ALCS turnaround shows Yankees' depth, quality

Oct 19, 2017 - 3:31 AM NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees didn't just send the Houston Astros home on the brink of elimination Wednesday night. They filled the air at Yankee Stadium with an almost palpable feeling of inevitability that the World Series is coming back to the Bronx.

New York's 5-0 win behind seven scoreless innings by Masahiro Tanaka in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series completed a three-day dismantling of Houston.

During that span, the high-powered offense that carried the Astros to 101 wins this season was absent, their relief pitching was exposed to be a weakness and their Yankee-killer, ace Dallas Keuchel, was finally laid low.

Yes, when the series returns to Houston on Friday, the Astros will have Justin Verlander pitching as a bulwark against this rising Yankees tide. But right now the Yankees simply look like the better team. You see it in the long, grinding at-bats and the way the lineup feels as long as an assembly line. And you see it in how effective every pitcher has been.

Even with Verlander pitching in Game 6, trying to equal his complete-game effort against the Yanks in Game 2, it's hard to image Houston ultimately won't be hurt by the issues New York exposed this week.

"(In) the playoffs ... if they get you to crack a little bit on your game plan, then they've got you," Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. "We haven't stayed in our game plan quite well enough (or) made adjustments."

Houston averaged a whopping 5.5 runs per game this season, but the offense has been whisper quiet in the ALCS. The Astros have nine runs in the five games with a .147 team batting average.

"Coming in, their bullpen was so much more heralded than the starting rotation, and the starters have really stepped up against us," Hinch said. "We've lost a little bit of our offensive adjustments and a little bit of our offensive mojo. And some of that is the anxiety that gets created around at-bats."

There is good reason for the anxiety. The Astros haven't gone through an offensive drought like this. Only once in the regular season did they fail to score more than two runs in three straight games. That has now happened in four out of five.

The series turned in New York's 6-4 win on Tuesday in Game 4, when the Astros blew a 4-0 lead in the seventh inning. Aaron Judge finally broke through against Lance McCullers Jr. with a home run, and then Hinch couldn't find a reliever in his bullpen who could turn off the assembly line. The Yankees hit all of the most-trusted relievers: Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove and closer Ken Giles.

The catalyst to the Yanks' offense was the re-emergence of Judge, Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird. All three struggled as New York lost the first two games of the series by 2-1 scores. They are all hitting now. Judge is batting .455 in the series with six RBIs. Sanchez drove in a total of five runs the past two games. Bird is hitting .308 in the series.

"They got hot again and away we go," Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier said. "The way we're playing right now is beautiful. I think we're going to be electric in two days. We've got Verlander, and we want a piece of him. We know what he did to us last time. We want to keep doing what we're doing and get him out of the game early."

Judge said, "We never lost our confidence. Our confidence is high. We're looking forward to the challenge of the next game. We feel like we have momentum. We fight to the last out."

The Yankees have Luis Severino for Game 6 and CC Sabathia lined up if there is a Game 7. Houston has managed only one run in 10 innings against that duo so far.

"I give our guys a lot of credit for how resilient they are," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "how they continue to fight and never give up and understand (to) take it one game at a time and don't panic."

That's exactly what Houston must try to do now against a club that is starting to look like the team of destiny. And the Astros may be feeling it like a python around the chest.

Speaking of Keuchel, Hinch said, "Once you get behind in the playoffs, you have to be pretty perfect -- or at least it feels that way."

And of the Yankees adding on runs in the fifth and seventh innings, he said, "You can feel the game shortening."

Looking to Friday, Hinch said, "The message to this team is going to be keep fighting the fight. This series isn't over."

He could be right, but after three days in New York, it sort of feels as if it is.

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