020 – .507 (covid noise, not sure how to evaluate)

2021 – .622, beat .601 pythag CHW (another dogshit division, so who knows how much worse their run differential is in a good division), lost in WS

2022 – .656, beat .547 pythag SEA

It’s not a given to win the division series, but they are quite a bit better than their opponents. Averaging a .645 pythag (104.45 win pace), opponents a .580 (94 win pace) with 2 of those likely being worse due to being the AL Central.

Outside of that they’re 1-2 in the WS and 4-1 in the LCS. So 5-3 in subsequent rounds or a .625 win %. Within the “random” range I believe. Their real success is division series dominance.

The 1995-2001 Atlanta Braves won 6 of 7 division series (and famously only 1 WS). I haven’t looked at the gap vs their DIV opponents but those Braves teams were

The 1996 – 2002 Yankees won the division round 6 of those 8 years and were exceptionally (and sometimes historically) great.

TL;DR my hypothesis is the secret sauce is to be like 105 win good, not just any ol division winner. At some point there has to be a tipping point. The Astros were as much better than the 2022 mariners as the mariners were to the Angels or Marlins.

Last edited 1 year ago by Antonio Bananas
Jason Bmember
1 year ago

my hypothesis is the secret sauce is to be like 105 win good, not just any ol division winner.”

Well, sure…a 105-game winner should naturally be preferable to a 85, 90, 95, or 100 game winner…being 110-win good, though? Even better still!