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3 key matchups that could decide ALCS G3

Morton's high-spin curve could spell trouble for Judge
MLB.com @mike_petriello

The Yankees have dropped the first two games of the American League Championship Series to the Astros heading into Monday night's Game 3, and while that's bad, it's not like they haven't come back from worse. They were, after all, down 2-0 to Cleveland in the AL Division Series, and came back to win the best-of-five series. At least now, they're in a best of seven. There's still a lot of meaningful baseball to be played here.

Still, the Astros hold a pretty commanding lead as they attempt to reach their second World Series in franchise history, and it's not hyperbole to say that Game 3 means, essentially, everything. Teams up 3-0 in a best-of-seven series go on to win 97 percent of the time (losing just once in 36 tries); teams up 2-1 go on to win only 70 percent of the time (winning 94 of 134). It's an edge either way, it's just the difference between an overwhelming edge or merely a strong one.

The Yankees have dropped the first two games of the American League Championship Series to the Astros heading into Monday night's Game 3, and while that's bad, it's not like they haven't come back from worse. They were, after all, down 2-0 to Cleveland in the AL Division Series, and came back to win the best-of-five series. At least now, they're in a best of seven. There's still a lot of meaningful baseball to be played here.

Still, the Astros hold a pretty commanding lead as they attempt to reach their second World Series in franchise history, and it's not hyperbole to say that Game 3 means, essentially, everything. Teams up 3-0 in a best-of-seven series go on to win 97 percent of the time (losing just once in 36 tries); teams up 2-1 go on to win only 70 percent of the time (winning 94 of 134). It's an edge either way, it's just the difference between an overwhelming edge or merely a strong one.

:: ALCS schedule and coverage ::

Because this game is so important, even within the context of postseason games, that means that every plate appearance of Game 3 is going to take on added importance -- and there's a few particular matchups that really stand out. Let's check out where this game could be won or lost.

1. Aaron Judge vs. Charlie Morton

Video: ALCS Gm2: Judge discusses his struggles in loss

Judge homered and had two hits in the Yankees' Wild Card Game win over Minnesota; he's had two hits in seven games since, striking out 19 times in 34 plate appearances. Sure, he robbed Francisco Lindor of a home run, which was nice, but otherwise he's been a total non-factor. While it should help to get back to Yankee Stadium, where he hit 33 of his 52 home runs this year, it's not like putting on the pinstripes helped him against Cleveland, either.

So why is Judge struggling? Part of it is that postseason pitching is just better than regular-season pitching -- all playoff hitters entering Sunday night's National League Championship Series game were hitting a combined .232/.312/.399 -- but it's also partially due to the way he's been pitched. During the regular season, Judge saw fastballs on 52 percent of his pitches. In the postseason, that's just 38 percent. Instead, he's seeing tons of sliders and curves -- and Judge hit just .215 with a whopping 51 percent swing-and-miss rate against those pitches this year.

Fortunately for Judge, Morton doesn't throw a slider, but he does throw a curve and it's a good one. With a spin rate of 2,874 RPM, it's well above the league average of 2,489 RPM, and it's the eighth-highest spin of the 137 pitchers who threw at least 200. High spin on a curve can lead to more movement and more strikeouts, and Morton found great success on his, throwing it 677 times with a .114 average against.

On the other side, Judge saw 33 "high-spin" curves this year, which we'll define as 2,600 RPM or higher, and he swung through 19 of them. He'll need to do better here. It's not a great matchup for him.

2. Houston's righty relievers against the Yankees' lefty hitters

Video: ALCS Gm1: Alyson Footer and Jack Morris on Ken Giles

The Astros have 12 pitchers on their roster, but only one is a left-handed reliever: Francisco Liriano. He's quite good against lefty hitters -- .247/.300/.355 this year, and .221/.296/.305 over his career -- but he's also well-known for his inconsistency, and he's just one man anyway. Meanwhile, the two most effective Yankees hitters in the playoffs have been lefties Didi Gregorius and Greg Bird, who have three homers apiece, and they're back home aiming for that short porch in Yankee Stadium. (Brett Gardner had a career-best power year in 2017, too.)

What that means is that at some point, almost certainly, there's going to be a big spot where a righty Houston pitcher is forced to face a lefty Yankee batter, and that sounds like it should work in New York's favor. But righty Astros relievers allowed just a .219/.294/.386 line to lefty hitters this year, the seventh-best line in the Majors; they struck out 29.3 percent, third best.

That's because Houston manager A.J. Hinch has three righties who can be effective against lefties, in Chris Devenski, Will Harris and Ken Giles. Devenski, in particular, stands out, as he and his outstanding changeup boasted the best numbers of any righty who faced at least 75 lefties this year, putting up a ridiculous line of .110/.178/.236 against while striking out nearly 40 percent of lefties. Harris had a 25 percent strikeout rate, holding lefties to .233/.263/.342. And, of course, Giles' elite heat plays against both sides of the plate.

At some point, this is all going to come to a head in a big spot -- especially since Morton is unlikely to go as deep as Dallas Keuchel and Justin Verlander did.

3. CC Sabathia vs. Joe Girardi

Video: ALCS Gm2: Girardi discusses his message to the team

We're exaggerating somewhat with the headline, of course; there's no beef here. But an interesting part of the Game 3 strategy will be just how far Girardi lets his 37-year-old lefty go against what was in many ways a historically good Houston offense. With baseball's deepest and most dangerous bullpen fully rested and ready to go, it doesn't make sense to push Sabathia deep into the game.

Like just about every other pitcher, Sabathia gets less effective the farther he gets into a game. Over the last three years, he's allowed hitters to post a .679 OPS the first time through the lineup, then .735 the second time, then .834 the third time or beyond. To put that into context, that's like saying hitters are Tim Anderson the first time against Sabathia, then Evan Longoria the second and Matt Carpenter the third time.

We nearly saw this bite the Yankees in the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS against Cleveland. Sabathia pitched beautifully at first. Through four innings, he allowed just one hit. He was "dealing," except that's not a real thing; every pitcher is dealing right up until they aren't. In the fifth, up 3-0, he got the first out, then was left out there to allow four consecutive hits, as the Yankees escaped with a 3-2 lead only because David Robertson induced a ground-ball double play.

In the regular season, you need length. You let Sabathia try to work his way out of it. But this is as close to winner-take-all as it gets, and the Yankees have a near-endless amount of high-quality relievers to step in. It's incumbent upon the manager to discard the traditional roles and get the best, freshest relievers in the game when the situation demands it.

Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.

New York Yankees, Houston Astros