HOUSTON — This is the third time in five years that the New York Yankees and Houston Astros have faced each other in the postseason, but Astros manager AJ Hinch knows you can’t think of the past as prelude.
Although some of the names are the same, Hinch considers this 2019 Yankees team an upgrade from the 2017 edition that Houston beat in an epic, seven-game American League Championship Series on its way to the first World Series title in franchise history.
“The Yankees have had something similar that has happened to us, in terms of just the maturation of a core group,” said Hinch, who managed both the 2017 Houston team and the group that beat the Yankees in the 2015 AL wild-card game. “Everybody will automatically go to [Aaron] Judge and the group in the middle of the order, but having added DJ LeMahieu, adding Gio Urshela, Gleyber Torres and the weapons they have in their bullpen, they’re just different. It feels like a stronger team.”
A stronger team? Here’s why you can take Hinch’s word for it.
‘The maturation of a core group’
The Yankees overcame a slew of injuries this season to win their first AL East title since 2012, and this time, they headed into October with a core of young players with their share of postseason experience.
All-Star outfielder Aaron Judge was fresh off a record-setting Rookie of the Year campaign when the Yankees and Astros met in the 2017 ALCS. That season, then-23-year-old right-hander Luis Severino — the scheduled starter for Game 3 of the 2019 ALCS — made his postseason debut. Gary Sanchez, who has developed into one of the premier power-hitting catchers in the game, also appeared in his first playoff action two seasons ago.
Torres, meanwhile, was rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and didn’t make his big league debut until 2018, when he got a taste of the postseason in the Yankees’ wild-card win over the Athletics and four-game ALDS loss to the Red Sox. He is now among the most dangerous hitters on the team, having helped sweep the Twins in the division series with three doubles, two stolen bases and a home run.
“Our young guys have matured a little bit, and they are simply better players than they were a year or two ago,” said veteran outfielder Brett Gardner, who along with CC Sabathia is one of two players remaining from the Yankees’ 2009 championship team.
“I’ve got a better feeling about this group of guys that we have,” Gardner said, comparing this year’s club to the on from 2017. “And we had a good regular season, even though we’ve dealt with a lot of adversity. We’ve got a pretty young roster, guys who have gotten to experience the postseason the last couple years.
“I think they’ve proven time and time again over the course of the season that not one moment was really too big for them. Overall, as a whole, we have a better team and a better lineup. Up and down, we have more depth, which has been tested throughout the season.”
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‘Having added DJ LeMahieu … ‘
The two American League powerhouses both have revamped lineups, but the Yankees’ infield has a whole new look compared to the ’17 squad. Instead of Greg Bird at first base, they have the team’s season-long MVP in LeMahieu (26 HRs, .327 AVG). If they decide to shift LeMahieu around the infield, power hitters Edwin Encarnacion (34 HRs) and Luke Voit (21 HRs) are possible alternatives.
As a replacement for veteran Starlin Castro, who was dealt to the Marlins for Giancarlo Stanton after the 2017 season, the Yankees fielded one of the top second basemen in the game in Torres. Torres is coming off an age-22 season in which he hit 38 home runs and made his second All-Star team.
At third base, the unheralded Urshela had a breakout season at the hot corner. Already known for his defense, Urshela, who turned 28 on Friday, had a career-best 21 home runs and 74 RBIs.
“We had a great team in 2017, but we have a lot more power now. With Gleyber, DJ, Urshela, it’s incredible what they have done this year for us,” said Sanchez, who hit a career-best 34 home runs this season. “That’s been the No. 1 difference for us this year. We had an awesome team back then, but now our power is incredible.”
‘The weapons they have in their bullpen’
No other bullpen boasts such a diverse collection of power arms.
“Our bullpen is certainly one of the major strengths of our club,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We have a lot of confidence in those guys down there. They know how important they are to what we do. And if we’re going to go far in this, they’re going to play a huge role.”
“This bullpen is great. One of the best ones I’ve ever seen,” said Sabathia, who has seen plenty of pens in his 19 major league seasons.
Said Severino: “Everybody knows we have one of the best bullpens in the majors. All the new acquisitions we have, that has made the difference. Of course we have a lot more power, and not only in hitting home runs but hitting for average. But when it comes to our bullpen, no one compares to our bullpen.”