HOUSTON — The Yankees won Game 1 and that was as close to vital as playoff openers get.
They needed to establish instantly that this would not be 2017 redux, when they couldn’t win in Houston, and without the home-field edge, then (like now), they couldn’t win the ALCS. The Yanks also knew Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole were lined up next, and, thus, lose Game 1 and there was a clear path to being down 0-3 and suddenly winter would be zooming toward them fast.
The 7-0 smackdown Saturday night felt great for the Yankees, got them off right, removed their October schneid in Minute Maid. Yet, as great as that felt, there was this reality: The Yanks were still going to have to win at least one game started by the pitchers who will finish 1-2 in the AL Cy Young vote. Verlander and Cole can start four times in this series, and the math is simple — if Houston wins the games they start, it will advance to the World Series for the second time in three years no matter what occurs in the other three games.
In 2017, the Yankees had to contend with just Verlander and that was too much. The righty had one more win (two) than runs allowed (one) over 16 innings en route to the ALCS MVP. Now, he has Cole as co-star, co-pilot and co-ace.
In his seventh career postseason start against the Yankees — which is tied for the most ever — Verlander did not earn the win in Sunday’s ALCS Game 2. But the Astros did, in part because Verlander worked deep enough (6 ²/₃ innings, two runs) to limit how much Houston manager A.J. Hinch had to rely on the sketchiest parts of his pen.
Meanwhile, Aaron Boone pulled James Paxton after just seven outs, forcing a chain of the Yankee manager’s trusted relievers to get through nine innings. The problem was the game went extra innings. And the Yanks never found the hit they desperately needed, and ultimately their bullpen magic disappeared when Carlos Correa homered off J.A. Happ — the Yankees’ ninth pitcher — on the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning.
Thus, culminated a 3-2 Astros win in which both teams shined on defense. Both teams hit key homers. Both executed huge pitches in dire situations. And both teams rose above the stress to deliver a game befitting clubs that combined for 310 victories this year. This was superb baseball theater, full of outstanding efforts and overflow tension. Ultimately, though, the series is tied at one win piece, but the Yanks are 0-1 in games started by an Astro co-ace. And so this is a new schneid they must eradicate.
“Absolutely,” Zach Britton said. “It’s inevitable that we have to beat one of those guys.”
Verlander was 4-0 with a 2.33 ERA in the first six postseason starts versus the Yankees and opened Game 2 by going nine up, nine down. He
was protecting a 1-0 lead and the Yankees already were in their bullpen when Verlander walked DJ LeMahieu after getting ahead 0-2 to open the fourth. Aaron Judge followed with a homer to center to give the Yankees a 2-1 lead.
Paxton was gone by then, having allowed six of the 12 Astros he faced to reach, issuing two walks and yielding four hits. He was the one starter Boone envisioned providing length in October, but Paxton has now totalled seven innings in two starts.
The lone run yielded by the Yankee pen before the 11th came when George Springer clobbered a tying homer on Adam Ottavino’s first pitch, a hanging slider in the fifth. Ottavino continues to be the weakest link of Boone’s high-leverage relievers during the playoffs.
That homer made it 2-2 and it stayed like that for the next few hours. The implications of who would break the tie were understood. As
Correa said, “We came to the park, knowing we had to win this game with JV on the mound.”
They did. The Yanks missed their chance to not only win both games in Houston but defang the Verlander/Cole mystique.
Chance No. 2 comes Tuesday, the comfort of The Bronx, but also the discomfort of Cole’s arsenal.
Either the Yanks figure a way to win a game started by Verlander or Cole, or else taking that opener is going to be a pleasant footnote within an unpleasant result.