This is the night and the weekend series that could change everything, and start making the Yankees whole again. Yeah, you can say that about any night and any series in a six-month season. Nobody knows what might transform an indifferent baseball team into a fire-breathing contender, or if it will happen at all.
But Friday night’s 4-0 shutdown of the best offense in baseball — maybe even the best team in baseball — is a great place to start. Remember, the Astros denied the Yankees a trip to the World Series twice in the past four years. They were really good when they were cheating, and they are really good now that they have loaded their trash cans and surveillance equipment into storage.
And on their first trip back to Houston since Jose Altuve walked them off with his Game 6 homer off Aroldis Chapman in the 2019 ALCS, the Yankees silenced them and their crowd. Nestor Cortes, who has surrendered three earned runs in 25 ²/₃ innings this year, was the living, breathing definition of crafty before Lucas Luetge, Chad Green and Jonathan Loaisiga got it to the house.
Brett Gardner ripped a two-run double in the fourth, and DJ LeMahieu won a 10-pitch war with Bryan Abreu for a two-run double in the seventh, and that was that. The Yankees scored a small victory when they took a road series from Seattle after losing two of three to the Mets, but there was nothing small about this.
The Astros were 20 games over .500 and leading the majors in runs, hits, RBI, total bases, batting average, OPS, and runs per game. The Yankees, meanwhile, entered the series outside of MLB’s top 20 clubs in hits, runs, total bases, RBI, and runs per game, and were dead last in doubles and triples.
That’s why they need this weekend to put a few dents in the Houston machine. It’s pretty clear what the Yankees must do to become legit playoff contenders — start swinging the bats the way the Astros swing them.
Start making the kind of contact they made Friday night when they finished with 12 hits.
Before the game, the Yankees acknowledged this was not just another July series preceding the All-Star break.
“These games are big for us,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Obviously with us not playing … the way we expected to this first half of the season, to potentially finish on a high note on a tough … road trip would be big for us, and hopefully something that would galvanize us heading into the second half.”
Beating the Astros in their building would be significant. It would allow the Yankees to feel better about themselves going into the break, and coming out of the break. They need a surge of confidence now more than ever. Eight of their first 10 post-All-Star games are against the Red Sox, followed by three at Tampa Bay. As they say in the big leagues, good luck with that.
This series still revolves around the $324 million man in the middle, Saturday night starter Gerrit Cole, who will face former Astros teammate Zack Greinke. Cole’s homecoming unfolds at a most critical time. He has surrendered 14 hits and nine earned runs in his last eight innings, inspiring talk that he’s half the ace he used to be before the umps started doing strip searches on the field. Cole needs to rediscover or reinvent himself, and fast. He acknowledged that beating the Astros, for him, wouldn’t be about beating his former team.
“Obviously we have a good team that we’re playing against, somebody that the American League measures themselves against as the top of the league,” Cole said. “And ultimately, a team that if they continue to play well, we’ll have to overcome them in the postseason.”
We’ll have to overcome them in the postseason. Sounds like a man predicting that the Yankees will be in The Dance, despite the fact that they started the night nine games back in the division, and 4 ¹/₂ games back in the wild card.
The Yankees don’t have much of a history when it comes to overcoming Houston. In case they forgot, the Astros planned weekend fan giveaways that included replicas of their 2019 ALCS trophy, their 2019 ALCS rings, and Altuve’s white jersey. Ouch.
Boone called it “their prerogative.” He also called his last visit to Houston “one of the most heartbreaking things that I’ve been a part of. You have those scars that you carry with you.”
It’s high time for the Yankees to do some heartbreaking and scarring of their own. Friday night might have been a meaningful step in that direction.