Late Saturday night, after the Yankees and Astros both took a 2-0 lead in their divisional series (against the Twins and Rays, respectively), I tried to pinpoint the exact moment when each series was capital-O Over. Sure, as I write this on Sunday afternoon, neither series is technically "over" yet, but they're Over all the same...and everyone knows it.
For the Yankees, it wasn't a difficult question. They came into the series with 10 straight playoff wins against Minnesota dating back to god knows when, and the postseason relationship between the teams had practically become abusive. With the Yankees holding homefield edge in the five-game series, the Twins clearly needed to get the road split and avoid heading back home down 0-2. They lost game one, and hope was finally drained empty in game two, in the third inning, when Didi Gregorius hit a grand slam home run to make it 7-0 Yankees. Considering the strength of the Yankee bullpen, and with the starter Tanaka looking strong, that made it impossible for the Twins to win that game, and going down 0-2 made it impossible for them to win the series. Didi's Saturday blast was the end—it was Over.
As for the Astros against the Rays, that series was also Over on Saturday...except it was the previous Saturday. Two games before the end of the regular season, the Astros clinched the best record in the American League, which meant they'd play the winner of the Wild Card game in the first round, which meant they'd get to line up their three stud aces—Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke—against a team that had already been forced to use their own ace in an elimination game. The moment they set themselves up for that scenario, it was mission impossible for the Rays or A's. Even before the Astros knew their opponent, it was already Over. That's how good they are.
As a Yankee fan, I desperately wanted the Astros to lose their ALDS series, though I knew they wouldn't. They terrify me, and I'm correct to be terrified. But as a baseball fan, I'm secretly thrilled that we're getting Yanks-Astros. I wrote six weeks ago that a Dodgers-Yankees World Series would be incredibly fun and exciting, but the truth is that the match-up we're about to see in the ALCS is the better baseball spectacle.
First, it's a terrific clash of styles. The Yankees are built on two pillars, and those pillars are power hitting and a shutdown bullpen. The Astros, meanwhile...well, I was going to say that they're built on starting pitching, and it's true that between the three aces mentioned above (two of whom were reanimated from zombie states by the dark wizards of the Astros system) they're set up for the postseason better than any other team in baseball. But here's the thing—they're also terrific offensively, with power hitters and pesky hitters co-existing in the same lineup and sometimes in the same body. Stars like Jose Altuve and Yuri Gurriel and Alex Bregman and George Springer are a manager's dream for the way they crush the ball while still hitting for average. If there's a weakness—and it's a very, very slight one—it's the bullpen. Beyond that, though, this is practically a perfect baseball team, custom designed for the playoffs when the front half of the starting rotation takes on heightened importance.
The Astros are absolutely the best team in baseball, and should be favored against the Yankees, but with the sheer power of the Yankee lineup, the match-up is still so, so intriguing. If there's any team that can bust through the starting pitching of the Astros, get them deep into pitch counts, and force the game to be decided in the late innings, it's the Yankees. And their starting pitching, while nowhere near the Astros' level, has suddenly rounded into something like solid form just in time for the playoffs, bolstered especially by the return of Luis Severino. If there's a formula for a Yankee victory, it's "survive the Astros starters, sneak in a few early runs, hope that a floundering Gary Sanchez doesn't come up in too many big situations, pray that your own starters can make it five innings, and then lean heavily on the pen and try to steal a game or two late."
It's not easy, but it's possible, and if you believe that styles make fights, the contrasts between these two great teams promise to yield a spectacular series. It's a battle we've been expecting and awaiting all year, and it's finally imminent. I can't wait.
The Wild Disappointment of the Week: Manchester City
It was supposed to be a two-horse race for the EPL title this season, and it still might be, I guess. But Manchester City, the powerhouse who won a domestic treble last year (Premier League + FA Cup + League Cup), has basically crapped the ol' bed through ten matches in 2019. Their 5-1-2 record might look good on paper, but in the lopsided top level of English soccer, you need to be better than that. It's especially crazy because of those two losses, the first came against lowly Norwich City at home, and the second happened on Sunday, again at home, against Wolverhampton. These are not top six opponents, folks. These are minnows.
Watch this, 80 minutes into a scoreless match:
That's not supposed to happen to Manchester City on their own ground against a mid-table foe! At this point, with Liverpool 8-0-0 and leading by eight points, City's chance to actually come back and win is in serious jeopardy. It's not Over yet, mind you—the year's too long for that—but it doesn't look great.
The Anti-Koufax of the Week: Clayton Kershaw
Back to baseball to conclude, where I ask the question: Is it now basically safe to say that Clayton Kershaw is a...choker? This is a guy with a career 2.44 ERA, but in the postseason, that number jumps up to 4.33. Even that doesn't tell the whole story—look at his playoff game log, and of 25 postseason starts, even a generous interpretation can only credit him with having 13 "good" starts. Like I said, that's generous—that's crediting him with a few efforts that are barely above mediocre (he's had an ERA under 3.00 for individual games just eight times in those 25 starts, and he's been under a 4.00 ERA just 13 times in 25 starts.)
Friday night in L.A., he was up to his old tricks, looking very mortal in a Dodgers loss to the Nationals. He's clearly no Koufax, but the Dodgers have needed him to be at least somewhat close to his regular season form. They've made the playoffs for seven straight years, but have only reached two World Series and haven't won any. That lack of postseason success is at least partly down to Kershaw, who has never been the October ace that his three Cy Youngs and his MVP would predict.