The Yankees ended up losing six of the seven games they played on the road in this postseason. And the final loss came in much the same manner as their last trip to the playoffs, in 2015, when they were blanked by the Astros, 3-0, in the wild-card game.
The Yankees’ meager offense on Saturday was part of a pattern that persisted through all four of their losses at Minute Maid Park in this series. They scored one run in Game 1, another in Game 2 and then one more in Game 6 on Friday night.
All three of those defeats came against Houston’s two aces — Dallas Keuchel, a longtime Yankee tormentor, and Justin Verlander, who boasts a rich playoff résumé. But in Game 7, the Yankees succumbed to Morton, a career journeyman, who held them to two hits through five innings, and to McCullers, who is normally the team’s No. 3 starter.
McCullers gave up a single to Gardner, the first batter he faced, and allowed only one other base runner — Todd Frazier on a leadoff walk in the eighth. When center fielder George Springer squeezed a lazy fly ball by Greg Bird for the final out, McCullers leapt into McCann’s arms, and the Astros poured out of their dugout to celebrate the franchise’s second-ever trip to the Series.
“Everybody talks about Game 7, you’re going to need 12 pitchers to get through 27 outs,” Astros Manager A. J. Hinch said. “Outside of a couple times — I warmed Will Harris up about half a dozen times and Ken Giles at the end — we were perfectly content with what Morton and McCullers were doing because they were so dominant.”
After losing three straight games at a loud and intimidating Yankee Stadium to fall behind in the A.L.C.S, the Astros rebounded once they were back in more comfortable surroundings. Their pitching became dominant again, and it dovetailed with superb defense in the infield and outfield.
After Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge jumped at the wall to take a solo homer away from Yuli Gurriel in the second inning on Saturday — the second home run Judge pilfered in the postseason — Astros third baseman Alex Bregman was quick to return the favor.
With one out and runners at the corners in the fifth, and the Astros protecting a 1-0 lead, Bregman fielded Frazier’s chopper and fired right to McCann’s glove as Bird slid into it. A less precise throw would not have gotten Bird, who was thrown out at the plate twice in this series.
Then, in the top of the seventh, as the Yankees were running out of outs, Houston center fielder George Springer — whose leaping catch at the wall was the defining moment of Game 6 — sprang up again. He vaulted over left fielder Marwin Gonzalez to catch Bird’s drive to the left-center field wall and keep the Yankees from threatening.
And while much was made of the Yankees’ vaunted bullpen, especially in contrast with the Astros’ shaky corps, it turned out not to be an advantage in this series.
Over the seven games, Yankees relievers allowed more runs than their counterparts (11 to 9), and their most reliable arms were the ones that cost them. Closer Aroldis Chapman was beaten in Game 2 on a walkoff hit; David Robertson deprived the Yankees of a chance to rally when he was raked for four runs late in Game 6; and Tommy Kahnle could not keep his team close on Saturday, getting tagged for three runs.
In losing Games 3, 4, and 5 at Yankee Stadium, the Astros seemed unnerved and looked overly anxious at the plate. Thus, it heartened their hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, that when they ended a 15-inning scoreless streak in Game 6, there were three walks that led to a three-run outburst.
“I think that relaxed everybody a little bit,” Hudgens said before Saturday’s game.
It did. In the fourth inning on Saturday, Gattis fought off three two-strike pitches from C. C. Sabathia and crushed the eighth pitch of the at-bat, a slider he sent over the left-center field wall to break a scoreless tie.
In the fifth, Altuve hit a solo homer to right — this one beyond the reach of Judge — and punctuated the shot with a flip of his bat after he had carried it nearly all the way to first base.
Correa and Gurriel followed with line singles to center and right, putting runners at first and second. After Kahnle struck out Gattis, McCann came to the plate. He saw five consecutive changeups from Kahnle. The last one, on a 2-2 pitch, arrived letter high, and McCann ripped it into the right-field corner, chasing home Correa and Gurriel and putting the Yankees in a 4-0 hole.
It was the second consecutive game in which McCann, who was traded by the Yankees to the Astros for a pair of low-level prospects last winter, had delivered a critical run-scoring double.
In a particularly painful twist, the Yankees are paying $5.5 million of McCann’s salary this year — and will do the same next season. The Yankees paid at least 15 players on their postseason roster less than they gave McCann this season.
It was last year’s jettisoning of veterans like McCann — and another current Astro, Carlos Beltran — that ushered in the Yankees’ youth movement.
Judge and Luis Severino quickly emerged as stars this season. Gary Sanchez proved that his scintillating final two months of 2016 had been no illusion. Outfielder Aaron Hicks finally played to his talent level, while reliever Chad Green went from afterthought to indispensable, the rookie pitcher Jordan Montgomery showed a veteran’s moxie, and shortstop Didi Gregorius continued to blossom.
All of these developments should leave the Yankees feeling that there will be a lot more postseason games for them in the years ahead. But there are questions afoot, too — beginning with the futures of Manager Joe Girardi and Cashman, whose contracts are expiring. And with the Yankees eliminated, those questions have come into sharper focus.
“We were hoping to kick that can down the road, but now, obviously, we’re like 28 other teams,’’ Cashman said. “We’re now in that pile of ‘what’s next?’”