By Jason Keidel
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As strange as it sounds, the Yankees should have come home with confidence.
Sure, they lost the first two games of the AL Championship Series, but it wasn’t your garden variety series deficit.
Unlike the Red Sox, who were vaporized by the Astros (outscored 16-4) in the first two games of the Division Series, the Yankees took everything Houston had, including two Cy Young winners in Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, and lost both games, 2-1.
The Yanks were also down 2-0 to arguably a better club, the Cleveland Indians, and won three straight. So why not now?
Perhaps the Astros will prove to be the better team by winning the series, but nothing has happened so far to suggest the Yankees can’t pull off this comeback as well. The Yanks morphed back into the Bombers on Monday night, with three-run bombs from Todd Frazier and Aaron Judge. They have outscored the Astros, 10-5, through three games. They’ve also outhit the Astros, 17-15.
And they have CC Sabathia, who’s either sipping, gulping, or bathing in a secret sauce, a fountain of youth unavailable to his peers. You already know Sabathia entered Game 3 with a 9-0 record (1.83 ERA) following a Yankees loss this season. Make that 10-0, and add the first scoreless playoff outing of his career, if you can believe that.
The 37-year-old lefty has incredibly mutated into the team’s postseason ace, and is pitching with the kind of fun and low-key dominance that has inspired his teammates all season.
Not to compare them at their absolute best, but it’s not absurd to say Sabathia has remolded his game much the way Pedro Martinez did when he came to the Mets. Both were fireballing strikeout artists in their respective primes, but eventually mastered their craft and their understanding of hitters so well they were able to keep any lineup off balance as long as they had decent stuff.
This October has also doubled as an audition for Sabathia, whom we assumed would either retire or pitch out of some swollen bullpen next year. But now it’s not crazy to think Sabathia will be an essential member of the Yankees’ staff in 2018. Considering where he was not long ago — in rehab while his reputation as a teammate and legacy as a big-game pitcher were being pulled apart — Sabathia is perhaps the comeback story of the year.
Consider also that the Yanks had no elbow room in the ALDS, where one more loss would have sent them on a five-month hiatus. They are now playing with more mojo and latitude against a club that still hasn’t scored more than two runs in any game in the series. And remember, the Astros had the best offense in the sport during the regular season. They scored the most runs (896). Just remember, the Yankees were second in runs (858) and actually beat the Astros in run differential (198 to 196).
It’s silly to suggest the Yankees have the overall edge, especially when you consider that Keuchel and Verlander will take the mound again if the series lasts long enough. But it’s quite fair to say a win Tuesday — is anyone betting against it? — and the Yankees will have all manner of momentum entering Game 5. And a victory Tuesday will assure us that the series returns to Houston.
And maybe we can jump off Joe Girardi’s back for a day or two. Even by Gotham’s relentless standards, we wore G.I. Joe out over his managerial moves against Cleveland. And the Yanks still won that series. As far as we know, New York’s skipper has done no wrong through three games of the ALCS, and is three wins from taking the most unlikely of Yankee teams to the World Series.
Love or loathe the Yankees, they fit the contemporary template for winning baseball — home run power and a bottomless bullpen. Though they were up 8-0 by the middle of Monday’s game, by the time Girardi tapped the first reliever, any lead would have been cozy for that conga line of flame-throwing arms at his disposal.
And as we woke up to a frosty morning in the Big Apple, you have to think that the Astros can’t wait to ditch the long sleeves and brown leaves of the Northeast and get back to the comforting heat of Houston.
And perhaps the Yanks will go home with them, with the series lead.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel