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NEW YORK — The Yankees did their best to paper over the red flags that have popped up everywhere in the American League Championship Series, but the conversational roads all lead to the same troubling conclusion: They’re sinking fast against the best team in this postseason.
A 4-1 loss to the Astros in Game 3 on Tuesday leaves the Yankees in a predicament that, while not impossible to overcome, is nevertheless dire.
Brian Cashman couldn’t have looked any more worn out as he made his way to manager Aaron Boone’s office after the game. The general manager’s angst was understandable. The Bombers’ bullpen once again failed, and the offense, given a rare opportunity against Gerrit Cole, who walked five and was uncharacteristically hittable, was held scoreless over seven innings.
Only Gleyber Torres’ meaningless home run in the eighth inning saved the Yankees from the embarrassment of being shut out at home. But make no mistake: The Astros are in a dominant position in this series, and there are two reasons why.
The first has been the superiority of their bullpen—a matchup that was supposed to favor the Yankees. But after the Bombers failed to hold a 2-1 lead in Game 2, their relievers, specifically Adam Ottavino, melted down for the second consecutive game.
The right-hander surrendered the tying home run to George Springer at Minute Maid Park on Sunday, setting the stage for Houston’s eventual 3-2 victory in 11 innings. He was just as ineffective Tuesday night, allowing the first two batters he faced to reach base in the seventh and lighting the fuse to Houston’s decisive two-run surge.
Reason No. 2 has everything to do with the Astros’ self-confidence, which is clearly soaring. Remember, this is largely the same team that lost three straight games in Yankee Stadium during the 2017 ALCS, overwhelmed by the wall of noise and the aggressive New York crowds, only to go on and win the series in seven.
Springer says the vibe in the Bronx is still the same—”this is the hardest place to play in America”—but this time, the Astros seem invulnerable.
They silenced the ballpark in the first two innings when Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick both hit solo homers off Luis Severino. The fans murmured uncomfortably, sensing the worst. Or as Reddick put it, “You get one or two runs for Gerrit Cole, and it feels like you’ve got a 10-run lead.”
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Cole, after all, had been a human strikeout machine in the ALDS, setting a major league record with 25 punchouts in just 15.2 innings against the Rays. The Astros ace was riding an 18-game winning streak, another record-setter.
Down by two runs before they’d even come to bat a second time, it was reasonable to think the Yankees were cooked.
Only they weren’t—or shouldn’t have been. Cole’s five walks were a season high; he hadn’t issued more than three during any one game in 2019. The right-hander would later say, “Obviously, [the] fastball command was a bit of a struggle. I don’t really have a reason for that right now, but I know it will be better next time.”
Despite the brush with vulnerability, Cole managed to smother the Yankees, even though he came within a foot of being taken deep by Didi Gregorius in the fifth with two runners on. Cole left a fastball in the middle of the plate, and Gregorius crushed it. Reddick’s back was to the wall in right-center when the ball landed in his glove, ending the inning, the rally and perhaps the series.
Gregorius ruefully said, “This [loss] is on me. I didn’t come through. That pitch was right down the middle, and I missed it. You shouldn’t miss that.”
He was right about the rare gift from Cole. But among the real culprits was Gary Sanchez, who’s batting .095 (2-for-21) during the postseason and failed to block Zack Britton’s errant sinker in the seventh inning, allowing the Astros to score their third run. There’s no question Sanchez, a notoriously streaky hitter, has bottomed out and should be benched in Game 4.
Boone has to make a similar call with Ottavino, whose troubles are both confidence-related and mechanical and cannot be trusted in high-leverage situations until further notice. Ottavino admits, “I don’t have a good reason for not getting it done. I’m just mad at myself.”
But with rain in the forecast and the likelihood Game 4 will be pushed back to Thursday, the entire Yankees bullpen—the beleaguered Ottavino included—will be under maximum pressure as the ALCS could play its final four games in four days. That’s bad news for the Bombers, who never thought they’d miss Dellin Betances (partially torn Achilles) and Domingo German (administrative leave) as much as they do today.
Then again, while the Yankees are churning over their lost opportunities, the Astros are methodically delivering the same message the Rays were forced to absorb last week: October is their month. Good luck trying to take down this monolith.