HOUSTON — Masahiro Tanaka had his worst performance of the season against the Astros on Derek Jeter Night in the Bronx, when he allowed four homers while failing to get out of the second inning.
Yet Joe Girardi and the Yankees are giving Tanaka the ball in Game 1 of the ALCS on Friday, not concerning themselves with his favorable home (3.22 ERA in regular season) vs. road (6.48) splits this time around — and essentially picking him on regular rest over Sonny Gray, who had three bad starts in his last four outings.
Gray lasted just 3.1 innings in Game 1 of the ALDS.
Luis Severino, who posted Corey Kluber-like playoff numbers against the ‘Stros in two starts during the year — 7.2 IP, 15 H, 9 R — will go in Game 2. Houston will counter with Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander in the first two games of the series.
Big Game CC Sabathia, who didn’t face Houston in 2017, will go in Game 3.
Gray, who surrendered five runs on seven hits over five innings against the Astros on June 20 when he was with Oakland, will ultimately go 12 days between starts when he gets the ball in Game 4.
The commonality here is this: none of these guys pitched well when facing Houston’s complete and potent lineup, which features the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer, and led the majors in runs scored. The ‘Stros hit a ton of homers, while avoiding strikeouts.
But Girardi is understandably opting to lean on the recent successes of both Tanaka (22 strikeouts in his last two starts, both at home) and Severino (21 outs in the ALDS vs. one in the AL wild-card game) rather than go with Gray, who Brian Cashman dealt for at the trade deadline in exchange for prospects James Kaprielian, Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler.
“Just going into the big game (Friday), you don’t want to sort of have that negative feeling,” Tanaka said when asked about his earlier debacle vs. Houston. “So to be honest, its’ not something I really want to get into. But what I can say is that I feel like a different pitcher from that particular game.”
To stay sharp, Gray threw a three-inning simulated game on Thursday, facing Matt Holliday and Ronald Torreyes. And Girardi likes the idea of Tanaka getting a chance to potentially start Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, if necessary.
Of course, when Tanaka’s splitter-slider combo is on, he can be as tough to hit as anyone. But he’s also been extremely inconsistent.
Still, Gray hasn’t performed well himself, trying to be too fine while struggling with walks and mistake pitches that turn into homers.
“We just talked about who’s thrown well, how their stuff kind of sets up, and we decided to go this way,” Girardi said. “Obviously when you look at the splits for this (Astros) club, it really doesn’t matter. They hit righties the same as lefties. So we decided to go this way just based on what’s been going on the last month of the regular season and the playoffs so far, and go from there.”
The Bombers will likely need their high-octane bullpen just as much in this series as they did against the Indians. The group was pushed to the limit, but managed to excel at the same time.
Aroldis Chapman hasn’t allowed a run since August (18.2 IP, 30 K, 8 SV over that span), while White Sox imports David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle have joined the $86 million closer in recording huge outs during multi-inning postseason appearances. Chad Green, who hasn’t pitched since Game 2, could also play a huge role.
“I think our bullpen is really important, but that’s kind of been our formula for a good portion for the year anyway,” Girardi said. “Our starters have done a lot better than people give them credit for. But this is a very dangerous lineup, and we didn’t have a lot of success against Cleveland during the regular season but we pitched better during the playoffs, and you hope that holds true here.”