HOUSTON -- The full extent of the Astros’ terrific pitching depth has been on display throughout the postseason, showcasing their biggest strength from the regular season. The Astros posted the American League’s best ERA and had the best bullpen in the Major Leagues, which helped carry them to the top seed in the AL and lofty October expectations.
Entering the postseason, there were still questions about the Astros’ lineup depth beyond star players Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker and Alex Bregman. Was the Astros’ lineup long enough for the playoff grind? Could opposing pitching staffs work around the sluggers and exploit some matchups in the bottom of the lineup?
Despite Altuve starting the 2022 playoffs in an 0-for-19 funk and pitchers growing more careful with how they pitch Alvarez after he hit game-changing homers in the first two games of the AL Division Series, the Astros continue to find heroes. Yuli Gurriel, Chas McCormick and Jeremy Peña cranked solo homers to send the Astros to a 4-2 win over the Yankees in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park.
“I'm just glad that we have the depth in our lineup that we do have guys that say, ‘Hey, man, you picked us up for so long, we'll pick you up until you get yourself together,’” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
The Astros, who remained unbeaten in the postseason (4-0), will give the ball to All-Star lefty Framber Valdez in Game 2 on Thursday with a chance to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series heading to New York this weekend.
In the history of best-of-seven postseason series, teams that have taken a 1-0 lead have gone on to win 119 of 185 times (64%). In all series with the current 2-3-2 format, teams that have taken Game 1 at home have gone on to win 64 of 96 times (67%).
McCormick, who’s battled for playing time in center field since the Astros let George Springer walk in free agency after the 2020 season, went 2-for-3 with a double and his first career postseason homer.
“We have a really good lineup and it seems like if the big guys aren't going, then the bottom of the lineup can get going,” he said. “If the bottom of the lineup isn't going, the big guys can get going. It just kind of talks about how complete this team is.”
Gurriel, an Astros postseason hero of years past who had a subpar regular season at age 38, has come on in October and is 7-for-19 with a pair of homers in four postseason games. And Peña, the hotshot rookie taking over from franchise icon Carlos Correa at shortstop, continued his coming-out party with three more extra-base hits in Game 1.
“I would say that's what makes us so good,” Peña said. “We pick each other up on any given night. Sometimes when we don't put together quality at-bats our pitchers carry us. And when they don't have their day on the mound we carry them with the lineup. As I said, that's what makes us a great team.”
While the offense got contributions outside the big bats, it was reliable ace Justin Verlander who did the heavy lifting on the mound. Verlander struck out 11 batters and held the Yankees to one run in six innings to earn his first playoff victory since Game 1 of the 2019 AL Division Series. He became the second-oldest pitcher in postseason history with a double-digit strikeout game, behind Nolan Ryan. Verlander's eight career double-digit-K postseason games are two more than any pitcher in playoff history.
“Just because we won Game 1, we understand that there's a hard road ahead of us still,” Verlander said. “We expect everybody to come out [Thursday] just like we lost this game. That's the sense of urgency that we always have, particularly in the playoffs, but that's why I think these guys are so special because we do that in the regular season as well, but in the playoffs it's taking it to another level.”
The game was tied in the sixth inning when Gurriel and McCormick homered off reliever Clarke Schmidt. Peña, whose 18th-inning homer in Game 3 of the ALDS on Saturday delivered a 1-0 win in Seattle, led off the seventh with a homer off Lou Trivino for a 4-1 lead. Ryan Pressly recorded the final four outs, stranding a pair of runners in the eighth.
“Obviously, this is a team and we’re all here and trying to protect and cover all our other players, and I think that’s why we’ve had so much success over the last couple of years,” Gurriel said.