The Yankees’ goal for the first two games of the ALCS in Houston was to win one game. Win one game and get home-field advantage, and then do what the 2017 Yankees did against the Astros in New York. As soon as Game 1 ended, the Yankees had done enough in Houston, but they were very close to doing much more.
The Yankees and every Yankees fan would have signed up for a tie game with Justin Verlander out of the game in Game 2. Verlander was always going to pitch well at home on regular rest, so getting him out of a 2-2 game was the best-case scenario for Game 2. Verlander was good, but not great on Sunday. He caught some breaks with high-exit-velocity rockets right at fielders and the great play by Carlos Correa to throw DJ LeMahieu at home on the Brett Gardner single. Verlander wasn’t as dominant as he has been against the Yankees at times in the four other postseason series the Yankees have played against him, and the Yankees had more than enough chances to take a 2-0 series lead.
Theoretically, the Yankees had the Astros right where they wanted them with the game tied, Verlander done and a battle of the bullpens for the remainder of the game. But James Paxton’s lack of length put the Yankees at a disadvantage, needing to use their elite options beginning in the third, while the Astros didn’t have to turn to their bullpen until the seventh.
It turns out my lack of trust in James Paxton, despite how he finished the regular season, was for a reason. Paxton was bad in the Game 1 of the ALDS and he was even worse on Sunday, unable to throw a first-pitch strike, get outs or give the team any length. His line this October: 7 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 3 BB, 11 K, 2 HR, 5.14 ERA, 1.714 WHIP. Paxton has put his team in early holes in both games, needing the offense to come back each time he has been in the mound. Thankfully, the Yankees have their deep bullpen to save Paxton like they were asked to do did in Game 2.
The decision to remove Paxton with two on and two outs in the third was the best decision Aaron Boone has made as Yankees manager. A year ago, he would have waited until both runners scored before going to his bullpen, but this season he has been quick to go to his bullpen and rightfully so. Paxton clearly didn’t have it and he wasn’t going to find it until the Yankees trailed by multiple runs. Boone sensing the urgency to keep the deficit manageable against Verlander went to Chad Green. Even though Boone is much older than me, I feel like a proud father watching him grow up right before my very eyes.
Green was awesome. He got the team out of Paxton’s jam and pitched two perfect innings, throwing 21 of 26 pitches for strikes. He was cruising when Boone removed him from the game in the fifth, but it wasn’t necessarily the wrong move. If he leaves Green in for Springer and Springer hits a home run, Boone is going to get ripped for not going to Adam Ottavino or Tommy Kahnle with Green having pitched two full innings. The move wasn’t wrong, it just didn’t work out.
The first pitch Ottavino threw in relief of Green was a middle-middle, flat slider which Springer hammered for a game-tying home run. It sucked, but it’s hard to get on Boone for the move or anyone in the Yankees’ bullpen for their performance when they’re being asked to pitch 6 2/3 innings and get 19 of 27 outs against this Astros lineup. The Astros were more than likely going to score, it just happened on the first pitch Ottavino threw. That’s the problem with getting no length from your starter and using so many relievers in the same game: you need all of them to be on on the same night. Ottavino wasn’t and the game was tied.
The only issue was that by time he came out of the game, the Yankees were already on their third of five elite relievers. Tommy Kahnle was in the game after Green and Ottavino were already used, and the Astros had yet to go to their top relievers, while the Yankees had already used the majority of theirs. If the game was going to continue, the Yankees were going to have to use some-less-than-stellar options to get outs.
The game did continue. The Yankees couldn’t do anything against the Astros’ bullpen, putting together three-minute innings, while the Astros made the Yankees’ bullpen work for every out in what felt like 30-minute innings. Boone only went to Zack Britton for one inning (12 pitches) and Aroldis Chapman for one inning (25 pitches), so after nine innings, the Yankees were out of elite options. It took CC Sabathia, Jonathan Loaisiga and J.A. Happ to miraculosly escape a 10th-inning jam, and it certainly felt like if the Yankees didn’t score in the 11th, it would take a second straight miracle inning to see the 12th.
After two quick outs by Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres, Edwin Encarnacion walked and Gardner singled. Gary Sanchez came up with a chance to be the Game 2 hero and give the Yankees a lead, and it seemed like he might after working a 10-pitch at-bat, but he eventually struck out looking on a pitch which was nowhere near the zone. That was the game.
As expected with the left-handed, fastball-throwing Happ on the mound in the 10th against a right-handed heavy, fastball-crushing lineup, Correa ended the game on the first pitch of the 11th with a solo home run to right field. Game over, series tied.
Even though the Yankees accomplished what they wanted in Houston by winning a game, it could have been much more with one more timely hit. It’s hard to feel good coming off a loss, but the Yankees and Yankees fans should recognize it’s the Astros who should feel down after giving away the home-field advantage they won over the Yankees in the regular season.
If the next three games go the way they did two years ago, the Astros won’t get their home-field advantage back, and won’t play another game in Houston this season. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s the next goal: end the series in New York.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!