After a memorable American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Astros in 2017, it was clear that both teams would continue to compete in an arms race for control of baseball’s junior circuit. The Yankees traded for Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton — at that point the reigning N.L. most valuable player — while Houston sent four prospects to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Gerrit Cole, a starting pitcher who over the previous two seasons had gone 19-22 with a 4.12 E.R.A. in 319 innings of work.
It may have seemed like the Yankees had positioned themselves to dominate, but since those deals, Stanton has been riddled with injuries, producing a total of 4.4 wins above replacement, while Cole, with help from Houston’s spin-rate factory of analytics and coaching, has produced 8.4 WAR for the Astros.
Making matters worse, Cole’s role, durable starting pitcher, is the most glaring area of need for the Yankees in their quest to win the team’s 28th World Series title. He has topped 200 innings in each of the last three seasons, and in both of his starts in Houston’s division series win over Tampa Bay, he pitched into the eighth inning and earned the win.
In fact, Houston has not lost a game with Cole starting since July 12, and Cole has not personally picked up a loss since May 22 — a span of 24 starts.
With the series tied at one game apiece, the Yankees will host the Astros for Game 3, and they will have their best starter — Luis Severino — going against Cole. On his best days, Severino can match Cole’s talent, but the Yankees’ ace barely pitched this season because of injuries and has not lasted longer than five innings since Sept. 19 of last season. In seven career postseason starts, he has only made it out of the fifth inning once.
By comparison, Cole has gone into the sixth inning or beyond in 23 of his last 24 starts, with the lone exception being Houston’s last game of the regular season, when he pitched five easy innings to secure his 20th victory and then was pulled so he could rest up for the playoffs, having thrown just 92 pitches.
George Springer broke out of his postseason funk — at least temporarily — with his solo homer off Adam Ottavino in the fifth inning of Game 2. The focus on slumping Astros now turns to Yordan Alvarez, the team’s phenom of a designated hitter, who hit 27 homers in just 87 games during the regular season but is 0 for 7 against the Yankees and batting .231 overall in the postseason without no home runs. Alvarez did not get a chance to face Severino during the regular season, but he did hit home runs off J.A. Happ (a starter currently serving as a reliever) and Tommy Kahnle.
The Yankees have their own slumping slugger in Edwin Encarnacion. The veteran D.H. is 0 for 8 against Houston with six strikeouts after hitting 34 homers during the regular season (21 for Seattle, 13 for the Yankees). He is 4 for 21 over all in the postseason, and considering all of his value comes from his bat, that’s a problem. Similarly, Brett Gardner, who had a career year offensively, is struggling against Houston’s pitching, going 2 for 9 with a pair of singles. In an amusing quirk, however, Gardner’s single in the top of the sixth inning of Game 2 — which served as the front half of a play in which Carlos Correa’s crucial throw home nailed D.J. LeMahieu, saving a vital run — was the Yankees’ last hit until Gardner singled again in the 11th.
The forecast for Game 3 is ideal, with temperatures currently in the mid 60s for first pitch and expected to drift downward to around 60 by 7 p.m., according to AccuWeather. The teams will want to enjoy that as Wednesday’s forecast for Game 4 calls for heavy rain and temperatures in the high 50s. If the game is postponed, it would be rescheduled for Thursday. That would give the Yankees’ overworked bullpen some extra rest, but it would also allow Houston to give more-than-expected rest to its Big Three starters (Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Cole).
Benjamin Hoffman is a senior staff editor and regular contributor to the Keeping Score column in sports. He joined The Times in 2005. @BenHoffmanNYT • Facebook
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