The Yankees are all set to go in the ALCS. They just need an opponent.
The Rays pulled out an upset of Justin Verlander in Game 4 in their home Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, forcing a divisive Game 5 on Thursday night at 7:07 p.m. This one, though, will be in Houston with Gerrit Cole facing off against Tyler Glasnow -- a much tougher challenge for the Rays to pull off the ultimate upset.
Either way, who would the Yankees want to face in the Championship Series?
Both teams offer their own pros and cons to a matchup with the Yankees...
1) Rays wearing down top two starters: With Cole going tonight, Tampa has helped the Yankees even if they don't advance. By letting Verlander and Cole go twice in this series, Zack Greinke is forced to pitch Game 1 in Houston. That's a much better matchup on the road for the Yankees, and we all know how important winning that first game of the series is. It's unknown what manager A.J. Hinch would do with his rotation, especially after pitching Verlander on short rest in the DS. But it helps New York, who struggled mightily on the road two years ago against Houston.
2) Minute Maid experience: Players like Aaron Judge still have that bad taste in their mouth from the ALCS loss in Houston. It's hard to forget losing all four games the Yankees played against the Astros on the road. They haven't had the best success down south, but they know full well what the crowd will be like and what to expect overall about those games. It could work in their advantage this time around.
1) It's the Astros: It's simple but the truth. 105 wins for this ballclub didn't come without having a very well-rounded lineup and pitching staff that can go off at any moment. They had the best home record in baseball this regular season as well. There's a reason the Astros are the AL favorites in this postseason, and basically have been since the start of the season. They have everything they need to win their second title in three years.
2) Starting rotation trumps Yanks: Yes, James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and Luis Severino did very well in the series with the Twins. But the Astros hitters -- Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa to name just a few -- are much better than what they faced. Verlander, Cole, and Greineke are more experienced in the postseason, and have the better stuff on the bump in basically every matchup. Aaron Boone would need get to creative with his stacked bullpen, but if the starters can't stop the Astros from the jump, it might be too late to salvage anything.
1) Familiarity is key: The Yankees know the Astros well, but not as well as their division rival. Facing the Rays 19 times a season gives the team a great sample size to pull from in any scenario whether it's how you want to pitch to Austin Meadows at the plate, or what Blake Snell will be throwing on a certain count. The Yanks truly know their opponent, and that's always an advantage this late in the season.
2) Check the win column: Over the past five regular seasons, the Yankees have a winning record against the Rays -- 57-38 to be exact. At home this season alone, they were 8-2 as opposed to 4-5 on the road.
3) Home field advantage: This is the obvious one. The Yankees would get the first two and last two games (if necessary) on their home field. That won't happen against the Astros, who had two more wins in the regular season than they did. Tropicana Field is also a home away from home during the regular season, with many Yankee fans traveling to the dome to see their favorite squad. The postseason crowd has been a lot better for the Rays, but you can bet the Yanks faithful will still be out there. In the World Series, the team with home field advantage wins 60 percent of the time. You have to love those odds.
1) Cinderella mindset: If the Rays take down the Astros, who's stopping them from thinking they can do the same to the Yankees? That mindset goes a long way for a team that made it through two rounds of the postseason, while upsetting the favorite for the World Series trophy.
2) Bullpen magic: Rays manager Kevin Cash has pulled out all the stops with his bullpen, as Yankee fans are aware. Using openers, and now that it's the postseason, bringing in starters like Snell to close out games is in the cards. The Astros wouldn't necessarily do that, which allows the Yankee hitters to face the same pitcher a couple times. With Cash's way of thinking, that may not be the case, and could stump Yankee bats.
It'll be a tough matchup either way for the Yankees, but the clear choice in this writer's mind has to be the Rays.
Of course, beating the Astros to get revenge for what happened two seasons ago would be sweet. But the numbers and general common sense would be to face the Rays, get home field advantage, and play against a team Boone and the rest of the staff and players know all too well.
Either way, the Yankees sweeping the Twins in easy fashion shows they're ready for that tougher challenge, and certainly have the pieces to make it back to the World Series for the first time since 2009.
So, whoever the opponent is, bring it on.