HOUSTON — A funny thing has happened to the 107-win Houston Astros‘ drive to the World Series. After 920 runs, MLB-high totals in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and walks, and an MLB low in strikeouts, the postseason version of that flawless machine has blown a few sprockets. And if that doesn’t change soon, that title drive is going to sputter out well short of its destination.
Once again, the Astros ran up against a pitcher who was dealing. This time, it was New York Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, who slung sliders and splitters for six innings Saturday against a baffled Houston lineup. Tanaka held the Astros to one hit and no runs, and faced the minimum during his six frames thanks to a couple of double plays. By the time he departed, the Yankees had built a five-run lead, more than enough for their potent bullpen.
The Yankees won going away 7-0 in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series to erase the home-field advantage Houston spent six months earning. The loss marked the first time the Astros were shut out in the postseason since Game 5 of the 2017 ALCS against the Yankees. The New York starter that night: Masahiro Tanaka.
“That’s probably the best that we’ve seen him in a small sample to execute his game plan, his pitches, his tempo,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “Just about everything was working for him. We couldn’t create a ton of traffic [against] him. When [we] did, he got some double plays. He was just really, really good tonight.”
Hinch and his players have been magnanimous in praising opposing pitchers all October. The opener-using, bullpenning, matchup-crazed Tampa Bay Rays flashed one quality arm after another in pushing the Astros to five games. The Yankees did it a little differently in Game 1, in that at least all of Houston’s hitters got to see Tanaka more than once, but the results were the same.
Through the first game of the ALCS, the Astros are hitting .224/.277/.365 in six postseason outings and have been outscored overall 25-19. Against opposing starters (including Tampa Bay’s Game 4 opener, Diego Castillo), the results are worse: .209/.269/.349 with only eight runs in six games. The numbers in early innings against starters could take on heightened importance against the Yankees, given the strength of their bullpen.
“When you face really good pitching, it just makes hitting even harder,” Astros outfielder George Springer said. “Hitting is hard, but with that being said, we’re a good team and we understand that. So we just got to grind and string together at-bats and we’ll see what happens.”
Postseason numbers don’t accumulate in a vacuum. They are compiled in a crucible, a series of pressure situations when the stakes are high and the competition is almost by definition the best a team faces all season. That much is a given in postseason baseball. But the guys with the sticks are good, too, and in the Astros’ case, historically good. So when hitters so accomplished see the goose eggs pile up, frustration has to be a concern, right?
“We don’t have time for frustration,” Hinch said. “They threw the first punch, Game 1. We get to the next day and we can punch right back tomorrow. I don’t think they’re going to be too comfortable tomorrow coming to the ballpark thinking they’ve got an easy game ahead of themselves.”
Ah, tomorrow. The discomfort to which Hinch alludes is the double-layered security blanket that has kept the Astros warm all fall, even as their bats get chillier with each passing game. That security blanket, Hinch’s double-headed woobie, has two names: Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole. Verlander is slated to start Sunday’s Game 2 at home, and Cole — who has not lost a start since May 22 — goes in Game 3 in New York.
You can understand Hinch’s confidence. Verlander and Cole have combined to go 44-12 this season, including the postseason. Houston’s third ace, Zack Greinke, has had one bad start and a solid start in Game 1 against the Yankees and for now, we don’t even know if Hinch even has a fourth starter. But in Verlander and Cole, Cole and Verlander, Hinch can win a seven-game series no matter what happens in the games those two studs don’t throw.
“We got all the confidence in the world,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Verlander is an unbelievable pitcher. We’re looking forward to it.”
Still, it’s an extremely thin margin for a team to heap all of its burden onto the shoulders of two starting pitchers, no matter how broad those shoulders are. Sooner or later, the Astros are going to have to put up some productive — not quality, but productive — at-bats against good pitching, because this time of the year, that’s all they are going to see. On Sunday, it gets no easier: New York will send James Paxton to the mound, and he gave up exactly one earned run as a starting pitcher in September.
“You start off with the Rays, who have arguably one of the best staffs in the game, they can mix and match and every guy they have is electric,” Springer said. “Then you bring in the bullpen that [the Yankees] got with their starting pitching, it’s never easy and it’s not going to be in October.
“You just have to fight and grind and try to put together an at-bat. Individual stats don’t matter. It’s about the team. A big hit here, a big hit there, it’s what it’s all about.”
Sure, but what if you’re getting no hits here and no hits there? Springer is 3-for-25 during the playoffs, but he’s not alone: Michael Brantley (.217), Carlos Correa (.136) and Josh Reddick (.100) are among Houston regulars who have done little during the first two rounds.
“We’re way better than that as an offensive team,” Correa said. “We have to make the necessary adjustments to get back on track and put a lot of runs up on the board.”
And that might be the moral to the story, as the Astros concoct a game plan to chop down Paxton, the Yankees’ starter who bears the nickname “Big Maple.” Sure, Houston has struggled, but there is a reason the Astros entered the playoffs as the consensus favorite of pundits and betting markets alike: They are steeped in superstar talent and have a deep lineup of mashers with long track records of beating pitchers of every type and ability.
In that vein, maybe this building Astros nightmare scenario actually carries with it a tinge of good news: Sooner or later, the vaunted Houston attack is bound to take off. Maybe there were signs of that even in the Astros’ Game 1 whitewash: According to Statcast data, Houston mashed six balls with an exit velocity of 100 mph or greater. The Astros were rewarded with a lone single on those balls.
And maybe we are making too much of this. After all, the Astros are in the ALCS, having won a postseason series, and are down only one game. Late Sunday night, this picture could look a lot prettier.
“I think everyone is frustrated when we don’t win,” Bregman said. “Because we know we are a better offense than [what we’ve shown]. But we’re not going up there frustrated. We’re going up there trying to compete and put together a good at bat. We just haven’t done that yet.”