NEW YORK – The 2017 ALCS, a heavyweight slugfest between the Yankees and Astros that went the distance, is a series that has left Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner wondering ‘what if’ for the past two years.
The Astros won all their games at Minute Maid Park. The Yankees were flawless at Yankee Stadium. But, unfortunately for the Yankees, there were more games in Houston, and Houston took the series, 4-3.
“I’ve never been one to dwell on things for too long but I’ve thought about it plenty,” Gardner told Yahoo Sports recently. “There’s no telling how things would have turned out. We could have won in four or lost in four. No way of knowing. We love playing at home and love to have best record in the league and home-field advantage, but we are comfortable playing anywhere.”
Two years later, it appears the Yankees and Astros are again on a postseason collision course, and the result could again be swayed by which one hosts Game 7.
Entering Tuesday, the Astros (102-54) have a half-game lead on the Yankees (102-55) in the battle for the American League’s top seed, and own the tiebreaker since they won the season series, in large part due to an early-season sweep at Minute Maid Park.
“Any time where you’re in this position where we’re talking about home-field advantage, you’re talking about two great teams that have had great seasons,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said recently at Yankee Stadium. “Obviously, in Houston’s case, they have a great club, and we think we have a great club.”
Can the Yankees win at Minute Maid Park?
The Yankees and Astros have long been considered the favorites in the AL, and with the postseason a week away, that still appears to be the case even as the Twins, Rays, Indians and A’s have each won at least 90 games.
Houston is considered the favorite due to their starting trio of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke. The possibility of home-field advantage could further help Houston’s cause, as the Yankees have not played well at Minute Maid Park since the Astros emerged as a contender in 2015.
Including postseason games, Houston is 22-20 against the Yankees in that stretch, including a 13-8 mark at Minute Maid Park. Over the last three years, the Astros are 10-4 against the Yankees at home, including a sweep this April.
The Yankees scored three runs in four games in Houston during that 2017 ALCS.
“We played a couple different series over the last few years in the playoffs, where you play important games in the opposing stadium, and when you look at the Yankees and look at the Twins and the playoff-caliber team, you want to make sure you have home field,” Houston manager A.J. Hinch told ESPN Radio. “As much as everyone says that’s for Game 5 or Game 7, it’s really more for Game 1 and 2.
“To start series at home is critical.”
The Yankees are 12-9 against Houston when playing at Yankee Stadium since the start of the 2015 campaign, including an 8-2 stretch spanning the start of the 2017 ALCS. However, Houston has shown it can win a road game in the Bronx in October, besting the Yankees in the 2015 wild card game.
Houston lost three of four in New York this year.
“Our fans do a great job of making this a tough place to play for opposing teams,” Gardner said. “We saw last year in the wild card game and in the ALDS against the Red Sox, year before against Houston.”
Yankees lefty James Paxton — an offseason import from Seattle — could be an X-factor if the two teams meet, since he’s 4-2 with a 3.92 ERA in his eight career starts at Minute Maid Park. He did lose his one start this year in Houston, but the 30-year-old believes the Astros’ home has a good mound.
“They’re just a good team,” Paxton said of the Astros. “They have a good lineup, good pitching staff, like us. It’s going to be a battle.”
Entering October with a heathy team
While both teams want to claim the top seed, Boone and Hinch have both reiterated it’s not their sole priority. They need to make sure their pitchers and position players are healthy, and their bullpens are not overtaxed. They’d rather have a complete team and have to go on the road than not be at full strength and have home-field advantage.
For the Yankees, that means making sure relievers are rested, and players returning from injuries like Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton and Edwin Encarnacion are in good spots. Gary Sanchez is also working his way back.
Houston wants to ensure its top three starters are locked and loaded, and that Carlos Correa and Ryan Pressly, who recently returned, are set to go.
“That’s the balance you strike all the time, nothing changes,” Boone said. “We want to win games and part of winning games is keeping players fresh and healthy and at their best, so you try to strike that balance and do what’s best all the time to make sure your guys are good to go moving forward while trying to rack up wins.”
Since the introduction of the second wild card in 2012, the top seed in either league has advanced to the World Series 50 percent of the time, including three straight years in the National League. The AL has been less kind to the top team, with the top seed only advancing to the World Series in three of seven seasons.
When the Yankees and Astros met in 2017, the Yankees were the wild-card winner and the Astros had the league’s second-best record. This year, both are 100-win prizefighters.
Only one can advance to the World Series. And that team may be the one who hosts Game 1.
“It’s definitely something we’re going for,” Paxton said. “We’re taking that one day at a time, win every day, and hopefully that lands us with home-field advantage. Either way, we’re going to go out there and give it our all and go as far as we can.”
He added: “The more games we can play at Yankee Stadium, we have an advantage.”
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