Dangerous curves

Anthony Rizzo

Anthony Rizzo’s Game One home run is the only Yankee run to come home off a fastball so far this ALCS. The Astros are breaking them—a diet of breaking balls they can’t seem to hit, that is.

I don’t have a dog in the American League Championship Series hunt. I tend to admire individual Yankees and Astros and not to root for either team. As a personal preference, and in spite of Commissioner Rube Goldberg’s less-than-the-very-best-people postseason construction, the National League Championship Series tangling between the Phillies and the Padres is just a little more fun.

Not just yes but hell yes: I enjoyed seeing Aaron Judge smashing a 62-year-old American League single-season home run record. I enjoy every time I watched mighty mite Jose Altuve at the plate, especially knowing Altuve really was one of the few Astros who actually didn’t want any Astro Intelligence Agency-pilfered signs banged his way when he was at the plate.

And it’s still a kick seeing Justin Verlander defy his age (he’s Jack Benny’s age at this writing), pitching into the Cy Young Award conversation this season, then opening this ALCS by turning the far younger Yankees into his personal lab experiments in Game One. That, folks, is what a Hall of Famer does when he’s staring into Yankee eyes from the mound.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking merely that the Astros hit better than the Yankees to take their 2-0 ALCS advantage. The Astros can hit. They’ve been able to hit like F-15s or Stealth bombers since the first time they dispatched the Yankees from a postseason five years ago. Even the best pitchers in the business know they’re in for a fight when someone in Astro silks checks in at the plate

(Want to know one reason why Astrogate and the team’s largely, apologetically non-apologetic replies pissed people outside Houston off? Because we knew good and damn well they didn’t need an illegally installed closed-circuit television network and a front-office-down intelligence agency’s black-bag job stealing signs to do it. Those teams and this Astro team could turn seaweed into base hits and clumps of weeds into interstellar orbiting satellites.)

But here’s a bulletin for you. These Astros are also pitching the Yankees to death. That formidable Yankee offense has been manna to an Astro pitching staff whose mantra seems to be not just throw your best stuff as often as you can throw it but, also, those guys are vulnerable to curves, whether they’re on beautiful women or on the pitches coming out of your hands.

Several analyses I’ve seen indicate that this year’s Yankees will turn fastballs into powder but breaking balls will turn them to jelly by comparison. They hit .252/.357/.482 when seeing fastballs coming up to the plate but .221/.282/.401 when seeing breakers, whether curve balls, sliders, cutters, or changeups.

Don’t be shocked if there’s a sign in the Yankee Stadium home clubhouse before Game Three, a yellow diamond sign advising, “Dangerous curves ahead.”

Verlander threw breakers over half the time in Game One. Framber Valdez barely showed them any heat in Game Two; his repertoire for the evening consisted almost entirely of either “Dead Man’s Curve” or “Slip Slidin’ Away.” His relief (Brayan Abreu, Ryan Pressly) threw a combined 41 pitches and 36 were breaking balls. (Pressly threw 21 breakers including changeups out of 22 pitches closing the game out.)

The Yankees scored twice in each game. You’d think they’d catch the hints. Both RBI hits in Game Two (both in the fourth inning, too) came when the batters (Anthony Rizzo, run-scoring ground out; Gleyber Torres, beating out an infield grounder for a base hit) put breaking balls into play. In Game One, one of the two Yankee runs came likewise: Harrison Bader hitting a slider over the left center field fence in the top of the second.

Rizzo caught hold of a rising full-count fastball in the top of the eighth and pulled it into the right field seats. That’s only one of the four Yankee runs in the ALCS so far coming when the batter got himself a fastball to hit, and only one of the three Yankee plate appearances resulting in a run coming home involved contact with a breaking ball—and two of those came on contact soft enough.

Unless they want to see nothing but a diet of breakers—and unless that generous menu portion of breaking balls starts taking tolls on even well-seasoned Astro arms—the Yankees’ survival in this ALCS just may depend long term on whether they quit offering at every one thrown their way, force the Astros to show them the heat that matters most to them, or figure how to make contact with the breakers that can begin by getting more balls past the infield.

If they don’t, all these Astros have to do to keep these Yankees from doing damage is to send Jayne Mansfield’s corpse into their sights.

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