Why Are the Astros 3-1 Up? It’s All About the Ks.

Why Are the Astros 3-1 Up? It’s All About the Ks.


The Astros set their franchise record for strikeouts in 2013, which was the worst year they ever had. They lost 111 games, the nadir of a downturn designed to make them a juggernaut. It worked.

The Yankees set their franchise record for strikeouts this season, which was a very good year because they did so many other things well. But they are teetering on elimination in the American League Championship Series, and they are going down swinging — and looking.

Strikeouts are the biggest separator between these teams. The Astros’ pitchers had the most strikeouts in the majors this season, and their hitters had the fewest. This had never happened before in major league history.

The Yankees’ hitters have holes in their swings, and the Astros’ pitchers are skilled enough to exploit them. They did so repeatedly on Thursday in Game 4, an 8-3 victory in which the Yankees fanned 13 times and the Astros only six.

“The strikeouts, for us, are going to happen,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone conceded. “It’s a matter of us taking good at-bats.”

To save their season, the Yankees must do that in Game 5 on Friday against Justin Verlander. If they survive, Gerrit Cole would loom in Game 6 or 7 in Houston. Verlander and Cole have combined for 678 strikeouts since opening day; no duo is better at keeping balls out of play.

“Putting the ball in play is enormously important in the postseason because the run-scoring environment is different,” Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow said. “It’s suppressed based on the pitching and the schedule and how it works out with the off days. Being able to manufacture runs, put the ball in play and hope something goes your way is huge.”

Boone famously called his hitters “savages in the box” in his tirade at an umpire in July. He meant that they relentlessly control the strike zone and hunt for pitches to drive, and he was not wrong. The Yankees scored the most runs in the majors this season and clubbed 306 homers, one shy of Minnesota’s major league record.

Home runs are always important, of course. But in this age of extreme power pitching, the postseason formula that works best is to hit for power and make contact consistently. It worked for the last two champions: the 2017 Astros had the majors’ fewest strikeouts and best slugging percentage, and the 2018 Boston Red Sox had the fifth-fewest strikeouts and the best slugging percentage.

The two teams in the 2019 postseason field with the fewest strikeouts were the Astros and the Washington Nationals, who are on track to meet in the World Series. As the Nationals blitzed through the National League playoffs, their hitters had 30 fewer strikeouts than their opponents.

The Yankees collapsed under a mountain of Ks in Game 4. They loaded the bases in the first and fifth innings but never put the ball in play. In the first, Zack Greinke walked in a run before fanning Gary Sanchez to end the threat. In the fifth, Ryan Pressly escaped by striking out Gleyber Torres on a curveball and Edwin Encarnacion on a fastball.

“Torres is unbelievably hot right now — the moment definitely got a little bit bigger when he stepped in the box,” Pressly said. “But at the same time, you have to stay within yourself and do what you can.”

What Pressly does, like so many of his teammates, is overpower hitters: Since joining the Astros last July, he has fanned 114 in 85 innings, postseason included. The Yankees have their own stable of power arms, and their staff ranked fifth in the majors in strikeouts. But the Astros’ lineup is treacherous.

Even by making soft contact, their hitters can sometimes get lucky and start or sustain rallies; the Yankees’ infielders booted four grounders in the later innings on Thursday, and all led to runs. And the Astros made loud contact, too, with three-run homers by George Springer and Carlos Correa, who both also homered in Game 2.

“Whether it’s grinding out a long at-bat or hitting a homer or getting a two-strike hit the other way, whatever it is, guys are just trying to pass the torch to the next guy,” said Alex Bregman, who reached on an error and scored on Correa’s home run. “And when we do that, our offense is lethal.”

The Astros are well-known for recognizing when a pitcher is telegraphing his pitches — as Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow did in the division series with the placement of his glove — and teams widely suspect them of rampantly stealing signs.

Astros Manager A.J. Hinch has denied that charge, and Correa said the Astros simply concentrate on the middle of the strike zone and try not to swing at anything else. He resents the notion that their hitters must always know what is coming.

“I just laugh because they say, ‘Oh, we have something, or the pitchers were tipping’— when they had nothing, sometimes,” Correa said. “We’re just watching the game. We’re taking advantage of every single detail we can get. Hitting is tough. If you’re tipping your pitches, fix it. If you’re tipping your pitch and I can see, I’m going to take advantage of it. I’m trying to help my team win ball games, and every single edge counts.”

He added: “But I think it’s disrespectful that every time we score a lot of runs, people talk about tipping. Nobody was tipping today and we scored, what, eight runs? We’re great hitters. We’ve been doing it for a whole season. You look across the board at the numbers this team has put up through a full season, it’s just unbelievable how many guys have been on top of their game.”

For six months, plus a first-round sweep of the Twins, the Yankees were also at the top of their game. But the Astros have countered their strengths and could be poised for a knockout in the caldron of the Bronx.

“They keep saying this is a heavyweight fight, and it’s like you’re in a boxing match in the middle and there’s madness going on all around you,” Bregman said. “You’ve just got to play the game that we’ve played since we were kids. It’s a lot of fun.”



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