Astros 2-0 ALCS stranglehold revives familiar postseason refrains with new questions

Yuli Gurriel has been a difference-maker for Houston. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

With the Minute Maid Park roof open on a cool, gusty Thursday night, the Astros jumped to a 2-0 lead over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

The Astros took a tight 3-2 win bolstered by a 3-run Breggy Bomb and another quality start by pitcher Framber Valdez – you were expecting something else?

Valdez scattered four hits over seven innings, allowing only two unearned runs courtesy of a bonehead throwing error by Valdez himself in the fourth inning.

Valdez, like Justin Verlander the night before, got stronger as the game wore on, finishing his night striking out the side in the seventh inning.

The performance was typical for Valdez, a quality start machine. The Cy Young contender had 25 consecutive quality starts this year, a single-season record. He also was the winning pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game.

Yuli Gurriel added to his torrid hit count in the post-season with two singles, Jeremy Pena continued to exorcize the ghost of Correa Past with another hit and slick fielding. But it was Alex Bregman with the decider, a three-run shot over the Crawford Boxes off Yankee starter Luis Severino.

Astros pitchers held Yankee sluggers Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo in check, allowing only an innocent single by Judge.

The ALCS now heads to New York where the Astros can clinch their ticket to the World Series if they win two of three scheduled games at Yankee Stadium.

The Astros do have their worries despite remaining undefeated in the post-season. Jose Altuve’s hitting woes continued Thursday, stretching his hitless streak to 23 at bats. He stands at 0 for the post-season.

Sports network commentators are pouring over facts and figures, spouting obscure analytics to explain the Astros dominance over the Yankees. Not necessary. Here’s the bottom line on this American League Championship Series.

You got eyes? The Astros simply are better than the Yankees. Better hitting, better pitching, better fielding, certainly better in the clutch.

Despite the name on the front of their jerseys and 27 World Series pennants waving over Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Bombers are not a well rounded ball club. There’s no Murderer’s Row in 2022. After a hot start, the Yankees were under .500 during August, September and October. Heading into Thursday night’s Game 2 of the LCS, Aaron Judge was swatting .167 in the post-season. Gleyber Torres was hitting an anemic .130. Josh Donaldson was at .211, Giancarlo Stanton at .200.

Yankee fan might say, well, Kyle Tucker and Altuve aren’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard, either. And Wednesday night, your top hitters Kyle Tucker, Altuve, Bregman and Alvarez went a collective 0-12.

Note to Yankee fan: you ain’t us. Stop it.

After a sloppy start, Justin Verlander blew away Yankee batters in Game 1. Valdez did the same in Game 2. The Astros bullpen kept the Yankees scoreless, topped off by Ryan Pressly slamming the door both nights. Yankee hitters looked like they were swatting flies at a backyard barbecue. The Yankees struck out 17 times, the Astros only twice in Game 1. It was the biggest K disparity in post-season history.

There was talk both nights that Minute Maid crowds were strangely subdued for close, post-season games against the arch rival Yankees. If true, there are reasons. There were plenty of Yankee fans present and they had nothing to yell about. The roof was open Thursday, which allows noise to escape into the night. But mainly, the LCS commands high ticket prices, and rich folk aren’t built for whoopin’ and hollerin’. One positive result of corporate-funded fans super-glued to their seats: no wave.

The series has provided sports talk radio with a hot topic: should the Astros drop Altuve from the leadoff spot in the batting order? True, Altuve is mired in a historic slump in the post-season. But Altuve could take a collar the rest of the LCS, it wouldn’t matter. Don’t forget who the Astros manager is, and why he was hired. Dusty Baker exudes calm confidence in his players. Altuve could go up to the plate with a Wiffle Ball bat and Dusty wouldn’t demote him.

Prediction: I can’t see the LCS going more than five games. Since the LCS isn’t coming back to Minute Maid Park, here’s a tip for fans attending the World Series at Minute Maid Park. Get there early. I got to the stadium at 5:30 p.m. for the 6:37 start Wednesday and walked in without a wait at the home plate entrance. The concession stands had no lines, either. By first pitch, I was fed, rested and ready for baseball.

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Can Hunter Brown replace an Astros legend like Peña did? Composite image by Brandon Strange.

It’s official. Justin Verlander’s time with the Houston Astros has come to an end after he agreed to a two-year, $86.7 million deal to be the newest pitcher for the New York Mets.

Now with the 39-year-old, soon to be 40-year-old, in a different shade of blue and orange, Houston’s starting pitching rotation has completely turned over a new leaf. What exactly is next for the group?

Verlander, who joined the Astros at the last hour in 2017, helped lead Houston to two World Series championships, and he was a key figure in the organization during his tenure. His latest season, coming off Tommy John Surgery, was nothing short of sensational.

He won his third AL Cy Young award by unanimous vote. He led Houston with a 1.75 ERA, a WHIP of 0.83, and an 18-4 record in his starts. In the postseason, Verlander’s run was filled with more ups and downs, but he also accomplished new accolades, including getting his first career win in the World Series in the pivotal Game Five. Replacing his production will be a tough task.

The Astros, overall, are in great position with their starting rotation. Framber Valdez presumably slides in as the new No. 1, although he is in arbitration with the team. The same goes with Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidy, all of whom showed they can start, and who are also in arbitration or close to entering it.

Lance McCullers Jr. is the only starting pitcher with a long-term deal in place as of now, however, his health and ability to stay on the mound for Houston has been a long-time concern. The name that is interesting for the Astros is Hunter Brown.

The 24-year-old appeared in 10 games for the Astros in 2022, including three in the postseason. Coincidentally, Houston won every game in which he made an appearance. In the short sample size, Brown pitched in only 20.1 innings with a 0.89 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and a 2-0 record in the regular season.

Most importantly, Brown showed flashes of brilliance in the postseason. The most noteworthy performance came in Game Three of the American League Divisional Series against the Seattle Mariners.

With no room for error, the young pitcher came into a scoreless game knowing that one swing of the bat could hand Houston a loss. He not only managed to control the nerves in front of a hostile crowd that hadn’t seen a postseason game in over 20 years, and he pitched two scoreless innings, only allowing one hit.

Again, only a short resumé, but impressive nonetheless. Brown should have a rotation spot secured. Ultimately, the Astros need to see if his flashes were previews of a young, bright career. Best-case scenario, Brown could become the 2023 version of Jeremy Peña, which would be incredible for the Astros.

Owner Jim Crane said a week ago during José Abreu’s introduction news conference, Houston can never have enough pitching. The Astros could kick the tires on available free agents.

With the Astros saving $43 million in 2023 had they matched the Mets’ offer for Verlander, and Crane also saying the biggest needs were an outfield player and a catcher, it would not make sense for Houston to spend big on another pitcher, especially one that would be fourth or fifth in the rotation.

However, it would make sense to bring one on a budget, with the promise of competing for another championship.

Some names worth taking a look at could be Nathan Eovaldi, who is from Houston, Noah Syndergaard, who the Astros saw in the World Series, and Corey Kluber. All three pitchers had an ERA of 4.34 or less in the 2022 season, and according to Sportico, are anticipated to have a market value less than $17 million, which also offers the Astros flexibility to improve other positions.

What the Astros do, only Crane, and probably Jeff Bagwell, know. One thing is for sure, regardless if a new face is brought in or not, Brown deserves a spot in Houston’s 2023 starting rotation.

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