NEW YORK -- From the Yankees’ perspective, Game 4 of the American League Championship Series was about as close to a must-win situation as a non-elimination game could get.
Instead, the relentless Astros shook off some early wildness from Zack Greinke and flexed their muscles in a relatively smooth 8-3 win Thursday night at Yankee Stadium to claim a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series -- with the added luxury of Justin Verlander looming as the Game 5 starter Friday night and Gerrit Cole likely in line for a Game 7 (if necessary) on Sunday night.
"We’re not thinking about the World Series yet because we’re playing against one of the best teams in the big leagues, the Yankees," Astros second baseman José Altuve said. "They're good hitters, good pitchers. One game at a time, and we win [Friday] and then we go."
That is to say: The odds are clearly on the side of the Astros, who appear to have some wiggle room in their planning and execution of Game 5 on Friday night, while the Yanks will have their backs to the wall. But while it goes without saying that the Astros would prefer to win the series in as few games as possible, the circumstances make it particularly important for Houston to finish this series off on Friday in the Bronx.
"It'd be great," third baseman Alex Bregman said. "Wherever we get it done, we get it done. But we just want to continue to play good baseball, and I think if we do that, we'll be successful."
Here’s a look at three big reasons the Astros could benefit by ensuring the ALCS doesn’t return to Houston:
1. Game 6 could be a bullpen day
If the Astros fail to win behind Verlander on Friday, it appears likely that they would deploy some semblance of a bullpen game on Saturday in Houston for Game 6. The condensed schedule without an off-day for travel, due to the rainout Wednesday, could make that difficult. Game 5 will be at 6:08 p.m. CT on Friday at Yankee Stadium. If there’s a Game 6, the teams are likely to arrive in Houston in the wee hours of the Saturday morning for a 7:08 p.m. CT game at Minute Maid Park.
It’s tough to say that this is a definite disadvantage for the Astros, as it appears that New York could also be forced into a bullpen game and experience the same issues. Still, for as stressed as the Yankees’ bullpen has been in this series -- having pitched 19 1/3 innings, compared with Houston’s 14 frames -- that group is an undeniable strength. The Astros’ relief corps is perhaps the most questionable part of their roster.
Aside from Adam Ottavino, whose struggles continued when he failed to record an out in Game 4, Yanks relievers have combined to allow six earned runs in 30 1/3 innings this postseason, good for a 1.78 ERA. Houston’s bullpen, meanwhile, has coughed up 13 earned runs in 27 innings in the playoffs, a 4.33 ERA.
It’s also worth noting that rookie Jose Urquidy, who could be in line for an extended look in a possible bullpen game, was far from lights out in his lone appearance this postseason against the Rays, when he allowed three hits and issued one walk while needing 47 pitches to navigate 1 2/3 scoreless innings.
2. A fully rested Cole could be lined up for World Series Game 1
The other disadvantage of the series going back to Houston would be that a bullpen game in Game 6 could make it more likely that the Astros would need to burn Cole in a Game 7, which would likely keep the club’s co-ace out of action until Game 3 of the World Series against the Nationals, if the Astros get there.
If the Astros were to take care of the Yankees on Friday and remove that possibility, Cole would instead be lined up to pitch on extended rest in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night, leaving Verlander to throw on regular rest in Game 2 on Wednesday night. With Washington likely to line up Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for those games, having two fully rested aces of its own would give Houston a needed counterpunch.
"It means a lot, especially because we would get a couple of days off," Astros closer Roberto Osuna said. "Gerrit Cole would be able to get ready for Game 1 out there. We're going to work to get this done [Friday].”
3. The Nationals will have their vaunted rotation rested up
Washington has been getting rested since it completed its sweep of St. Louis in the National League Championship Series on Tuesday and will have been idle for a week before Game 1 of the World Series. If the heavy usage of the Nationals' rotation in the NL Division Series and the NLCS -- as both starters and relievers -- wore it down, that will be much less a factor after so much time off.
Meanwhile, if the Astros don’t win Game 5 on Friday, they would have to play a high-stress game and tax their bullpen the night after a late flight from New York to Houston, with the possibility of at most two days off before facing the fresh Nats. Better not to have to worry about that.
"Yeah, I think it's beneficial if we come in and take care of business [Friday]," outfielder Josh Reddick said. "It definitely gives us at least one off-day back, and then probably two or three set, where two of those days become light workout days and one of those days becomes an off-day.
“Those are days we could definitely use to our advantage, especially with guys like JV going [Friday]. I think it gives us the right amount of rest at the right time."