HOUSTON — You have seen this before.
The Yankees and Astros played a close game. Houston finished with more runs.
This two-step is especially true at this time of year and at Minute Maid Park. It is redundant. Rinse and repeat. The Yankees’ Groundhog’s Day is swathed in orange towels flapping and Lone Star flags waving. Take your choice — the Astros are doing enough to win or the Yankees are doing enough to lose. But the outcome has an inevitability about it.
That is why the Yankees season has come down to this — Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes. On full rest. In The Bronx. The Yankees win Games 3 and 4 and perhaps they regain a puncher’s chance to not have another postseason crumble before the Astros. Though their rotation picture from there to the finish line — even if they do tie this ALCS up — is inferior to Houston’s.
The Yankees don’t much like to revisit 2017 any longer, but they need this ALCS to mirror that one — at least through Game 5. That year the eventually scandalized Astros won two at home and the Yankees rallied to take three in The Bronx before the Astros closed them out back at Minute Maid in seven games.
After winning the first two games of this ALCS, the Astros are 8-1 all time in the playoffs at home against the Yankees — all since 2017. The Yankees have scored 13 total runs in the eight losses.
That includes two runs on Thursday night — both unearned. The pattern feels headed toward endless loops. The Yankees never found the big hit. The Astros did — a three-run homer by Alex Bregman off Luis Severino. An Astros starter lasted longer and performed better with Framber Valdez mimicking what Justin Verlander did in the opener — getting better as his start progressed. The final score was 3-2.
The Astros, in their sixth straight ALCS, lead two games to none. The math is onerous for the Yankees. They have to win four out of five versus a team that is 7-2 against them this year. Against a team that with each pitch and each inning just performs as if it knows it is superior. That its players possess the answer key to any Yankee test.
The margin of victory in every one of the nine games against each other this year has been three or fewer runs. The games are close in score. But these teams have played 82 innings this year and the only two the Yankees have led after came via walk-off hits by Aaron Judge in two games on June 23 and 25.
Now all that stands between Houston beating the Yankees for the fourth time in the playoffs since 2015 are Cole on Saturday and Cortes on Sunday. The Yankees are 3-4 in these playoffs. Cole has won both of his starts. Cortes won the ALDS decisive Game 5 on three days’ rest. That was all against the Guardians, part of an AL Central that is as much the Yankees’ punching bag this time of year as the Yankees are to the Astros.
Houston is just a gigantic step up from that and the Yankees will ask their two best starters to offer a counterpunch. Cole and Cortes both excelled in win-or-go home games against Cleveland, combining good stuff and the right stuff. These are now do-or-die as well — even if a clincher cannot come before Game 4. Because even if they get it to two games apiece, then what? Jameson Taillon or Domingo German in Game 5? Severino short in Game 6? Cole short in Game 7? Of course, they will sign up for that right now considering their dire situation.
Because this has not really been a pitching problem. The Yankees have kept Jose Altuve slumping. They have held down Yordan Alvarez. Houston has just seven runs in the first two games. But the Yankees have four.
The Yankees were batting just .176 in their first six playoff games before managing just four hits in ALCS Game 2, just one after a Gleyber Torres RBI single drew them within 3-2 in the fourth. A fielding, then throwing error by Valdez off a Giancarlo Stanton grounder back to the mound opened the door to both runs. But that is all the Yankees mustered. The Yankees’ last 18 batters collected one hit, one walk, one hit by pitch and 11 strikeouts.
Meanwhile, the decisive blow for Houston had a Bucky Dent at Fenway feel to it. Bregman’s 91.8 mph fly ball was not even one of the 20 hardest hit balls in this game. But the inviting Crawford Boxes in left are one reason Bregman hit 16 of his 23 regular-season homers in Houston.
But here is the thing, Severino made himself susceptible to a two-out homer by Bregman in the third by hitting Houston’s weak-hitting catcher Martin Maldonado with an 0-2 pitch leading off the inning.
And there should be a home-field advantage provided by the configuration. In the eighth, Aaron Judge hit a ball 106.3 mph — his third rip of at least 103.9 mph in this game. The ball traveled 345 feet to right-center. Sarah Lang of MLB.com noted that it would have been a home run in one park — Yankee Stadium. Here, right fielder Kyle Tucker caught what would have been a two-run go-ahead homer with his back to the wall.
That is the story of these two teams. Close for the Yankees. But not far enough. The only way that can change — the only way the Yankees can get back into this series begins with the ball in Cole’s right hand on Saturday and Cortes’ left hand on Sunday. Can they get this ALCS tied by the end of the weekend?
They are the last defense against redundancy in a Yankee-Astros series at this time of year.
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