HOUSTON – There are no more dual-purpose trash cans around here. No banging, either, except for the unmistakable sound of bat meeting ball.
These 2022 Astros can hit, they can pitch, and they can play. And fairly, they are no more than distant cousins to the famous / infamous (depending on your point of view) World Series champion 2017 Astros club best known for signaling pitches via trash-can cacophony.
One result of that regrettable episode is that fans here have unusual trouble telling heroes from the villains. They loudly boo Aaron Judge, the newly crowned AL all-time single-season home run champ and great all-around guy who has no known association with garbage.
One particular orange-clad fellow here was seen screaming at the press box both pregame and postgame, and while generally incoherent, the message seemed to be: lay off our Astros you mean New York press corps.
The fellow was either inebriated early or about 51 cards short of a full deck, but I can’t say I completely disagree. No cheating is needed. This is one helluva team.
“The most complete team in baseball,” one MLB scout called these Astros.
Who would argue?
They won 107 games this season. “106,” Astros general manager James Click corrected me. He is an analytics guy after all, so I’ll take his word of him.
Either way, 107 or 106, this looks like the best team remaining in this derby, and the Astros provided another reminder of that in Game 1 of the ALCS, beating the Yankees 4-2 behind all-time great right-hander Justin Verlander and three solo home runs. Verlander had his slider and curve working, he hit spots with his heater and he confounded the Yankees. It felt to Matt Carpenter that Verlander guessed the exact Yankees’ game plan, and did the opposite. “It’s what the great ones do.”
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Now, as Joel Sherman reminded me, this was a “steal game,” meaning the Yankees understood going in that it was a bit of a long shot for solid No. 4 starter Jameson Taillon, a Houston product, to beat multiple Cy Young winner Verlander, but if they did it would be a nice bonus. Besides, stealing from the Astros seems only fair at this point.
But I get it. The pitching matchup favored the Astros.
The problem is, a lot favors the Astros. They are just that good.
“They’re a good team. But so are we, ”said Taillon after he got through 4 ¹ / ₃ innings and left tied with the great Verlander.
Defiance can work as a defense. The problem is, we’ve seen this all before.
In that infamous 2017 season, the Astros were just a bit better, though that year needed an asterisk (remember, this is for a New York paper). The Astros were just a bit better in 2015, and in 2019, too. Which is where the story gets murky.
The Yankees detest the Astros for rigging the 2017 season. But the explanation for the other years is much simpler: the Astros are supremely talented. Same as now.
Aaron Judge, Harrison Bader and Giancarlo Stanton all provided big moments. Which should come as no surprise.
Bader, the kid from Bronxville and Horace Mann who was mainly a defensive specialist and speed guy with the Cardinals, became the first Yankee to homer four times in his first six games in pinstripes and is looking almost like Reggie Jackson, who incidentally is here as an Astros executive.
I couldn’t blame anyone for hiring Reggie, who’s not only a Hall of Fame ballplayer but good luck charm. He went five for five in World Series, winning even the one he missed due to injury.
It isn’t certain the Astros need a lucky charm any more than they need to tilt the game their way anymore. Anyway, all the masterminds from that awful episode are gone, and only a handful of players remain, including Jose Altuve, who requested not to get the trashy signs.
Speaking of Altuve, when he wakes up, they will really be something. He is 0-for-the-playoffs thus far, and looking even worse. So when he gets to The Bronx for Game 3, don’t boo him like usual if you want him to continue sleepwalking through October. I think the odds of this are low as I already heard Yankees fans warming up to do so, chanting, “[Bleep] Altuve, ”after the Yankees dispatched the Guardians, a non sequitur if I’ve ever heard one.
Anyway, the Astros don’t even need Altuve. In Game 1, Yuli Gurriel, Chas McCormick and Jeremy Pena all hit solo home runs, and Verlander struck out 11 in six innings of one-run ball. The biggest hitting stars were mostly shut down, thanks to superman Judge’s diving catch to save a run or two on an Alex Bregman liner into the right-center field gap.
The Yankees made some great plays, and had some special moments. But it’ll take their best effort, a full nine innings of their A game to beat this Astros team that looks for today like the logical choice to go all the way.