HOUSTON — “This should be an offensive series,” Dusty Baker said Thursday at Minute Maid Park, so apparently the Houston manager counts mind-reading among his considerable talents.
After all, could anything be more offensive, more nightmarish, to the Yankees and their fans than an Astros-Red Sox AL Championship Series? Winner advances to its third World Series since the Yankees last won it all in 2009?
Both clubs embroiled in sign-stealing scandals, both right back atop the industry?
Yes, as news broke that the Yankees had begun their offseason in earnest by dismissing three coaches, two of their top rivals prepared to face off in what should be a fun semifinal featuring personalities galore and, just as Dusty stated, the bats in the spotlight. Friday night’s Game 1 will pit Houston’s Framber Valdez against Boston’s Chris Sale, the latter a controversial choice (over former Yankee Nathan Eovaldi) given the recovering ace’s recent struggles.
Nevertheless, a debate like Sale versus Eovaldi won’t connect with the casual TV viewer as will the reality that these two teams will face off in an October setting for the first time since the world learned of their past transgressions.
The 2017 Astros swiped opponents’ signs illegally en route to winning the championship, which included an ALCS win over the Yankees. Their bench coach Alex Cora, viewed as a mastermind of the team’s trash-can-banging scheme, left to manage the 2018 Red Sox, who were found guilty of lesser sign-stealing violations en route to their title, which included an AL Division Series win over the Yankees.
Cora is back leading the Bosox after serving a yearlong suspension in 2020. The Astros still feature the same infield from their ’17 squad. If they’re not all back and better than ever, they’re certainly back while the Yankees know they’ll miss the Fall Classic for a 12th straight season.
“I’m enjoying this … I think honestly as a team, we are clicking at the right time, and as a group, we’re clicking at the right time,” Cora said. “It doesn’t matter how you get here. It’s just a matter of what you do from here on, and we’re prepared for it.”
“After what these guys went through, you are always cognizant of the mental and spiritual condition of the club,” said Baker, who replaced the suspended and fired A.J. Hinch last year. “But this is an extremely strong, close-knit group of guys, and they lean on each other for support.”
The Astros worked out Thursday not announcing whether they’d have Lance McCullers Jr., who left his AL Division Series Game 4 start with right forearm tightness. In a brief press scrum talking through the team’s thinking on McCullers, general manager James Click said, “You don’t get to the ALCS very often. I realize I said that, we’re here for the fifth time in a row, but these opportunities are rare.”
Yes, the Astros keep winning through the dismissals of both Hinch and president of baseball operations Jeff Luhnow as well as the departures of big names like Gerrit Cole (to the Yankees) and George Springer (to the Blue Jays).
The Red Sox, meanwhile, followed their 2018 success by missing the playoffs in 2019 and finishing in the AL East cellar last year. And even just a few weeks ago, when they suffered a three-game Fenway Park sweep at the Yankees’ hands and lost two of three to Baltimore, they hardly looked like championship material. Yet here they are after ousting the Yankees in the AL wild-card game and the division-winning Rays in the ALDS.
“I think it’s just baseball, honestly,” Boston designated hitter-outfielder J.D. Martinez said. “For some reason, I don’t know, every time it comes down to the wire, the last game, [the Bosox] always find a way to step up. I mean, you know, we got swept early on in the year by Baltimore. Then we turn around and sweep Tampa, so it’s just ball. You never know.”
Maybe that’s the silver lining here for the Yankees? It is just ball. You never know. They keep reaching the postseason, as they have nine times since ’09, they’ll win them eventually, no?
Hope you don’t find that sentiment offensive. You’re suffering enough as it is.