Yankees’ handling of Astros will be truest of tests

Imagine if, instead of relocating to a remote Russian cabin to train for his vengeance fight with Ivan Drago, Rocky Balboa spent a month in a Connecticut spa, limiting his desserts, receiving regular mani/pedis and enjoying some really spirited yoga.

That’s pretty much your New York Yankees getting ready for the Houston Astros by facing the Detroit Tigers.

Yeah, the rebuilding Tigers (8-21) have plenty of work to do, and it’s to the Yankees’ credit that they didn’t stumble in completing the weekend sweep Sunday, riding a terrific outing by Corey Kluber to a 2-0 victory at Yankee Stadium and pulling up even at 14-14 — their first opportunity to appreciate such mediocrity since they stood at 5-5.

“Better than being under [.500], that’s for sure,” Aaron Boone said.

Following their first happy off day of 2021 — this marked their first victory in the game before the off day in five tries — the Yankees indeed will welcome the Astros to The Bronx for their long-awaited comeuppance, their inaugural visit since the 2020 ruling by Rob Manfred that the ’Stros illegally stole signs to capture their 2017 title, including during their American League Championship Series win over the Yankees. The first game between the late-2010s rivals since Jose Altuve took Aroldis Chapman deep in 2019 ALCS Game 6 yet wouldn’t take off his shirt to celebrate, creating enough conspiracy theories to fill a QAnon brunch event.

The Yankees celebrate their win over the Tigers on Sunday.
Robert Sabo

The fans figure to have some fun here (although they proved surprisingly tame with Tigers manager A.J. Hinch, Houston’s manager at the time), yet the Yankees themselves really can’t afford to talk — or think — about the past. The most curiosity for this series shouldn’t surround the revenge factor. It should concern how well the Yankees, who have climbed back to relevance on the backs of mediocre or worse ball clubs, play against a quality operation.

“I’m sure we all have a memory, so we remember what happened. For us the main thing is to play well against them and to beat them,” Brett Gardner said Sunday. “That’s the ultimate form of trying to get back at them. … I’m sure it’ll be a good matchup, and they’ve got a good team this year. I’m sure it’ll be a fun series.”

Dusty Baker’s Astros own a 15-13 record, putting them one game in the loss column behind the Blue Jays (14-12), who represent the only club currently with a winning record the Yankees have played. That’s right, the Rays, at 14-15, reside a half-game behind the Yankees. It’ll be productive for Tuesday night’s Yankees starter Domingo German, who arose against the Indians’ and Orioles’ weak offenses, to test his stuff versus the Astros’ imposing lineup. And it’ll provide value for the Yankees’ lineup, looking far better as of late if pretty quiet on Sunday, to measure its readiness against future Hall of Famer Zack Greinke.

“We need to play well and not get caught up in all that stuff,” Boone said.

Two items from Sunday’s game stood out that can be applied moving forward, beyond the poor Tigers:

  1. They won their second straight game in which they didn’t homer after losing their 11 previous such games. That of course started with Kluber’s dominant performance (eight innings, no runs, two hits, one walk, 10 strikeouts), yet the Yankees got what they needed with a simple second-inning sequence: Gio Urshela infield single, Aaron Hicks walk, Mike Ford flyout to center field that advanced Urshela to third, Kyle Higashioka double to score Urshela, Brett Gardner sacrifice fly to score Hicks. Easy peasy.
  2. Kluber won his second straight start, both times with Higashioka as his catcher, and the veteran praised his battery mate afterwards for being on “the same page” with him. Could Boone start pairing up individual catchers with pitchers beyond just Higashioka and Gerrit Cole? How about Higashioka also with Kluber and Domingo German and Sanchez with Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montogmery?

“I don’t think there’s any question about how the fans are going to react to them coming into the Stadium here,” Higashioka said of the Astros.

Given how this season began, though, the meaningful drama surrounds how the Yankees, not their fans, will react to the Astros’ arrival.

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