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Dominant starting pitching driving Yankees' postseason run

NEW YORK -- Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch was trying to explain his team's offensive travails earlier this week when he put in a plug for the opposition. Slumps don't occur in a vacuum. More often than not, futility is a collaborative effort.

"Can I not talk about the good pitching?" Hinch said. "Because that's what it's all about. It's hard in this league when you run into good pitching, especially as precise as the advance scouting gets in the postseason. These teams don't get here by accident."

Then Hinch paused and sounded a cautiously optimistic note.

"For us, we're an explosive offense that is one click away from having that 10-, 12-, 14- or 18-hit attack," he said.

As the Astros sit on the verge of elimination in the American League Championship Series after a 5-0 loss on Wednesday, the expected breakout has yet to occur. That's a tribute to a New York Yankees pitching staff that has been stingy in allowing clicks, runs, hits and hope -- in no particular order.

The Yankees overcame a 2-0 deficit to beat the Cleveland Indians in the Division Series behind some dominant pitching, and they've done the same effective job against a better, deeper, more versatile Houston lineup in the ALCS.

The Astros, who led the majors in runs, hits, doubles, batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage during the regular season, are batting .147 with nine runs and 22 hits in five games. They've looked every bit as frustrated and overwhelmed as those numbers would suggest.

It's no surprise that New York's pitchers have been so competitive. Executives and scouts throughout the game predicted that the Astros could be in trouble if the games were close entering the late innings because of the distinct advantage the Yankees enjoy with their shutdown bullpen of Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson and friends.

The surprise plot twist: The extent to which first the Indians and now the Astros have been neutralized by New York's starting rotation of Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Luis Severino and Sonny Gray. The starters have been the unsung X factor for the Yankees this postseason.

"They kind of got overlooked those first few games because we lost, but they've pitched great," first baseman Greg Bird said. "If they give us a chance, we can do some damage. They're confident in us playing behind them, and we're confident in them."

Oddly enough, the postseason began on an ominous note for the Yankees when Severino -- a strong candidate to finish third in the AL Cy Young Award race behind Corey Kluber and Chris Sale -- lasted only a third of an inning against the Minnesota Twins in the AL wild-card game. If Didi Gregorius hadn't gone deep to kick-start a New York rally and spark an 8-4 victory, there was a distinct possibility that Severino would have gone into the winter lugging around the emotional baggage of an 81.00 postseason ERA.

Things turned around in earnest for the New York rotation after a 9-8 loss in Cleveland in Game 2 of the Division Series. Francisco Lindor hit a grand slam, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi was at the center of a public storm after he declined to issue a replay challenge on a phantom hit-by-pitch against Lonnie Chisenhall.

But the pitching ultimately saved the Yankees' season. Since that loss at Progressive Field, New York's starters have logged a 1.75 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP, and they've done so with an intriguing blend of styles and repertoire.

Sabathia, who was recently praised by Cleveland manager Terry Francona for his "pretty arm swing and nice feel for the ball," is flourishing at age 37 with a whole lot of savvy and a revamped pitch mix. He threw his slider and cutter more than 60 percent of the time in 2017 and mixed in just enough low-90s fastballs (23 percent) to keep hitters honest.

Severino's average fastball velocity of 97.6 mph leads the majors, and Tanaka thrives with a splitter that is the definition of "nasty." The pitch is most effective when it crosses home plate at an average speed of 14.0 to 15.4 feet per second. In all three of Tanaka's postseason starts, he has been right in the middle of that optimal range.

Those put-away pitches have come in handy in October. Opponents are 0-for-28 in at-bats ending with Tanaka's splitter this postseason. They're 3-for-20 in at-bats ending in a Sabathia slider in his past two starts.

The one attribute that Sabathia, Severino, Tanaka and Gray share is the ability to put the baseball where they want it. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Yankees starters have thrown 48 percent of their pitches in the strike zone this postseason -- the highest percentage of any AL team in this year's playoffs.

"Just be aggressive and try to fill up the strike zone and not let them get into deep counts," Sabathia said. "Be aggressive and try to get them swinging early in the counts. Get some ground balls and early fly balls and let yourself pitch deeper into the game."

Sabathia, a Yankee since 2009, is a free agent this winter, and he has strengthened his case for a return engagement in 2018 with his late-career resurgence. Tanaka is in an even more intriguing position. He can opt out of the three years and $67 million left on his contract and declare free agency, and each October gem only increases the likelihood of that happening.

In Wednesday's 5-0 victory over Houston ace Dallas Keuchel, Tanaka elicited some impressive historic comparisons. He joined Roger Clemens and Whitey Ford as the third Yankees pitcher with at least two starts of seven or more innings and zero runs allowed in one postseason. He has thrown 22 straight scoreless innings at Yankee Stadium and is 7-1 with a 0.96 ERA in his past eight starts at home.

"He's been like the pre-elbow-injury Tanaka for about a month now," a National League scout said. "It's amazing to watch when pitchers execute and mix pitches how they can neutralize a lineup."

Tanaka pitched with a passion and energy in Game 5 that his teammates found infectious.

"He had so much focus, man," Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier said. "He stepped off the mound. He started talking to himself and pounding his glove, and I was like, ‘Dude, I just love playing behind this guy.' His ball moves one way, and it moves another. He kept these hitters off-balance all day, just like he's been doing all postseason. He's been very dominant."

Tanaka has lots of company. In the past three games, the Yankees have held the Astros to four or fewer hits three straight times. That has happened only once before in the Yankees' illustrious postseason history: in 1956, when Don Larsen got the party started with a World Series perfect game.

Now it's on to Houston. Severino will take the ball against Justin Verlander on Friday in Game 6 with an opportunity to close out the series. If he can't get it done, Sabathia will be waiting in Game 7.

More than once this postseason, Girardi has expressed his fondness for the baseball truism "Your momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher." As the ALCS shifts from Yankee Stadium to Minute Maid Park, the Yankees have all the momentum of a runaway "D" train.