Measuring importance of Game 1 for Yankees in battle vs. Astros

HOUSTON — Historically, generally, it presents as fun debate fodder.

Specifically, Saturday night at Minute Maid Park? Ain’t nothing fun or fodderish about it for the Yankees.

Let’s not call American League Championship Series Game 1 a “must-win” for the visitors, because we’ve seen too much baseball overall and 2019 Yankees action in particular to make such a concrete declaration. Nevertheless, the circumstances that immediately preceded this long-anticipated clash of the titans portend that it would be a far, far better thing for the Yankees to prevail in the opener.

They’ll have to win at least one game here in Texas in order to advance to their first World Series since 2019. The present looks like their best time.

“You can sit and make a case for both ways: wanting to keep on playing and playing high-stakes games, and us having a little bit of rest,” Aaron Boone said Friday in a news conference. “I’m sure whatever way the first couple of games go, I’m sure people will harken back to that and say the rest helped or hurt us or vice versa.”

Boone’s Yankees arrived here via an AL Division Series sweep of the Twins and enjoyed four days off, the first two staying away from the ballpark altogether. The Astros found themselves pushed to the limit by the Rays, finally advancing with a Game 5 triumph Thursday night and reporting to work Friday for practice, scouting meetings and mandatory media sessions.

Hence the debate: Who has the edge, the team with some down time or the club that can roll from one positive series right to the next?

“I guess there could be good and bad for having some time off, letting your body rest a little bit,” Astros center fielder George Springer said. “That’s always big at this point in the year. Everybody’s been playing since early February. So any time off is a good thing. But … I don’t really know if there’s a correlation between having the three or four days off or 24 hours.”

In the wild-card era (since 1995), eight LCS have pitted a team that swept its LDS opponent against a team that went the distance. The sweeper captured the LCS four times and the marathoner did the same. If you go back to the LCS between 1969-84 and include the 1981 LDS created by the labor stoppage, you get six more samples, with the sweeper holding a 4-2 advantage.

It sure as heck looks and feels like one side holds no organic edge.

Now take a look at this Yankees-Astros matchup. The Yankees used their earned time off to rev up Aaron Hicks and CC Sabathia, both of whom appear likely to be placed on their ALCS roster, and cool down their bullpen, each of whom figure to get much work in this series. They will start Masahiro Tanaka, their most trusted October pitcher, and a loss would put an unprecedented onus on Game 2 starter James Paxton, who grinded yet hardly excelled in his postseason debut last week against the Twins.

The Astros will start Zack Greinke, who got hit hard by the Rays (six runs in 3²/₃ innings) in ALDS Game 3, and behind him, Houston will throw a fully rested Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole for Games 2 and 3, respectively. You ideally don’t want to be down 0-1 with the likely top two finishers in the AL Cy Young voting up next on your docket.

Nothing has proven easy for these injury-plagued Yankees. They could make it just a little easier on themselves by looking no worse for their lack of wear. How about we call this a “Should-win,” if they know what’s good for them?

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