After playing 162 games this season, the New York Yankees and Houston Astros have one chance to earn a spot in the ALDS. The two teams are set to meet in the Bronx on Tuesday night in the AL Wild-Card Game for the right to face the Kansas City Royals in the next round.
New York earned home-field advantage by going 87-75, finishing one game ahead of Houston. But the Astros have the biggest advantage in the contest, putting perhaps the AL's best starter this year on the mound in their most important game of the season.
Dallas Keuchel gets the call for the Astros, coming off a potential Cy Young season. The 27-year-old led the AL with 20 wins, and his 2.48 earned-run average ranked second in the league. Keuchel makes the start on three days’ rest for the first time in his career, having thrown 99 pitches on Friday when he earned his 20th victory of 2015.
The Yankees know better than anyone that Keuchel is one of baseball's best pitchers. In two starts, he’s been dominant against New York, tossing 16 scoreless innings. He shut the Yankees out in Houston on June 25, striking out 12 batters in a complete-game effort. Exactly two months later, Keuchel was just as good at Yankee Stadium, allowing no runs over seven innings of work, striking out nine and surrendering only three hits.
Only the Toronto Blue Jays scored more runs than New York this season, but the Yankees’ offense has struggled of late. The team hasn’t scored more than five runs in over a week, and they are averaging just 3.3 runs per game over their last 12 games.
Manager Joe Girardi focused on resting some of his players in the last week, and the Yankees haven’t played their best baseball ahead of the playoffs. They’ve lost six of their last seven games, and needed Houston to lose on Sunday in order to clinch home-field advantage in the wild-card game, something that appeared to be all but a guarantee last week.
Having “backed in” to the postseason, New York’s top players are not performing like they once did. Brett Gardner, one of the Yankees three All-Stars, hit .207 in September and is 2-14 in October. Alex Rodriguez has hit just two home runs since Sept. 12, and Jacoby Ellsbury has three hits in his last 21 at-bats.
It may be up to ace right hander Masahiro Tanaka to match Keuchel. Tanaka went 12-7 this season with a 3.51 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP. The right-hander hasn’t been the dominant ace that he showed he could be when he made his MLB debut last season, but he’s been a model of consistency. September was his best month, pitching to a 3.06 ERA. In four of the five months that he’s pitched this year, Tanaka posted an ERA of 3.67 or better.
Tanaka struggled in his one start against Houston, allowing six runs in five innings in a New York victory. But he hasn’t allowed more than three earned runs in nine of his last 10 starts at Yankee Stadium, and Keuchel hasn’t been nearly as good on the road.
Having gone 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at home, Keuchel has a losing record and a 3.77 ERA away from Houston. No AL team was better at home this season than the Astros, who went 53-28 in Houston. But the Astros went just 33-48 on the road, and the Yankees are nine games over .500 in the Bronx.
The Astros have the head-to-head advantage this season, taking four of their seven games with the Yankees. Houston is a slight favorite at Las Vegas casinos, via vegasinsider.com. Their betting odds are -110, while New York has even odds to win.
With the Yankees’ bats struggling and Keuchel’s dominance against New York, the Astros are in a good position to keep their World Series hopes alive. As long as Houston can get some length out of their starter, the Yankees could go down quietly on Tuesday night.
Houston over New York, 4-1