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'Pen could have hands full with powerful Yanks

@alysonfooter
October 11, 2019

HOUSTON -- It took the Astros five games to fend off a pesky Rays club that fell a win short of its goal to "shock the world," but that still proved it could compete with one of the deepest, most powerful teams in baseball during the American League Division Series.

HOUSTON -- It took the Astros five games to fend off a pesky Rays club that fell a win short of its goal to "shock the world," but that still proved it could compete with one of the deepest, most powerful teams in baseball during the American League Division Series.

Next up for Houston is that other deep, powerful team that utilizes a much different method to win games than the Rays, but with similar success.

The plan, of course, is for the 1-2-3 punch of Zack Greinke, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole (in that order) to keep the Yankees' deep lineup in check in the American League Championship Series, which begins Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 12 NYY 7, HOU 0 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 13 HOU 3, NYY 2 (11) Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 15 HOU 4, NYY 1 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 17 HOU 8, NYY 3 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 18 NYY 4, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 6 Oct. 19 HOU 6, NYY 4 Watch

Greinke to start Game 1 as Astros set ALCS rotation

That leaves Houston's bullpen as the X-factor, again, heading into this series. Relievers had mixed results against a lighter-hitting Rays club; how will they do against the swinging Yanks?

"This is a really good offense across the way," manager AJ Hinch said. "We know how much damage they can do. We know how patient they can become. You've got to beat them inside the strike zone. But we all chase. Everybody chases. If you're in the strike zone enough, you can expand and get them to chase in your areas that you want."

All that said, Hinch cautioned that trying to map this all out ahead of time and predict how one particular reliever may respond is, in his words, "foolish."

"You have to read the games," Hinch said.

Still, making the transition from neutralizing a scrappy Rays lineup to figuring out how to get through the power of the Yankees' hitters could be daunting. The Rays' approach was to swing early and often and try to get something going right out of the chute. The Yankees are more known for their ability to work deep into counts and drive up pitch counts.

"The Rays, they figured out how to compete against us," right-handed reliever Héctor Rondón said. "I feel like the first game against the Yankees is going to be a little different. They have really good hitters. They'll probably come in with a different approach. I know they like to hit homers, especially at Yankee Stadium. We'll try to limit the damage."

Setup man Ryan Pressly views the Yankees' lineup as one with more holes than the Rays', but with also more home run strength.

"The Yankees try to hurt you more with power," Pressly said. "They've proven they can do that. It's one of those things where we still have to pitch to our strengths. They're going to do the exact same thing with us. I think it's just more of going out there and trying to expose their holes."

Interestingly, in some areas the Rays and Yankees have more similarities than some may think. The teams had nearly identical chase rates during the regular season -- 27 percent for the Rays, 27.7 for the Yankees.

Understanding that there is a big caveat to all of this -- the Yankees had major components of their lineup out for significant amounts of time all season because of injuries -- there are even similarities in terms of basic hitting. The Yankees ranked first in the Majors during the regular season in exit velocity, second in hard-hit rate and second in barrel rate, but the Rays also ranked in the top five in all three categories.

What does this mean for the Astros' pitching fortunes in the ALCS? Who really knows?

"Being aggressive is going to be very important in this series against this lineup," reliever Josh James said. "In my opinion, they do most of their damage when guys are behind in counts and they get a walk and they get a big hit off 2-2 counts."

Hinch will continue to utilize the same high-leverage relievers he had during the ALDS, though veteran right-hander Brad Peacock is expected to be added for this round, which could give the bullpen, and possibly the rotation, a boost.

Astros may carry extra righties to counter Yanks

It'll still be up to Will Harris, Pressly and Roberto Osuna to be ready late in close games, with Rondón, Joe Smith and James expected to shoulder the workload as well. Of the group, Osuna has the most experience vs. the Yankees, given that he pitched in the AL East with the Blue Jays before joining the Astros late in 2018.

Osuna has a 0.79 ERA over 32 career appearances vs. the Yankees, striking out 35 in 34 innings.

"[There's] not a lot of secrets," Hinch said. "We have to figure out where the extra weapons are going to be in our 'pen and where do we carry length, and do we carry more weapons in terms of how to get some of these right-handed hitters out.

"But how it maps out per game, I think we've learned in the postseason, all of us managers are willing to do anything out of order or out of the ordinary to try to get outs. [There are] a lot of guys that I named that I believe in, that I trust. And that’s not even counting the balance of the bullpen that we’re going to name over the next 24 hours.”

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.