Houston Astros shuffle the deck as they head to New York for epic clash with Yankees

Houston Astros Alex Bregman, Lance McCullers, Kyle Tucker
Lance McCullers will start in Game 4 instead of Game 3 of the ALCS. Composite image by Brandon Strange.
bregman mcculers tucker (1)

So is it over? It is not, but with the Astros up two games to none over the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, it would take a serious reversal of fortune for the Astros to not win their fourth AL pennant in six seasons. Historically, the team that takes a two-nothing lead in a baseball best-of-seven ultimately wins the series a tick over 84 percent of the time. That’s strong, but not a lock. What is clear is that the Astros are the better team. Not by miles and miles, but clearly better. It’s just that the form chart doesn’t always hold. If it does this time, to the unlimited delight of Astros fans, the Yankees and their fans will have to deal with the fact/misery that “the third time is the charm” is just an expression.

In the 2017 ALCS the Astros took a two wins to none lead to Yankee Stadium and got spanked in three straight games, mustering just six runs total over the three losses. In 2019, they went to the Bronx with the series tied at one win apiece and took the first two games before the Yankees beat Justin Verlander to force the series back to Houston. The Yankees taking game five turned out to be a wonderful thing for Houston sports history because had the Astros closed out the Yanks in the Bronx, Jose Altuve never hits his game six pennant winning homer at Minute Maid Park.

Calling an audible

Dusty Baker had to vary his pitching script with news that Lance McCullers sustained a cut elbow via champagne bottle in the post Division Series clubhouse celebration. That's a freak injury, but one more entry to Lance's health issues resume. So Saturday’s game three pitching matchup became a doozy with Cristian Javier bumped up to throw opposite Gerrit Cole. Of some Astro concern is that Javier has thrown just an inning and a third over the last nearly three weeks, of greater concern for the Yankees is that Javier owned them for seven innings with 13 strikeouts in the Astros' combined no-hitter at Yankee Stadium in June. The Yankees meanwhile pay Cole 36 mil per season to deliver in a spot like this.

McCullers is pushed back to game four with the Astros' hope it's a go for the kill opportunity. There is also a decent possibility of a rainout Sunday. Lance's career road performance record is not strong, but he’s coming off six brilliant innings in the marathon 1-0 18 inning clincher at Seattle. Lance missed the 2019 ALCS (and entire season) because of Tommy John surgery, but does have a career postseason start in Yankee Stadium to his name. A really good one. In 2017 ALCS game four Lance fired six innings of shutout ball before Aaron Judge touched him for a leadoff homer in the seventh. A.J. Hinch reasonably went to the bullpen, but the pen blew a 4-1 lead. The relievers who gave it up? Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove, and Ken Giles.

The Yankees go with left-hander Nestor Cortes in game four. Cortes has had a tremendous season. The Astros whipped up on left-handed starting pitching this season to the tune of a 42 wins 12 losses record.

Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!

So Sunday the Astros hope to be in the Bronx with brooms in hand and champagne on ice. The last time a team rolled into the World Series undefeated during that postseason was 2014 when the Royals did it. Kansas City first had to survive the Wild Card game, winning in 12 innings over Oakland. The Royals trailed 7-3 in the eighth inning. K.C. then swept the Angels 3-0 in the Division Series (Mike Trout’s only career playoff appearance) then skunked the Orioles four straight in the ALCS. Alas, the Royals then fell in the World Series in seven vs. the Giants. The Royals rebounded to win it all in 2015.

If the Astros don’t sweep, another decision looms for game five, with serious trickle down effects should a game six be necessary. Justin Verlander would seem the natural game five choice. He’d have four days rest. However, from July 1 on Verlander made only one start on four days rest. It happened to be the game he strained a calf muscle. If not JV, the ball would go to Luis Garcia. Would/should the decision be impacted by whether the Astros held a 3-1 series lead or things were level at two?

Should the series be extended back to Houston, there is no scheduled off day between games five and six. If Verlander went in game five, Framber Valdez is the game six starter. Then if there’s a seventh game it would be Luis Garcia, or Javier on three days rest, with everyone else available out of the pen. If game five is Garcia, Verlander would have five days rest ahead of game six with Framber in reserve for a game seven. As with game four and five plans for the Mariners, the Astros hope to render moot all long series pitching planning for the Yanks.

Regular season and the two games of this series included, in nine meetings the Yankees have scored more than three runs against the Astros just twice, more than two runs just three times. The Yankees outscored the Astros by 70 runs this season. Seems incomprehensible now. It’s not as if the Astros’ offense is going gangbusters. It’s only had one strong game in five this postseason. Jose Altuve is a stunning 0 for 23. Oh for twenty-three! And five games in the Astros are undefeated.

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Cristian Javier is in better shape this season. Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images.

As the Astros prepare to play their first game of spring training against the Nationals this Saturday, we're starting to see reports about how the players approached the offseason, and what tweaks they made to improve in the 2024 season.

Cristian Javier is a player Astros fans are hoping bounces back this year, as his ERA jumped from 2.54 in 2022 to 4.56 in 2023. Workload was thought to be one of the main factors causing his regression, he dealt with a dead arm last season and threw more innings than ever before (162).

Another explanation could be the pitch clock. This was another new element all pitchers had to deal with last year, and that also likely played a role in his struggles.

But according to The Athletic's Chandler Rome, Javier believes he was carrying some extra weight last season. Add that to some mechanical issues he was experiencing, and his struggles in 2023 make a lot more sense. And to be fair, he wouldn't be the first person to get a little fat and happy after winning a World Series.

In an effort to get back on track in 2024, Javier said he lost around 15 pounds this offseason. With the pitch clock not going anywhere, pitchers need to be in better cardiac shape than ever before.

Hopefully this modification helps Javier return to form and put up jaw-dropping numbers like he did in 2022. This rotation needs Javier to be the dominate pitcher we all know he's capable of being. With Justin Verlander behind schedule and Framber Valdez trying to bounce back from his own down year, Houston will depend on Javier like never before.

The Astros are certainly counting on it after giving him a 5-year, $64 million contract last season. Javier will definitely be a player to watch this spring.

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