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AL Wild Card Preview: Yankees vs. Astros

The New York Yankees and Houston Astros face off tonight in a one-game playoff known as the American League Wild Card gameMLB expanded the original Wild Card format from one team in 1995 to the current format in 2012, according to ESPN. The Yankees and the Astros are the most recent teams to benefit from that change. The winner will move on to face the Kansas City Royals — who finished with the best record in the AL 95-67 — in the ALDS, which starts October 8.

Baseball in general is almost impossible to predict and the postseason even more so, which is one of the things that makes it so much fun to watch as a fan and as a writer. There are a lot of factors that are going to work in favor of both teams, and against both teams. If you look back to the Salute article titled “AL Down the Stretch,” it showed where both teams were roughly two weeks ago and some of their shortcomings. Before I start breaking down the major differences between these two teams — and there are several — let’s break down their respective records and see what the starting pitchers stats tell us.

THE RECORDS:

The Yankees finished the regular season with a home record of 45-36 and the Astros finished with a road record of 33-48, according to MLB.com. This stat should tilt the game in the Yankees favor because Houston has been terrible on the road this year and it’s that horrible road record that cost them the AL West. Houston had a one-and-a-half game lead on Texas going into their four-game series on September 14. After getting swept in that series, the Astros found themselves looking up at the Rangers in the standings and their postseason hopes in jeopardy. Houston went from the team that others were chasing to one of the teams doing the chasing for the division and the postseason.

The Yankees might have ended the season on a three-game skid but their home record is still better than most team’s road records–it is Yankee Stadium after all. It might not be the same House that Ruth Built” that was across the street, but it still houses the same team and the same mystique that has been the downfall of many teams that had a better record on the road than Houston does.

THE PITCHERS:

The Yankees starting pitcher on Tuesday is 26-year-old right-handed pitcher, Masahiro Tanaka. He finished the year with a 3.51 ERA and a 12-7 record in 24 starts and also threw one complete game. When you look at his splits though his ERA jumps to 3.71 when he pitches at home. The upside for Yankees fans is that Tanaka is 7-4 at Yankee Stadium this year and has a 3.47 ERA when pitching at night, according to ESPN. The downside of Tanaka taking the hill Tuesday is that his ERA against the Astros is 10.80 in his lone start.

The Astros send 27-year-old left-hander Dallas Keuchel to the mound on Tuesday for the Wild Card matchup. He finished this season with a 2.48 ERA and a 20-8 record in 33 starts, including three complete games. Houston fans can start to get a little nervous with a road game right away because the Astros weren’t billed as the “World’s Greatest Road Team” this season, and Keuchel’s ERA jumps to 3.77 on the road. There is a silver lining to all this though and that is Keuchel has a 0.00 ERA and three total wins against the Yankees including one at Yankee Stadium this season. If you want to look at more of his splits head on over to his ESPN player profile for more.

X-FACTORS:

NEW YORK YANKEES:

The intangibles that are in the Yankees’ favor are almost innumerable. You’ll have the crowd that is going to be in the Yankees corner until the very last out is made and it is a crowd that is hungry for another World Series title. Remember, this crowd hasn’t had postseason baseball since 2012 and they’ve missed it. There are the ghosts of Yankees’ past that still patrol their spots in the new stadium and this is still hallowed ground as far as baseball is concerned.

Then there is Yankee Stadium itself–a cathedral to the game. There is a thing that happens to baseball players when they play at Yankee Stadium. It happened at the old stadium and it happens at the new stadium, and it is referred to as the “Oh, shit” factor. It happens to rookies and seasoned veterans and it can happen at anytime. It kicks in when a baseball player realizes where they are playing and whom they are playing against. It causes their level of play to be off just enough to where they might swing at a pitch they might normally let go for a ball or miss a routine fly ball for an out — and those are mistakes that you can’t make against any Yankees’ team because they’ll exploit any opening they get. That is just the postseason atmosphere in the Bronx and remember they’re also playing for Yogi right now too, and that goes a long way.

While there isn’t one person on the team currently hitting over.300 (with a minimum of 100 at bats), backup catcher John Ryan Murphy is hitting .277, right fielder Carlos Beltran‘s at .276 and Didi Gregarious is hitting .265. Needless to say, this isn’t one of those Yankees teams of old that is going to be able to make up for mediocre pitching by overpowering their opponents with an amazing display of moonshots beyond the 399′ mark in left-center or deep drives over the 408′ mark into the blacked out seats in center field. There is one person that Yankee’ fans love to dump on during the postseason, especially when New York makes an early exit, Alexander EmmanuelA-Rod” Rodriguez, but he could truly be an x-factor.

A-Rod often gets a bad rap for disappearing once October rolls around. You hear things such as “He couldn’t hit my mother’s weight and she’s been dead 20 years,” or “We should have let you sign with Boston.” There has been really vitriolic stuff said, but when you look at Rodriguez’s stats from every postseason that he’s been in since 1995, his numbers tell a different story.

According to ESPN, A-Rod’s postseason stats have been fairly close to his regular season stats but there have been some exceptions. In 1995, he played in two games and had two at-bats so, even though it counts statistically, it doesn’t count as a bad year. In his entire career he’s only had four years where he’s hit well below what he hit during the regular season, and by well below I mean more than .100 points below his batting average. From 1997-2004 he hit at or above his regular season average. Since A-Rod had a bounce back year as the DH with the Yanks there is no telling what he could do in the postseason. He very well could be due to hit for a .350-plus average. With that being said, he’s coming off of two really bad years in the postseason.

HOUSTON ASTROS:

The Astros haven’t been to the postseason in ten years. Houston made it to the World Series only to be swept in four-games by the Chicago White Sox. Since then they’ve spent ten years spiraling to the bottom of their division–first in the NL Central, then the AL West. Then, two years ago, Houston turned it around and did something they hadn’t done in three years. The Astros finished less than 30-games back and this season they won the second AL Wild Card spot.

The biggest x-factor for the Astros is the Astros themselves. You don’t know which team is going to show up from one day to the next. Is it the team that is capable of crushing opponents 21-5 like they did to the Diamondbacks on October 2? Is it the team that gets crushed 14-3, like when the Rangers took over the AL West in the middle of September? Or are they going to break your hearts and lose it in the bottom of the ninth like they did against these very same Yankees in late August?

They’re that great mix of youth and experience and they managed to craft a team that not only won games but also became contenders, and not every team can do that. There are still teams who have yet to make their return to postseason baseball like the Seattle Mariners. Regardless of who you’re cheering for — or against if that’s the case — this game is going to be a great one and may the best team win. After all, the most exciting television in October is back for another run.

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