Astros may have stolen this Yankees core’s best chance at World Series: Sherman

In hindsight, we can now wonder: could that season of Astros cheating have been the last best chance for this core of Yankees to win it all?

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This was before revelations about garbage can banging. Before we were cynical enough to wonder if a player could be wearing a buzzer to alert him what type of pitch was coming.

This was fresh after the 2017 AL Championship Series had been completed in seven games. The Astros were moving on to their second World Series ever. The Yankees were moving on, we were sure, to a promising future.

Of course, the losing clubhouse at Minute Maid Park had the requisite funereal tenor. GM Brian Cashman said, “We had a wild, fun ride. But tonight it hurts because the ride is over.” So there was sadness. Yet, something more. Hope. Optimism. Belief that this was a step on the way to a title.

It was possible, after all, to believe that Greg Bird, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino were going to form a Core Four 2.0. Gleyber Torres was due to arrive in 2018. Opposing teams already expected the Yankees to land Japanese two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani in the offseason. The manager, Joe Girardi, said, “There is more there” about the team’s future.

There did seem more there. A 28th title felt within reason; on the horizon.

In hindsight, we can now wonder: could that season of Astros cheating have been the last best chance for this core of Yankees to win it all?

The Astros begin a three-game series in The Bronx on Tuesday, their first time in New York since it was exposed following the 2019 season that the 2017 champions used illegal sign stealing. Many of the key Astros are gone. A.J. Hinch now manages the Tigers, who were swept over the weekend at Yankee Stadium. Alex Cora, Houston’s bench coach in 2017, is managing the first-place Red Sox. Carlos Beltran is unemployed. Brian McCann is retired. Justin Verlander is out for the season after Tommy John surgery. George Springer is a Blue Jay.

The remnants are the starting infield – Yuli Gurriel, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman – and Lance McCullers Jr., who will start Thursday against Gerrit Cole, a member of the 2018 Astros.

Yet, the uniform will be enough to infuriate fans who did not get their chance to let the Astros know how they felt during last year’s fan-free, regional schedule pandemic season. The anger is only greater because, maybe, 2017 could have been a championship year.

The Astros have denied cheating in the 2017 postseason. Good luck finding a Yankee from that club who believes it. The Astros won all four games at Minute Maid, where their devious plot was most deployed. They struck out only 45 times in seven games against what at the time was one of the all-time great strikeout staffs. And the split was 20 strikeouts in four games at Minute Maid and 25 in three games at Yankee Stadium.

Did they know what was coming, at least at home? Did Joe Girardi see what was coming afterward? It is a sliding-door moment in Yankee history. If the team advances to at least play in the 2017 World Series, does Hal Steinbrenner still take Cashman’s advice not to retain Girardi after his decade as manager?

Brett Gardner, Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez look on during the Yankees’ Game 7 ALCS loss to the Astros in Houston on Oct. 21, 2017.
UPI

But the Astros went on to win their only title in 2017, beating the Dodgers. And the current Yankees still have to declare if they are the modern Dodgers or Cubs, who won it all the year before in 2016.

Los Angeles, also retroactively furious over the revelations about the 2017 Astros, won seven straight NL West titles from 2013-19 without ending a championship drought dating to 1988. The Dodgers finally broke through last year. Can the Yanks mimic their mega-market West Coast doppelganger and eventually, with enough tries, break through the championship door?

The analogy to the Cubs is not as ideal because they did win their first title since 1908. But the feeling in 2016 – like the Yankees in 2017 – was that it was just the beginning.

It wasn’t.

The core position players such as Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber didn’t keep growing. The farm system was not as fruitful.

The Yanks have been in a similar area the last few years. Bird revived after a poor, injury-filled 2017 to hit well that September and he was the hitter the Astros did not want to beat them in October. But that was his last great moment as a Yankee – and a major leaguer. He has not even played in the majors the last two years.

Sanchez was already rising as a polarizing figure in October 2017 due to his defensive shortcomings and rising strikeout totals. Severino has hardly pitched the last three years. Judge has never fully recaptured the health and success from his 2017 Rookie of the Year/near MVP campaign. The young starters the Yanks believed would break through – such as Albert Abreu, Domingo Acevedo, Chance Adams and Justus Sheffield – did not. The Yanks didn’t land Ohtani. Instead, after just escaping the clutches of Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year contract after the 2017 season, the Yanks pivoted to take on the last 10 years of Giancarlo Stanton.

The 2017 ALCS was filled with issues that would haunt the Yankees in subsequent postseasons. They just did not have enough starting pitching; the failure of the recently acquired Sonny Gray contributing to that. They struck out too much. Sanchez was a defensive liability. Their athleticism was dubious – the slow-footed Bird was thrown out at the plate in two key moments.

But would they have won the AL pennant anyway if the Astros played it straight?

Besides signs, was the last, best chance for this group to actually win it all also stolen?

This story originally appeared on: NyPost - Author:Joel Sherman

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