The next Yankees challenge will be so much harder  10/09/2019 04:49:49   George A. King III

After the Yankees swept the feeble Twins out of the ALDS on Monday night in Minneapolis, Hal Steinbrenner said he and his family were very proud of his club.

But we are not there yet, Steinbrenner said. This is Step 1.

Step 2 will be considerably harder to negotiate since it will be taken against the Astros, considered by many to be the best team in baseball, or the pesky Rays. Their best-of-five ALDS is set for a winner-take-all Game 5 in Houston on Thursday night after the Rays beat the Astros, 4-1, Tuesday night in St. Petersburg, Fla.

A popular theory is the Yankees gain even if the Astros advance because Cy Young candidate Gerrit Cole cant start either of the first two games after his start Thursday. Yet, the Astros can still go Zack Greinke, Verlander and Cole in the first three games of the ALCS and that isnt an easy task to tackle.

An Astros victory would set up an Astros-Yankees ALCS, which would start Saturday in Houston and be a repeat of 2017 when the Astros won in seven games. Should the Rays shock baseballs universe, the ALCS would be Yankees-Rays with Game 1 Saturday in The Bronx.

No matter the opponent, the Yankees will be stepping up in class.

No more facing a starting staff that included an Uber driver. Forget about pitching to a lineup that hit .218 overall in three games and hit a cringe worthy .107 (3-for-28) with runners in scoring position.

The Rays cant match the Astros Big Three of Verlander, Cole and Greinke, but have Charlie Morton and have been very creative with others as openers.

A.J. Hinch; Aaron Boone; Kevin Cash
A.J. Hinch; Aaron Boone; Kevin CashAnthony J. Causi, Getty (2)

And in a very big department, the Astros are managed by A.J. Hinch and Kevin Cash runs the Rays. If they arent the best two in the American League, they are close, right there with Aaron Boone and Bob Melvin.

Hinch and Cash wont bypass their best pitcher in Game 2 after losing Game 1 like the Twins Rocco Baldelli did in Game 2 of the ALDS. Baldelli had staff ace Jake Odorizzi available for Game 2 and handed the ball to rookie Randy Dobnak, who the Twins game notes listed as an active Uber driver and started the season in Single-A.

The Rays (3.65) and Astros (3.66) ranked first and second, respectively, in ERA during the regular season among AL teams. The Astros (.221) and Rays (.230) were first and second in batting average against. The Astros (1,671) were tops in strikeouts and the Rays (1,621) third. The Astros (1.13) were first in WHIP and the Rays (1.17) third. The Yankees did finish ahead of the Astros and Rays in saves with 50 which tied the Twins for the AL lead.

Clearly, no matter who the Yankees face with a ticket to the World Series on the line will offer much more resistance than the Twins, who have lost 13 straight October games to the Yankees.

The Yankees went 3-4 against the Astros in the regular season when they were swept in a three-game series in April at Minute Maid Park and took three of four in June at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees were 12-7 versus the Rays; 8-2 at home.

While the Yankees got Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez back from the injured list late in the regular season and Edwin Encarnacion when the ALDS started and are as healthy as they have been all year, they are still without center fielder Aaron Hicks and reliever Dellin Betances. CC Sabathia is confident he can contribute out of the bullpen in the ALCS after not being on the ALDS roster because of a cranky lefty shoulder that didnt bounce back after a one-inning relief outing against the Rays on Sept. 24 in St. Petersburg.

Because they will be facing better pitching, the Yankees likely wont post the numbers they did against the Twins against whom they scored 23 runs, hit .293 and batted .324 (11-for-34) with a homer and 16 RBIs with runners in scoring position.

Had an MVP award been handed out for the ALDS, it would have gone to Gleyber Torres, who went 5-for-12 (.417) with a homer and four RBIs.

A positive sign is that Didi Gregorius, who finished the regular season in a 15-for-79 (.190) slump, hit a grand slam that broke open Game 2 and hit .400 (4-for-10) with a homer and six RBIs in the series.

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