October is a long, long way off, but it seems clear that if the path to a World Series goes through Houston, the Yankees are going to have to outpitch the Astros to beat them, starting with Justin Verlander.
If this were the postseason, of course, Luis Severino would have been matched up against the Astros’ ace, and they’ll take their chances with that matchup every time.
And, oh by the way, you’d expect that Giancarlo Stanton would be in the lineup, which wasn’t the case on Monday.
Not that Stanton is a particularly good matchup against Verlander’s nasty stuff, especially the way he’s going this season, hitting .199 against right-handed pitching, but suffice it to say the Yankees didn’t trade for the highest-paid slugger in baseball to sit him against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
Yet Aaron Boone’s decision not to play him said a lot about Stanton’s ongoing struggles, especially coming off an 0-for-12 series against the Angels that included seven strikeouts.
“I just felt like it was the right time to give him a day,” Boone said.
Boone has that luxury at the moment, as it’s more important to get Stanton on a roll at some point than win one game in May.
Indeed, the Yankees weren’t about to sweat Monday’s 5-1 loss to Verlander, especially after they won three of four in Houston a few weeks ago in something of a statement series coming off last year’s ALCS loss.
Still, after they did outpitch the Astros in that series, which included two shutouts, the Yankee starters have taken their lumps enough to shift much of the focus of this season from the team’s great record to what Brian Cashman will do at the trade deadline.
For while outplaying the Red Sox to win the AL East is the primary concern, it’s hard not to think the Astros’ pitching is the ultimate obstacle the Yankees would need to overcome to win the AL pennant.
In Verlander, Charlie Morton, and Gerrit Cole, the ‘Stros feature the top three ERAs in the American League — and Dallas Keuchel is the notorious Yankee-killer.
Can Boone match that depth with Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Sonny Gray behind Severino? Right now it’s hard to like those odds, which is why the pressure will be on Cashman to make the sort of deal in July that he essentially passed on for Cole last winter.
Hey, listen, anything is possible in October, and last year the Yankees came oh so close to knocking off the Astros with minimal contribution from Severino — and strong pitching from the other starters.
In addition, although the Yankee bullpen hasn’t been as lethal as expected, it still looms as a difference-making advantage come the postseason, while the perception lingers that A.J. Hinch can’t trust his closer, Ken Giles, when it counts most.
Giles did close out Monday’s game, working a rather routine ninth inning, but his 4.76 ERA speaks to his uneven season, famously lowlighted by punching himself in the face after blowing a game in Houston against the Yankees.
Actually, even after blowing an 8-3 lead in the ninth on Sunday in a 14-inning loss to the Indians, the Astros have the best bullpen ERA in the AL, at 2.96, yet Hinch had so little trust in Giles last October that he leaned on starters like Lance McCullers and Morton to close out the ALCS and World Series.
So there will be pressure on Astros GM Jeff Luhnow at the deadline as well to add a premium reliever for another postseason run.
As such, the regular-season games between these teams offer only glimpses into what might or might not matter by then.
Most significantly, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Domingo German would be starting a postseason game, and certainly not against Verlander. As Jordan Montgomery’s injury replacement, German continues to flash potentially dominant stuff, but because of his inconsistent command, he is 0-3 with a 5.45 ERA.
In truth, he deserved better on Monday. A fluky bounce off the lip of the infield grass led to a misplay by Didi Gregorius — scored as a hit — that set the stage for German’s one big mistake of the day, when J.D. Davis hammered a fastball for a three-run home run later in that second inning.
And a rare, careless throwing error by Gleyber Torres led to an unearned run in the fourth as well.
All of that was more than Verlander needed, as he continues to own the Yankees since becoming an Astro.
There was a time when the Yankees seemed to have Verlander’s number, much as they do with David Price, but that was in his days with the Tigers. Since being traded to Houston, he has allowed the Yankees the grand total of two runs in four starts spanning 302/3 innings, including his two lock-down wins in the ALCS.
Of course, Verlander has overmatched everyone else as well since the trade, going 16-3 with a 1.36 ERA in 23 starts, including the postseason.
A lot can happen by October, obviously; for one thing, the Yankees better hope Stanton is looking a lot more dangerous than he has so far this season, but even then it’s probably not their offense that will get them over the top against Verlander and the Astros.