Zack Greinke was already handicapped from the get-go. Even as an excess-capacity crowd of 43,311 at Minute Maid Park had his back, he understood the extent of the pressure he faced. The fact that he found himself on the mound for Game One of the American League Championship Series instead of Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole underscored the need for him to deliver. The blowout loss he suffered in his last start extended the AL Division Series and forced Astros manager A.J. Hinch to use the pitchers ahead of him in the rotation just to overcome the challenge of the supposedly overmatched Rays.

Given Hinch’s continuing manifestation of trust, Greinke knew the least he could do in return was try his best. He simply had to live up to promise and strut his stuff as confidently as he had in the regular season. To this end, he needed to forget about his string of playoff woes, and most of all his stinker of a showing in Game Three of the ALDS; he had advancement in sight, and instead lasted all of three and two-thirds innings, during which he gave up six runs on five hits. And, what’s more, he stood to be up against much tougher competition.

Creditably, Greinke proved to be better — make that a whole lot better — in his start yesterday. And he would have given a good accounting of himself, too, had he not faltered in the sixth inning; he sent a couple of four-seam fastballs in the middle of the plate against red-hot Gleyber Torres and always-dangerous Giancarlo Stanton, resulting in homers that increased the Astros’ deficit to three. He then caught Brett Gardner looking to end the session, not coincidentally with the same pitch, but the damage had been done by then.

That the Astros went on to lose seven to none means the outcome wasn’t caused by Greinke alone. Indeed, yesterday marked a continuation of their offensive woes, and the lack of bat support indicated they would have gone down, anyway, even if the sixth inning unfolded without fanfare. The Yankees are too good, and too talented, to be overcome without a sterling two-way effort. And, yes, that’s how they themselves were upended. Masahiro Tanaka masterfully backstopped the runs with a varied repertoire that included a wicked slider and an effective split-finger fastball thrown to the periphery of the strike zone to keep them guessing.

The Astros are by no means out. They may be one set-to down, but they have yet to tap Verlander and Cole. And should they finally get to be their usual selves and swing to contact, watch out. Of course, the operative word is “should,” because the Yankees have no plans of being enablers. Quite the opposite; the bullpen is the best in baseball, with a track record of protecting leads. Still and all, Greinke is key. The next time he’s back on center stage, all eyes will be on him anew, and his capacity — or lack thereof — to deliver may well spell the difference between a World Series appearance and an early vacation.


Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.