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The Yankees’ Starters Are Matching Their Unhittable Bullpen—and It Has Them Within a Game of a Pennant

With Masahiro Tanaka’s latest gem, New York certainly has momentum on its side, whatever that means to you

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Adam Hunger/USA Today

From September 9–13, the Houston Astros scored a combined nine runs in five consecutive contests against the Oakland A’s and Anaheim Angels, two teams that Houston topped by 20-plus games in the AL West standings. Baseball’s best lineup of the past 80-plus years was shut down on those days by an array of starters who mostly couldn’t have cracked a playoff team’s October rotation: Daniel Gossett, Daniel Mengden, Kendall Graveman, Garrett Richards (recently returned from a five-month injury absence), and Tyler Skaggs.

By that mid-September swoon, Houston had a double-digit lead in the division, and only home-field advantage in the postseason was still at stake. It wasn’t shocking, then, that no one made much of a fuss over the Astros’ worst offensive output of any five-game stretch this season. With Wednesday’s 5–0 Yankees win in Game 5 of the ALCS, though—which put New York one win away from the World Series and Houston one loss away from elimination—the Astros have matched that meager nine-run total over their past five games. This time, their slump isn’t so easy to overlook.

We can’t, of course, discount completely the impact of pressure and adept advance scouting, which could have something to do with the Astros’ offensive ineptitude in this ALCS. But lest we be tempted to talk about their lineup’s clutchness or character, remember that the Astros already experienced similar struggles a little more than a month ago, when the pitching was worse, the stakes were lower, and the lights were less bright.

Granted, that memory might offer small comfort to fans of the Astros, who’ll return to Houston staring Yankees starter Luis Severino (and a five-month offseason) in the face. In October, timing trumps everything, and the mundane is magnified. Postseason slumps needn’t signify something that they don’t down the stretch, but they matter much more.

“We’ve lost a little bit of our offensive adjustments and a little bit of our offensive mojo,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said somewhat opaquely after his hitters were shut out. “And some of that is the anxiety that gets created around at-bats. Some of that is them executing pitches.”

Most of the Yankees’ pitches on Wednesday were executed by Masahiro Tanaka, who made his third strong start of the month. Tanaka won a 1–0 game in the ALDS and narrowly lost a 2–1 first game to start this series, and on Wednesday, he finally received some offensive support to pair with a pitching performance that may have been the best of the bunch. Last October, I found that starting pitchers on regular rest don’t suffer any familiarity tax from facing the same team multiple times in a single series, and Tanaka provided the latest proof: In seven economical innings, he struck out eight Astros, walked one, and allowed only three hits—as many as Chase Headley alone produced on the Yankees’ side. Tanaka has relied less and less on his sinker as the season has worn on, and on Wednesday, he went away from it again, throwing fewer two-seamers in 103 deliveries (12) than he did during his 89-pitch start in Game 1 (13).

While Tanaka held down the road team with a steady diet of sliders and splits, the home hitters conquered a nemesis in Astros starter Dallas Keuchel, whom I overheard discussed on the D train en route to the Bronx with the grudging dread afforded by fans to particularly accomplished Yankees killers. Keuchel carried a career 1.09 ERA in eight games against the Yankees—which he’d lowered with seven scoreless frames five days earlier—into his sixth Yankee Stadium start. “Keuchel doesn’t lay very many eggs,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said before the game. “So when he makes a mistake, you better take advantage of it. He made a few the last start, and we missed them.” This time, the Yankees didn’t, connecting in a few of the moments that mattered most.

Both starters kept the ball down, just as they did during the regular season, when Keuchel and Tanaka finished with the lowest and third-lowest average pitch locations, respectively.

Keuchel started strong, beginning the game by gloving a Brett Gardner grounder himself (like the leading defender he is) and then recording back-to-back strikeouts against Aaron Judge and Gary Sánchez. But the Yankees broke through in the second with a Starlin Castro–stung double (the hardest-hit ball by Castro all year, and the sixth-hardest allowed by the left-handed Keuchel) and a Greg Bird single to drive in what would unexpectedly turn out to be the winning run.

The rest was a rerun of the Judge and Sánchez show that propelled the Yankees to victory in Game 4: Judge doubled in the second run in the third inning, and Sánchez singled in the third run two innings later, then crushed a well-researched solo homer in the seventh for the game’s final run. Between the two solid blows by Sánchez, a Didi Gregorius seeing-eye single that glanced off the lip of José Altuve’s glove drove Keuchel (who matched Tanaka strikeout for strikeout) from the game with two outs in the fifth, his trudge back to the dugout soundtracked by a sold-out stadium’s raucous relief.

The Yankees’ lineup has impressed in this series, hitting balls hard and making more contact in New York than the normally strikeout-averse Astros, and their unhittable bullpen has lived up to its top billing. (Tommy Kahnle finished off the Astros with two nearly flawless frames after Tanaka’s Game 5 outing ended.) But it’s the Yankees’ starters who have truly opened eyes. Although the Yankees’ relievers have earned their acclaim, this series has served as a reminder that their rotation is quality, too.

“Coming in, their bullpen was so much more heralded than the starting rotation, and the starters have really stepped up against us and made good pitches,” Hinch said after Tanaka’s latest gem. Girardi echoed the same sentiment, noting that while “we lean on our bullpen, and they get a lot of the attention … our starters are pretty good.” The Yankees’ bullpen amassed more value than any other team’s in the second half of the season, but their rotation, bolstered by the deadline addition of Sonny Gray, ranked third in wins above replacement over the same span, behind the Diamondbacks’ and Indians’. With those two teams eliminated, the Yankees have the best second-half bullpen and the best second-half rotation of the four remaining teams. The Yankees’ down-ballot starters, CC Sabathia and Gray, outpitched or kept pace with the underbelly of Houston’s rotation, and Tanaka—pitted against one of the Astros’ aces—put them on the threshold of a pennant.

At this time of year, even writers who might not normally dwell on soft factors are more likely to attribute a team’s ups and downs to momentum, which the Yankees currently appear to possess.

Of course, if momentum meant so much, the Yankees wouldn’t have made it out of the wild-card game once they trailed the Twins 3–0, or the ALDS after they faced a two-game deficit. Nor would they have lasted this long in the ALCS after once again starting 0–2. Now, the Yankees—who’ve yet to lose in New York this postseason and need just one win in two games to guarantee their return—find themselves on the verge of surviving 0–2 deficits in consecutive playoff series, which suggests that if momentum exists, it’s too fickle to merit much faith. Girardi admitted as much in his pregame comments, referring to the trusty Earl Weaver line about momentum being no better than the next day’s starting pitcher—in the Astros’ case, Justin Verlander, whom Hinch will hope for another nine innings from after the failings of the Astros’ pen in both of their postseason series.

Hinch also dismissed momentum in his postgame presser, expressing skepticism that the Astros’ lineup can’t recover with the vaguely tautological statement that “we’re one good game [away from] coming out of it.” History has his back: After that brief September slump, the Astros’ offense recovered to average 6.2 runs over the rest of the regular season, topping their 5.5 full-season mark. But if their bats don’t bounce back again, the Astros, with one lonely pennant to their name, will be the latest team to yield to the unlikely-underdog Yankees, who have 40. And if the Yankees add to that total, they might do so with less lamenting from non–New Yorkers than usual, judging by the self-loathing Slack messages sent by a few Yankees haters on The Ringer’s staff, whose hearts have haltingly softened toward Tanaka, Judge, Sánchez, and the rest of this uncharacteristically unhateable, thumbs-downing team.