MLB Playoffs: Execution the difference in Astros 2-0 ALCS lead over Yankees

Thanks largely to Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander, the Houston Astros own a 2-0 lead in the American League Championship Series. The ‘Stros walked off with a 2-1 win in Game 2 on Saturday afternoon, and now the series shifts to New York with the Yankees needing to win four of the next five games to advance. A tall order, that is.

The story of Game 2 is, obviously, Verlander’s performance. He allowed just one run — Aaron Hicks and Todd Frazier hit back-to-back two-out doubles in the fifth inning — on five hits and a walk in nine innings. Verlander struck out 13 and threw a whopping 124 pitches, which is pretty much unheard of these days.

The easy-to-overlook story through the first two games of the ALCS is that the Yankees pitching has been fantastic as well. They’ve held the high-powered Astros and their lineup of contact hitters to four runs on 11 hits through the two games. If you’re the Yankees, holding the Astros to four runs total in Games 1 and 2 and leaving Houston down 0-2 in the series has to be tough to swallow.

Both pitching staffs have been very good through two games. The different in the series boils down to execution. The Astros are not just making the plays they’re supposed to make, they’re going above and beyond as well. Consider Correa’s walk-off double in Game 2. Here’s the video:

First things first, that was a marvelous piece of hitting by Correa, who went down to poke — poke is underselling it given how hard he hit the ball — a down-and-away slider into the opposite field gap. And props to Altuve for the hustle to score from first base on a ball most runners don’t try to score on. Most stop at third.

Here’s the thing though: Altuve should’ve been out at the plate. By a mile too. Here is where Altuve was when the relay throw from Didi Gregorius reached Gary Sanchez at the plate:

Altuve was toast. But Sanchez couldn’t make the clean catch on the throw, which did hit the dirt, but was still a play a major league catcher has to make. If Sanchez makes the clean scoop, he tags Altuve for the second out of the inning, and the game continues. Instead, he didn’t make the catch and Altuve scored the winning run.

“What I saw on the last play was they were aggressive, we had a shot at home, the ball short hopped Sanchy and he wasn’t able to come up with it,” said Yankees manager Joe Girardi after the game. “If he comes up with it, it’s an out. He wasn’t able to come up with it, just he did his best and wasn’t able to come up with it.”

Furthermore, Aaron Judge missed the cutoff man on the play. He made a great play to snag Correa’s rocket in the gap, before the went to the wall, but his throw went to second base. Had Judge hit the cutoff man, one of two things happens. One, second baseman Starlin Castro would’ve been able to make a proper throw to the plate rather than the rushed throw by Gregorius, or two, Astros third base coach Gary Pettis have had to consider holding Altuve at third.

Girardi, for what it’s worth, defended Judge’s decision to throw to second base rather than the cutoff man. It’s one of those things we wouldn’t be talking about had Sanchez made the clean pick at the plate.

“I think he did the right thing, he got it to Didi. That’s the bottom line. He got it to the guy on the field with the best arm,” Girardi said.. “And he had to cut it off and he got it in quickly and we had a shot at home. It’s not Aaron, nothing with Aaron.”

The Astros, meanwhile, made a perfect set of relay throws earlier in Game 2 to cut down Brett Gardner at third base on a would-be triple. Josh Reddick retrieved the ball in right field, hit the cutoff man, and the relay throw at third got Gardner. Here’s the play, which was correctly called an out after review:

You can go back to Game 1 as well, when left fielder Marwin Gonzalez threw Greg Bird out at the plate to prevent the Yankees from scoring their first run of the series. Bird did not get a particularly good jump from second base even though it was a 3-2 count with two outs, and his turn around third base wasn’t the smoothest either. It was enough for Gonzalez to throw him out at the plate.

“ou try to tell your players and preach to your players to take what the game gives you and just to execute plays and let whatever the play develop, develop,” said Astros skipper A.J. Hinch following Game 2. “Our defense has been spectacular. To a man they have done their job to whatever the game has given them. The relay throw with Correa, the throws from Marwin.”

Once you get this deep into the postseason, the League Championship Series, the talent gap between teams tends to be quite small. These clubs aren’t here by accident. They’re all good. Yeah, the Astros won 101 games during the regular season while the Yankees won 91, but New York actually had the better run differential (+198 to +196). The talent gap isn’t as large as the regular season record would lead you to believe.

So, when the talent gap narrows this much, the difference in a series is often execution. And that’s execution on everything. A pitcher making a pitch, a defender making a play, a runner taking an extra base. In Game 2, the best examples of the difference in execution comes in relay throws. The Astros executed to nail Gardner at third base while the Yankees did not execute to cut Altuve down at the plate, and that was the difference in the game.

Through two ALCS game, the Astros have been the better team and the series record reflects that. The ‘Stros have pitched better and hit better, and more than anything, they’ve executed plays better, especially big plays that create (or save) runs. That has been the difference in the series through two games, and why the Astros are now only two wins away from going to the World Series.

“We have been pretty flawless so far,” Hinch said. “It’s a long series ahead and it can shift. We have got to stay focused, but defensively when you make plays you limit the opposition’s chance to build things, and we have come up with some big defensive plays.”

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