The ALCS will begin without the New York Yankees on Sunday

The ALCS will begin on Sunday night in San Diego, but the preseason American League favorite will not be taking part. That’s right, the New York Yankees were eliminated from World Series contention on Friday night in Game 5 of the ALDS. The Tampa Bay Rays play a perfect foil for the Yankees because they’re a small-market team with a limited budget and few die-hard fans. Yet, thanks to their brilliant management, they compete, and in this case defeat, the super popular and star-studded pinstripe brigade.

The deciding game figured to be tight with aces Gerrit Cole and Tyler Glasnow going head to head. However, Glasnow gave way to Nick Anderson with one out in the third inning as part of Tampa Bay’s unorthodox pitching strategy. The Rays split nine innings between their top four pitchers with Glasnow and Anderson covering the first five before Peter Fairbanks and Diego Castillo took over for the final four. The idea was to make sure no Yankees hitter saw a Rays pitcher more than once, and it worked with New York scoring just one run on an Aaron Judge home run off of Anderson in the fourth.

Tampa Bay threatened in the first inning when Cole walked two batters and hit another, but they didn’t score until the fifth when Austin Meadows came through with a solo home run to tie the game. There weren’t many opportunities for either side after that. In fact, the entire game featured a total of just six hits and seven walks with all the runs coming on three solo shots.

The third came in the bottom of the eighth when unheralded backup Michael Brosseau, inserted to provide a right-handed alternative to Ji-Man Choi, homered off of Yankees relief ace Aroldis Chapman.

That laser beam sent the Rays to the ALCS for the first time since 2008, when they ended up winning the pennant. They’ll face America’s least favorite baseball, the Houston Astros. Houston was 21-15 on September 4, but Dusty Baker’s team struggled down the stretch, finishing 29-31 and only reaching October because of MLB’s new expanded postseason structure that allowed the second-place team in every division to qualify.

The Astros were expected to lose to the AL Central champion Twins in the Wild Card Series, but instead they swept in two games and went on to polish off the Oakland A’s in four. What as clicked for Houston? Well, the emergence of Framber Valdez has helped. The offense hasn’t played up to its potential in 2020, but the biggest difference between this Astros team and the 2019 team that was a win away from another World Series title is starting pitching. No longer are Cole and Justin Verlander anchoring the staff. Instead, Houston is relying on Zack Greinke and guys with less valuable baseball cards.

Valdez is one of those guys, but he’s been money so far. He piggybacked off Greinke in the opening Wild Card game and shut out the Twins for five innings. In the ALDS, Valdez started Game 2 and pitched seven solid frames to give the overworked bullpen a break. With the offense rounding back into form thanks to Carlos Correa and George Springer, it will be up to Houston’s unheralded pitching staff to propel the team to another AL pennant.

America supposedly loves a redemption story, but it’s not in love with these Astros yet. Maybe that’s because the players who cheated in 2017 avoided punishment or maybe they were going to wear out their welcome anyway, but Houston has found a way to become a major heel in a way only the Yankees have been in baseball history.

The Astros’ story might not make many fans happy, but it will make for good drama and good ratings, especially if they reach the World Series for a rematch with a Dodgers team that still feels it was cheated out of a world title three years ago.

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