Series Preview: Yankees @ Astros

After taking two of three from the NL West leading San Francisco Giants, and completing a 6-4 homestand coming out of the All-Star Break, the Yankees hit the road against the surging Houston Astros for a three game set starting on Monday night. Going into Monday’s action, the Yankees have six games remaining before the MLB non-waiver trade deadline and remain 4.5 games out of a wild card playoff spot. The front office pulled the trigger on an Aroldis Chapman trade today, but it still remains to be seen whether they commit to being buyers or sellers, and the impact that this week’s games will have on that decision. The Yankees took two of three from the Astros back in April to open the season. Houston comes into this series one of the hottest teams in baseball, having won 37 of their last 53 games, and sweeping the Los Angeles Angels over the weekend.

Game One (Monday July 25 at 8:10 PM ET)
Michael Pineda (4-9, 5.25 ERA) vs. Dallas Keuchel (6-9, 4.70 ERA)
Michael Pineda looks to build off of a strong start vs. the Orioles on Wednesday when he pitched sox shutout innings. After a very strong June, where Pineda gave up just 11 ER over 36 IP (2.75 ERA), Pineda struggled in his first two starts in July before his strong outing on Wednesday.  Consistency between and within starts has plagued Pineda all season long. His career numbers vs. the Astros are not promising. In four starts, Pineda is 1-2 with a 5.79 ERA. Carlos Correa owns the Yankees right-hander (like many other pitchers) in his young career, posting an .833 average (5-6) with two home runs and two doubles. Meanwhile, the Yankees can’t seem to avoid Dallas Keuchel anytime they play against the Astros. His sensational numbers against the Bombers are no secret.. In four starts, Keuchel is 3-1, with a 1.45 ERA and two complete games. While Keuchel’s numbers overall don’t look as good as his Cy Young potential that he showed last season, much of that is from his struggles in April and May. In his last six starts, Keuchel is 3-0, and has given up just 12 ER in 38.2 IP - all quality starts for the left-hander. Carlos Beltran is the lone regular in the Yankees lineup with good numbers against Keuchel - a .412 average in 12 at bats with one home run.

Game Two (Tuesday July 26 at 8:10 PM ET)
C.C. Sabathia (5-8, 4.04 ERA) vs. Doug Fister (10-6, 3.42 ERA)
C.C. Sabathia looks to turn around what has become an extended slump in the second game of the series. It has been a roller-coaster season for Sabathia. Through June 16th (his last win), he was one of the top pitchers in baseball, and arguably the best pitcher in the Yankees rotation. Since that time, his ERA has risen from 2.20 to 4.04 over six starts. Sabathia showed signs of improvement in his last start, giving up four runs in 6.2 innings. The last two runs came in the seventh inning, when he ran out of gas, and the Yankees had a short bullpen without the services of No-Runs-DMC. Doug Fister has had a very strong season for the Astros, after signing a one year deal in January. After a slow start in April, the team has gone 12-3 over his past 15 starts. Fister has struggled at times vs. the Yankees in his career - posting a 2-2 record in five career starts with a 5.22 ERA and .311 BAA.  Jacoby Ellsbury is 3-8, with two doubles and three walks against Fister.

Game Three (Wednesday July 27 at 8:10 PM ET)
Masahiro Tanaka (7-2, 3.00 ERA) vs. Lance McCullers (5-4, 3.33 ERA)
Yankees staff-ace Masahiro Tanaka takes the hill in the final game of the series. Tanaka comes off another strong performance, with six shutout innings in his last start vs. San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner on Friday night. This outing was particularly noteworthy as it was on normal rest, where Tanaka has struggled compared to when the Yankees can get him an extra day. With no off days, Tanaka will be on normal rest vs. the Astros as well.  The Yankees have won Tanaka’s last seven starts, and in July, the right-hander is 2-0, with a 1.48 ERA, giving up just four ER in 24.1 IP. Carlos Correa is 3-6, with two HRs and four RBIs vs. Tanaka in his career. Houston counters with 22-year-old Lance McCullers, who started the season on the DL with a sore shoulder. His numbers have only gotten better since he joined the team in mid-May, as his ERA has declined from 4.79 in May to 3.20 in June to 2.22 in July. He turned in arguably his best start of the season on Friday against the Angels, giving up just 1 run in 8 innings, with 10 Ks. Control has been an issue for McCullers at times this season. He has walked 42 batters in 70.1 IP, or 5.4 walks per nine innings pitched.
Photo Credit: Mike Stobe | Getty Images
Players to Watch for the Yankees:
In the lineup, the two obvious players to keep watching are Carlos Beltran and Didi Gregorius. Below are three other developing stories to watch this week (some more under the radar than others):
  1. Andrew Miller: With the recent trade of Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller is back into his role as the closer of the New York Yankees - for now. This is a role that Miller thrived in last season winning the Mariano Rivera award, given to the American League's best reliever. In his time with the Yankees, he has converted 43 of 47 save attempts. Miller himself has also been subject to trade talks with the Indians, Nationals and Rangers, among other potential suitors. With two years remaining on his four year deal, the return on Miller is going to be astronomically high, as it should be. The Yankees getting top prospects for a rental reliever in Chapman drives up Miller's value even more, and it is why the Yankees will now focus on fielding offers for their other dominant lefty, looking for a king's ransom in order to deal him.
  2. Chad Green: It’s no secret the Yankee bullpen beyond No-Runs DMC leaves a lot to be desired. Since returning to the major leagues, Chad Green could be crafting a role for himself as a fourth reliable pitcher for Girardi to turn to in relief. On Sunday, for the second time this week, Green pitched 2.1 innings of scoreless relief. While he likely won’t be available on Monday, it will be interesting to see what role Green plays later in the series. Given how strong Masahiro Tanaka is with extra rest, it is not completely out of the realm of possibility (though very unlikely at this point) that Green would start Wednesday’s game, pushing Tanaka’s start back to the Rays on Friday.
    Photo Credit: Paul J. Bereswill
  3. Mark Teixeira: Teixeira hit a solo home run on Sunday vs. the Giants, but has continued to struggle to see his numbers improve. For the season, the Yankee first baseman is hitting .188, with nine home runs and 23 RBIs. Recently, Tex has shown no signs of coming out of his season-long slump, going 2-11 in his last seven games and 9-51 in July. Teixeira may be running out of time to turn it around, and doesn’t have great numbers vs. Dallas Keuchel (2-10) or Doug Fister (3-12). If the Yankees were to become sellers at the trade deadline, it will be interesting to see if Girardi keeps running Teixeira out there everyday, or gives youngsters like Rob Refsnyder more at bats down the stretch. This is one of many decisions that hinges on the decisions the Yankees front office will be making this week.
Players to Watch for the Astros:
  1. Alex Bregman: Astros Manager A.J. Hinch announced right after Sunday’s win that the team was promoting top prospect Alex Bregman to make his major league debut against the Yankees on Monday. Bregman was the second overall pick in the 2015 draft, and ESPN’s number one minor league prospect in their midseason rankings. He has posted monster numbers in the minor leagues this season. At Double-A Corpus Christi, Bregman hit .297/.415/.559 with 14 home runs and 46 RBIs in 62 games. His numbers only got better at AAA Fresno, where he hit .356/.397/.685 with six home runs and 15 RBIs in 17 games. Hinch has indicated Bregman would be getting playing time both at third base and left field.
    Photo Credit: Lenny Ignelzi | AP
  2. Jose Altuve: Altuve is having a MVP-caliber season with impressive numbers across all dimensions. He leads the major leagues with a .360 average, and has 17 home runs (a career high already), 60 RBIs, 75 runs scored, and 25 steals (AL lead) through 98 games. Since the All-Star Break, Altuve is hitting .541 (20-37). He also comes into this series with decent numbers against the three Yankee starters, going a combined 6-17 (.352 average). Altuve is one of the hitters the Yankee pitchers will want to keep off the base paths if they want to win this series.
  3. Houston Bullpen: Though they don’t have the big names that the Yankees do, Houston leads the American League with a 3.08 bullpen ERA. The team has given up just 109 ER in 318.1 IP. The key names to remember: Will Harris (Closer, 10/11 in saves, with a 1.76 ERA), Chris Devenski (0-2, 2.27 ERA), and Scott Feldman (5-3, 2.40 ERA). When you combine the team’s starting pitching with this bullpen, it is clear the Yankees will likely need to win some low scoring games in this series. In case you’re wondering, the Yankees bullpen is 4th in the AL (quite an accomplishment when you consider the poor middle relief pitching), with a 3.48 bullpen ERA.

This is in many ways the best time for the Yankees to be playing the hottest team in baseball over the past two months. Manager Joe Girardi and several Yankees players have been vocal about their desire to “fight” and not break this team up. A strong performance versus a team like the Astros could be the only thing that would convince the front office to give the 2016 Yankees a shot at taking a run at the playoffs.

This is going to be a tough series for the Yankees as they face a team and three starting pitchers who are firing on all cylinders. Houston has a clear advantage in both Games 1 and 2. Keuchel’s dominance against the Yankees and recent dominance overall means the Yankees will need the dominant Pineda to show up - possible but hard to predict. In Game 2, give Doug Fister and his strong season the advantage over a struggling CC Sabathia. The Yankees should have a slight advantage in game 3 with Tanaka on the mound. However, we have seen the Yankees lineup struggle against young pitchers they have not seen before like Lance McCullers. It’s hard to see the path to winning this series for the Yanks, but they know what they have to do in this last ditch effort to save the season.

Article by: Omar Qureishi
Follow me on Twitter @OQureishi
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