April 15, 2024

Yankees hope Juan Soto can help erase years of Astros dread

HOUSTON — Minute Maid Park has been the site where New York Yankees World Series dreams have gone to die in the Aaron Judge era. The Yankees are 1-8 in the postseason in Houston since 2017. The Houston Astros are the collective demon spirit the Yankees can’t seem to exorcise.

The Astros have been the most successful MLB franchise since Judge’s breakout 2017 season, winning two titles and advancing to seven consecutive American League Championship Series matchups during this stretch. But one guy on the Yankees’ roster has seen a team break through against the Astros and win it all against them in the postseason: Juan Soto.

Soto was with the Washington Nationals in 2019 when they won Game 7 of the World Series on the road in Houston. He emerged as a 19-year-old superstar in that series, hitting multiple home runs, including one against current Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. Five years later, Astros fans have not forgotten about Soto. They’ve booed him in introductions, they’ve booed him when he has stepped into the batter’s box, but the noise hasn’t stopped him from dominating through three games. He’s been on base nine times in 15 plate appearances, and Saturday night, he flashed back to 2019.

In the seventh inning with the score tied at 3, Soto hit an opposite-field, go-ahead solo home run into the left-field Crawford boxes. It wasn’t as consequential of an opposite-field home run as the one he hit in Game 1 of the 2019 World Series against Cole, but it was a moment that conjured up bad memories of a baseball flying through the air toward that part of the park. As Soto rounded first, he pounded his fist across the “New York” stitching on his jersey as the boos rained down on him.

“It’s fun! It’s fun! I like it,” Soto said, beaming with pride. “If they boo you, you’re doing things right.”

Soto’s go-ahead homer led to the Yankees’ third consecutive come-from-behind win — a 5-3 victory — to begin the season, the first time that’s happened since 1957. The Yankees are 3-0 for the first time since 2003. The sample size is minuscule, but the Yankees’ lineup feels different so far. They’re working pitchers, getting deep into counts, fouling off tough pitches and getting on base. Through three games, the Yankees have walked 19 times. Soto’s approach in the box has rubbed off on everyone.

“He’s so great, and he’s a killer,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “You can sense that he loves the competition at the highest level. You’re not going to get in the way of greatness too much. It’s baseball, so you’re going to go through (bad) stretches, even the great ones. I don’t think he even processes it like that. He’s in compete mode and walks up there with a lot of confidence.”

Yankees starting pitcher Marcus Stroman, who made his season debut Saturday and went six innings with zero earned runs (three runs) allowed, said he feels like their lineup “can explode at any point.” Shortstop Anthony Volpe said his takeaway through three games is that the Yankees are “not going to flinch against anybody.”

The Yankees have won despite Judge and Gleyber Torres, their two best hitters last season, going a combined 3-for-23 to start the season. This lineup was expected to be dangerous with the addition of Soto, but it still hasn’t looked the way anyone thought it would just yet because of Judge’s and Torres’ slow starts. But unlike last season when the Yankees’ lineup cratered after Judge went down for two months with a toe injury, they have Soto this year.

He’s been as advertised so far. And maybe seven months from now, he’ll be the reason those recent Yankees postseason ghosts can finally rest easy.

“He’s gonna be one of those guys I am talking about when I’m a granddad that I got to play with him,” Stroman said of Soto. “You just want to be very conscious of that. He’s a generational talent. The way he approaches the game, the way he never gives away an at-bat, it’s incredible. I feel like he never gives up a pitch. To have someone that’s locked in each and every time in the lineup, no pitcher wants to feel that. Having Judge behind him and everyone else in our lineup, it’s a tough lineup to navigate.”

(Photo of Juan Soto after his seventh-inning home run: Tim Warner / Getty Images)