HOUSTON – OK, so, none of us wants to think about this, but let's talk about the elephant in the room. There's no denying it: that loss Friday night stung.
But take more of a bird's-eye view, and it's clear just how successful the trip to Yankee Stadium really was. Two wins out of three games. No small feat in one of the toughest atmospheres in baseball.
And yes, that first inning by Justin Verlander hurt. It's something we'd all like to forget (most of all Verlander himself). But strip away that inning, and Verlander and the pitching staff were rock-solid over the course of those three games, especially in tight situations.
The stat that stands out most: the Yankees were 1-for-15 with runners in scoring position over Games 3 through 5. (The one, unfortunately, was Verlander's slider that Aaron Hicks kept just fair enough to careen off the right-field foul pole.)
The energy and relentless enthusiasm of the Yankee crowd throughout Game 5 -- as well as James Paxton's outstanding pitching performance -- could fool one into thinking that the Yankees had a great game. But look closer, and it's clear that after the first inning, the Yankees had only one hit -- one.
Some attribute this to poor Yankees hitting, but the Astros' pitching deserves the bulk of the credit. In Games 3 and 4, it was both Gerrit Cole's and Zach Greinke's grittiness and the bullpen's ability to deliver clutch pitches in pressure situations. On Friday night, it was Verlander's ability to put the first inning behind him and keep his pitch count low enough to go seven innings, preserving the bullpen for Game 6 and a potential Game 7. The Astros should feel pretty good about their chances with two games to close the deal at home.
And that brings us to Saturday night.
AJ Hinch has announced Brad Peacock as the starter, and he'll probably go a few innings before the game is turned over to the bullpen. Do the Astros need to win this game? Some would say so for the sake of blunting the Yankees' momentum, although given that it's the playoffs, that's a pretty tenuous argument. Momentum shifts are part and parcel of the playoff experience (just ask the Dodgers).
The Astros are coming home, and the crowd will be revved up, so it will be more about whether the bats can attack the Yankees relievers. Since the Yankees are starting Chad Green, they'll certainly use Carlos Correa's three-run homer off of him in Game 4 as a reminder that their bullpen is vulnerable. Regardless, a fast start would really do wonders to get the crowd going and propel the team's offense. Score a few early runs, and the Astros relievers would feel less pressure as the game goes on.
A good start from Peacock could mean several innings without need for extensive bullpen work, which could prove crucial should the Astros need to play a Game 7. If his start doesn't go as well, and the bullpen needs to pick up the slack sooner than Hinch would like, it could put more pressure on Cole to go deep into Game 7.
But the thing is, we know Cole is more than capable of doing that. And we know he's itching to prove himself on a big stage, so pressure isn't likely to be a factor.
That really just leaves the bats. And they went cold in New York, quite literally. With the rain and cooler fall air moving in, hitters on both teams found it hard to muster base hits of any kind. Most of the Astros starters are batting below .200. (Only Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley are hitting well, both at .300 or above).
But the team is back in warmer climates and in front of a friendly crowd. The last time they were here, Correa sent the city into a frenzy, and the Game 6 crowd will bring that intensity and decibel level Saturday night. The Astros hitters need to feed off that energy and attack the Yankee relievers early and often. The series is there for them to take, and there's no reason they can't do it Saturday night.