Young Yankees take experience into another ALCS with Astros

STEPHEN HAWKINS (AP Baseball Writer)
The Associated Press

HOUSTON (AP) -- Aaron Judge was a rookie slugger who swung and missed a lot in his first postseason, as did several of those Baby Bombers who were just getting started with the New York Yankees.

And they still came oh so close to getting to the World Series, losing Game 7 of the 2017 AL Championship Series at Houston in a matchup when the home team won every game.

Now they face the Astros in the ALCS again, starting Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.

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''Once you get experience, now you're comfortable in those situations and then it's just time to roll,'' Judge said Friday.

That 2017 postseason was also the first for catcher Gary Sanchez and outfielder Aaron Hicks. While shortstop Didi Gregorius played in the 2015 AL wild card loss at home against Houston, that was his only playoff game before 2017.

The group has experience now, including a three-game sweep over Minnesota in the Division Series after a 103-win regular season.

New York still smarts over last year, when the Yankees beat Oakland in the wild-card game, then lost to Boston in a four-game Division Series.

''I don't think you have to lose to learn how to win,'' said 39-year-old pitcher CC Sabathia, one of two holdovers from the Yankees' last championship team in 2009. ''I just think that experience is going to help us this year.''

That 2017 postseason was also the first time in the playoffs for Alex Bregman. Then 23 and finishing his first full season in the big leagues, Bregman now hears chants of ''MVP!, MVP!'' from Astros fans twirling those orange rally towels.

''I think both teams have more experience,'' Bregman said. ''Both teams have matured a lot ... and both teams have added big pieces.''

Houston, in its third consecutive ALCS, added big league strikeout leader Gerrit Cole in January 2018 and 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke last July. They joined Justin Verlander, acquired for the playoff push in 2017 that resulted in Houston's first World Series title.

The biggest addition for the Yankees since the 2017 meeting is slugger Giancarlo Stanton.

''Especially for those guys that did it here and lost here, I feel there's extra motivation, and just critique little things they could have done better, and the same thing for how last year went,'' Stanton said. ''Little adjustments, you know what you could have done to have a better turnout and you go out there with what you've got.''

Judge, who led the AL with 52 homers as a rookie in 2017, hit three in the ALCS and four in that postseason. He also set a major league playoff record with 27 strikeouts in 48 at-bats, and Sanchez whiffed 19 times in 13 games.

In five playoff games last season, Judge hit .421 (8 of 19) with three homers and only three strikeouts. He was 3 for 9 with four walks and only one strikeout in the three ALDS games against the Twins.

''They represented pretty well back then, and obviously showed at a very young age that they were equipped to handle all that the postseason can throw at you,'' said manager Aaron Boone, who took over the Yankees after that 2017 season. ''Obviously you're talking about Aaron and Gary, those are two faces of our franchise and core players for us that in the end if we're going to win big this year, those guys will be right in the middle of it.''

The Yankees have lost in their last three ALCS appearances, getting knocked out by Texas in 2010 and Detroit in 2012.

Judge remembers the atmosphere in that 2017 series, which started with the Astros winning consecutive 2-1 games in Minute Maid Park. Verlander threw a 124-pitch complete game in Game 2 and is set to start the second game once again.

''What I think about is just how resilient that team was and how they just fought to the very end,'' Judge said. ''A lot of teams might have rolled over after going down two (games) especially against a team like Houston. We continued to fight.''

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