HOUSTON — Asked how Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez in particular have prepared for their second ALCS in three seasons after getting a taste of it in 2017, Aaron Boone didn’t put all the onus on them but made it quite clear the Yankees need the duo to get by the Astros in the ALCS and advance to the World Series for the first time since 2009.
“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,’’ Boone said in front of Saturday night’s Game 1 at Minute Maid Park. “I think in both cases those guys have continued to grow in not only their game but their roles on the team, they’re a growing voice on the team. 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.’’
Of the two, Sanchez needs to pick it up at the plate after a regular season that was interrupted by three injuries.
When spring training opened two years ago there were voices inside the Yankees’ organization who believed Sanchez, even with Judge around, had the talent to be the club’s most complete hitter.
In 2017, his first full big-league season, Sanchez hit .278 with 33 homers, 90 RBIs and posted a .878 OPS in 122 games. Yes, the defense needed work, but the right-handed power had made him a first-time All-Star at 24.
The power has remained (52 homers, 130 RBIs in 195 games) in the past two regular seasons, but other areas haven’t followed. In those 195 games, Sanchez has hit .224 (152-679) and has more strikeouts (219) than hits.
Lower-body injuries can’t be ignored in Sanchez’s regression at the plate. Starting in 2018, Sanchez has spent four stints on the injured list with three groin strains and a left calf strain. It would have been five IL stays had the IL been in play Sept. 12 when Sanchez left a game in Detroit with a tight left groin. He missed 11 games and caught in two of the final three regular-season games.
Sanchez showed rust in those games against the Rangers in Arlington, Texas, by going 1-for-6 with four strikeouts. That didn’t get better in the three-game sweep of the Twins in the ALDS, when Sanchez went 1-for-8 and struck out four times. That’s 2-for-14 (.143) with eight whiffs from a hitter who hit .232 with 125 strikeouts to 92 hits this year, when he swatted 34 homers and drove in 77 runs in 106 games.
Judge didn’t put on a power show in the ALDS, either, when he went 3-for-9 (.333) and drew four walks.
Though the last two games of the season and three more in the ALDS are an extremely small sample size, Sanchez has been trending downward since July 19. In his final 32 games of the season, Sanchez hit .205 (24-for-117) with 10 homers, 19 RBIs and struck out 38 times.
Sanchez has improved behind the plate, where he has been better at blocking balls in the dirt than a year ago. But his main contribution to the Yankees is standing next to the plate with a bat in his hand that can damage a baseball.
He doesn’t have to produce 467-foot homers like he did in San Francisco this season, and there are eight other hitters in the lineup who must produce against the pitching-rich Astros. However, Sanchez needs to be more of a threat than he was in the final 32 games of the regular season and the first three in October.