Astros showing that 'old-school' pitching philosophy still plays with Game 3 win over Yankees

(Credit: Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Hasn't anyone ever heard of not reinventing the wheel?

The relief corps for the Yankees has been good all season, even into the 2019 ALCS. It's no surprise. Without even looking at their Baseball Reference page, just look at the names: Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman. Those guys are all good. They're three of the nastiest relievers in the sport. They're Pitching Ninja's GIF dream — and they're just three of the seemingly endless quality arms in the Yankee 'pen.

Bullpenning, openers, analytics, third-time-through numbers all reign supreme across baseball now. We see it with the five-and-fly starters or even the Yankees' insistence on getting just three or four quality innings out of their starters this postseason.

But on Tuesday, the Astros showed that in 2019, there's still a heart beating inside of old-school ideologies, even if the new breed of pitching in MLB is continuing to take over.

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Gerrit Cole was less-than sharp in his start, a 4-1 ALCS Game 3 victory in Yankee Stadium. Cole gritted his teeth and gutted his way through seven innings of shutout baseball, allowing just four hits and striking out seven in the process. Cole also allowed — and doused — two-out rallies, throwing just 68 of his 112 pitches for strikes and walking five. Needless to say, the Cole train wasn't really rolling, but it still got the job done.

Letting Cole face batters even after scuffling? Dancing on the brink of danger? Letting a starting pitcher — gasp — pitch into the seventh inning?! That's nuts.

"Yeah, that's old school, right," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said with a smile. "We like when the starter gets to pitch a little bit. We have some of the best.

"I always believe that the starting pitcher sets the tone of the day. And our guys really do a good job of taking that to heart. They take their starts as serious as any guys that I've been around; their preparation, their entry into the game, their first innings. They really do a good job of setting the tone for our team."

Through three ALCS games, Houston starters have allowed five runs in 19 2/3 innings pitched as they continue to showcase their work-horse reputation. In 2019, three of the top 10 pitchers by innings pitched in baseball were Astros: Cole, Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. The Astros ranked 24th in MLB with 555 innings pitched by relievers in 2019.

"It's not easy to face Gerrit Cole a third time no matter what the numbers say," Hinch said. "We never figured out (Masahiro) Tanaka, and we saw him a ton the other night. It kind of comes and goes with how the execution on the mound is happening."

Letting your starters pitch deep into games in the postseason? Letting them see a lineup for the third time? Now there's an ideology you might find buried in the sand, next to dinosaur bones and a vinyl copy of Prince's "Purple Rain." Letting starters pitch deep being considered a sign 'o' the times is pretty wild to think about. 

Sure, it helps that all three of those guys in the Astros' rotation are pretty damn good, to say the least. Cole stressed how "blessed" he was to be a member of this rotation for two seasons now, how much he's learned and improved as a pitcher over that span. It would be unfair to not mention how good they are, kind of like the omission of Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson in "Moneyball."

"I was here last year with two Cy Young award winners (Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel) and I was sandwiched in between their lockers," Cole said following his Game 3 performance. "And towards the end of this year, (Zack) Greinke likes his space, so he's down on the corner, I don't get sandwiched in between two, but we still have two Cy Young award winners and MVP on the pitching staff two years in a row."

They're good, and they've proven it in the postseason again, even when they don't have great stuff, like Tuesday. Cole allowed five two-out walks and worked himself into and out of trouble.

Most would admit that Game 3 in any seven-game series would be considered the most important. So to see the Yankees once again lean on a bullpen-heavy approach in ALCS Game 3 isn't as much stunning and brave as it is just their way of doing business on the field, believing their philosophy is best. Some of that is also their starting pitching just not being as good as it should be.

But maybe the Astros getting to a struggling Ottavino or by proxy Britton is more than just an off night (or month, in Ottavino's case) for these guys. Maybe the Astros are actually reaping the rewards of the Yankees' aggressive bullpen use.

"I think the more you see a guy the better. It's kind of the easy answer," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said prior to Game 3. …

"When the bullpen comes in game after game after game, you get a little bit more of a fatigued version of that reliever or you get a little bit more of the same sequence," Hinch continued. "The hitters can get a little bit better idea how they're going to be attacked."

Houston roughed up and worked Luis Severino early, got into the Yankee bullpen and didn't look back. While they didn't scratch across any runs against Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle, a less-than stellar Adam Ottavino leaving a runners-on, no-out mess for Zack Britton to inherit proved fruitful. Britton allowed two Ottavino runners to score, widening the gap to 4-0, eventually giving Houston a 4-1 win.

This, of course, isn't to paint a right-or-wrong way of pitching in the postseason in 2019. After all, the Yankees bullpen has been nails for most of the postseason, entering Game 3 with 24 innings pitched out of the bullpen, while allowing five runs in those 24 innings. But of the two ALCS runs they gave up entering Tuesday, neither could be bigger: a game-tying home run off the bat of George Springer and a walk-off dinger from Carlos Correa in Game 2 that evened the series heading back to the Bronx.

Aaron Boone doesn't seem to have a problem with the strategy that's carried the Yankee pitching to this point. He stressed confidence in his guys before Game 3.

But when you have the pitching — when you have the horses — why not run the race? We're seeing it with the ALCS and we've seen it in the Senior Circuit, where Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and others have been horses at the top of the rotation of a red hot Nationals team.

Leaning on aces avoids a primary pitfall of bullpen-first strategies.

"Once you start the matchup-friendly approach, you run into a bad matchup eventually," Hinch said. "If you have a right-handed specialist, there's going to be lefties in the lineup. If you have a lefty that you don't want to face a righty, you're going to run into a righty and you start rifling through your pitching a little bit.

"It is hard to get everybody perfectly lined up and perfectly matched up. The game often changes. It's way easier to do it on paper than it is in practice, actual practical in the games."

Hinch has stayed true to his word — liking when the starter gets to pitch a little (or a lot) bit — through the ALCS.

No, the Astros aren't trying to reinvent the wheel. They're instead just trying to ride it into the World Series.

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