10 burning questions for Yankees-Astros ALCS

By Vincent Frank
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Yankees will be well rested when they take on the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the ALCS on Saturday after sweeping the Minnesota Twins in the first round.

For Houston, it’s a bit different of a situation. The Astros thought they were going to dispose of the Rays in short order after winning the first two games of the ALDS. That series ended up going the full five before Houston pulled it off on Thursday.

Here’s a look at 10 burning questions for a league championship series that’s been months in the making.

Will the Yankees extend Luis Severino?

After seeing action in just three regular-season games due to rotator cuff inflammation, this Yankees ace showed out big time in his only appearance in the ALDS. Severino, 25, pitched four shutout innings in New York’s series-clinching Game 3 win over the Twins. He struck out four and allowed six base runners in the process.

We’re now highly intrigued to see if the Yankees will look to extend their All-Star in the ALCS. In his four outings since returning from injury, Severino has not pitched more than five innings. He appears to be regaining strength, which could loom absolutely large against a hard-hitting Astros squad.

Will the Astros turn to Justin Verlander on short rest?

Three previous times throughout his career, this Cy Young winner had pitched in the postseason on three days’ rest. Each time it was in a relief effort. That changed in Game 4 of the NLDS against Tampa Bay. Verlander started one day after Zack Greinke was uncharacteristically knocked around the park. It did not go well. Verlander yielded four runs and seven hits in just 3.2 innings.

The question here is whether Houston will turn to Verlander on short rest at any point during the ALCS. Greinke will get the Game 1 start. He’ll be followed by Verlander on Sunday. That will give each of them full rest. Whether the series dictates a three-man rotation depends on these first three games. But it will be interesting to see if Verlander is asked to do this again.

Can Gary Sanchez and Giancarlo Stanton get off the snide?

While New York did not have any issue disposing of the Twins in quick fashion in the ALDS, two of the team’s most-prolific hitters struggled big time. Stanton collected just one hit in six at-bats while walking four times. Meanwhile, Sanchez was a combined 1-for-8 with four strikeouts in the three-game set.

Needless to say, both are going to have to step up in order for New York to solve Houston’s big three. Stanton is a combined 7-for-36 (.180 average) with 17 strikeouts in his career against Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. Meanwhile, Sanchez has posted a .200 average in 25 career at-bats against Houston’s trio of aces.

Will the real George Springer step up?

Already known as the newest Mr. October, Springer did not live up to that billing during the ALDS. He hit put up just three hits in 21 at-bats for a .143 average while striking out five times. That has not been par for the course for Springer. Remember, he earned the World Series MVP in 2017 after hitting five homers and driving in seven runs. Last fall was even better for Springer with him posting a 1.276 OPS.

This leads us to our overriding question. Which George Springer can we expect to show up for this series? What we do know is that Springer is a career .195 hitter with a mere .267 on-base percentage and boasts a 25% strikeout rate in 10 career games at Yankee Stadium. That’s something to keep an eye on.

Who will be the Yankees’ fourth starter?

We likely already know who is going to start the first three games of the ALCS. In no particular order, that includes the above-mentioned Severino, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka. The biggest question here is who will start Game 4. There’s no reason to believe any of these three veterans can be called on to pitch on short rest.

This makes it an open question regarding Game 4. New York could go with an opener such as Chad Green to play the matchups before turning to J.A. Happ. The team could also test the waters by starting Happ. It really depends on how the first three games turn out.

Will Yuli Gurriel be an X-factor for the Astros?

We all know about Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and George Springer in Houston. They make up the core of this team’s elite-level lineup. However, 35-year-old first baseman Yuli Gurriel could end up being a major X-factor in this series.

The veteran hit .298 with 31 homers, 104 RBI and an .884 OPS during the regular season. It was by far his best performance since the Cuba native made his way to the states back in 2016. Gurriel hit .320 with a .916 OPS against fellow right handers during the regular year, too. That could come in handy against the likes of Severino and Tanaka in the ALCS.

Is Aroldis Chapman 100% healthy?

Chapman’s injury is flying under the radar a bit due to the on-field drama we’ve seen during the playoffs. The All-Star closer hurt his pitching hand during celebrations after New York took out the Twins. While reports indicate he’ll be good to go for the ALCS, we can never be too sure.

If Chapman is at 100%, it will be a boon for the Yankees. He’s pitched to a career 2.12 ERA with about 1.5 strikeouts per inning in the postseason. Chapman went 2.2 scoreless innings while striking out four in two outings in the ALDS. If he’s not ready to go, the Yankees would likely be forced to go with Zach Britton in a closing role. He’s posted a 4.50 career playoff ERA compared to a 3.05 mark during the regular year and is dealing with an ankle injury himself.

How will home-field advantage turn out?

Given their statuses as 100-plus wins teams during the regular season, it is not a surprise that both the Yankees and Astros dominated at home. New York was 57-24 at the friendly confines. Meanwhile, the Astros posted a league-best 60-21 record at Minute Maid Park. Both were undefeated at home in the LDS, going a combined 5-0.

History suggests that Houston will have the advantage here. However, it’s not as clear cut as that. The Yankees have won three of seven in Houston since the start of last season. They are also 5-2 at home against the Astros during that span.

How much money will Gerrit Cole earn in ALCS?

It’s absolutely absurd how successful Cole has been since Houston acquired him from the Pittsburgh Pirates ahead of last season. The Cy Young favorite took to the mound for Game 5 of the NLDS having not lost a decision since all the way back on May 22. He responded by giving up just one run in eight innings while striking out 10 to help Houston advance. Cole yielded a total of one run and six hits while striking out 25 in 15.2 innings of work in the ALDS.

An impending free agent, Cole is slated to start Game 3 against New York. This means that he would likely also get the call in Game 7. We now have to wonder how much cash Cole could earn with another tremendous performance in the ALCS.

Will the series be competitive?

As noted above, Houston was 60-21 at home during the regular season. Add in a 3-0 playoff mark at Minute Maid Park, and A.J. Hinch’s squad has won 63 of its previous 84 games in Houston. That’s about as absurd as it gets.

Yankees fans have to be concerned that the combination of Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke will shut down their highly-potent lineup. Without front-line starters themselves, some might conclude that this will be a lopsided series. It will certainly be interesting to see how things start in Houston over the weekend. If the Yanks are able to split, this series will be much more competitive than some might initially think.