As invigorating as the victory was for the Astros, it was gut-wrenching for the Yankees, whose resolve will be tested once again in these playoffs. Just as in the division series, they will return home for Game 3 having lost the first two games on the road.
In the two games here, both 2-1 defeats, they managed just one run in 16 innings against the Astros’ starting pitchers: Dallas Keuchel and Verlander. The two young sluggers that are the drivers of the Yankees offense — Judge and Sanchez — went a combined 1 for 14 with eight strikeouts.
But what these two pitching-rich games have highlighted more than anything else is the Astros’ ability to change games with their defense, while the Yankees have been unable to do so.
On Friday night, in Game 1, Houston left fielder Marwin Gonzalez threw out Greg Bird at home plate. On Saturday, in Game 2, Houston right fielder Josh Reddick made two plays that affected the game in the third inning.
First, Reddick — who has three Spiderman outfits in his locker — made a leaping catch at the wall to steal an extra-base hit, and perhaps a home run, from Chase Headley. The play drew a standing ovation from the capacity crowd and a raised fist of appreciation from Verlander.
But Reddick was not done. The next batter, Brett Gardner, smacked a 3-2 slider into the right-field corner. Reddick picked up the ball barehanded after it bounced off the wall and whipped a strike to Correa, the shortstop, on the edge of the outfield grass. Correa wheeled and fired a one-hop throw to third baseman Alex Bregman, who gathered it on the home-plate side of third base and slapped a tag on Gardner as he slid headfirst to the outside of the bag.
The third-base umpire Jerry Meals, hovering over the bag, signaled safe. But Bregman immediately pointed to the Astros’ dugout to challenge the call.
As Manager A. J. Hinch did, the Astros began heading toward their dugout. Gardner did the same. A moment later, confirmation came — Gardner was out and the inning was over.
“The little things may be blown into a lot bigger proportion than you’re usually used to,” Reddick said of the pressure of the postseason. “During the season, you come in here and miss the cutoff guy, you worry about the next day and doing it better. If your team loses because of it, you look back and go, ‘Well, there’s always tomorrow.’ Now, you don’t get that opportunity to look back.”
Though the Yankees’ third-base coach, Joe Espada, had waved Gardner to third, the player absolved him. Gardner said his footwork had been sloppy rounding second, causing him to slow down for a split second. It proved to be the difference in the play.
“It just can’t be that close,” Gardner said. “I can’t be out right there.”
The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the fourth when Correa drove a 2-2 fastball from Luis Severino to right field. Judge raced toward the wall, but the first glove the ball hit belonged to Carson Riley, a 12-year-old boy sitting in the front row of the right-field seats.
The play evoked a memorable moment in Yankees playoff history, when Jeffrey Maier, also 12 at the time, reached over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium trying to catch a ball hit by Derek Jeter in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series. Despite the protests of Baltimore right fielder Tony Tarasco, who pleaded for a fan-interference call, the umpire Rich Garcia ruled it a home run, which tied the score. The Yankees won that game in 11 innings and went on to win the series.
On Saturday, the Yankees asked for a crew chief review, but the ball was ruled to have cleared the wall before it hit the boy’s glove. And unlike Tarasco, who was braced at the wall to leap for Jeter’s drive, Judge was trying to catch up to Correa’s hit as it reached the stands.
“I didn’t get back there in time to get a feel for the wall and make a good play on it,” Judge acknowledged.
The Yankees got even an inning later, when Aaron Hicks doubled into the left-center gap with two outs and came home two pitches later, after Frazier drove a ball to the wall in the same alley. The ball got stuck in the chain-link fence, and though Frazier circled the bases, he was sent back to second with a ground-rule double. Verlander escaped more damage when he retired Headley on a full-count liner directly at center fielder George Springer.
Verlander, though, was far from done.
The Yankees managed only more two base runners — on a one-out walk to Greg Bird in the seventh and a one-out, checked-swing single by Gregorius in the ninth. Neither runner advanced. Verlander pumped his fist after retiring Bird on a weak grounder to end the ninth.
Though Verlander was cuffed around in two trips to the World Series with Detroit, he has an extensive record of dominating performances in big October moments — including Game 5 shutouts of the Oakland A’s that decided two division series. And he is especially tough on the Yankees in the postseason, having now beaten them four times.
“I’m pretty tired right now, honestly,” Verlander said. “It’s pretty mentally exhausting, the playoffs, but that’s what it’s all about. After that game is over and just kind of sitting in the clubhouse and having my teammates come over and say how much they appreciated that effort, that’s what it’s all about.”
In the visitors’ clubhouse, there was regret — particularly about the last play. The Yankees pitchers had once again held the Astros’ offense, the best in baseball, in check. Severino allowed only the home run to Correa, and Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson threw two scoreless innings apiece before Altuve delivered a one-out single off Aroldis Chapman and Correa put in motion the final play.
Gregorius took blame for a poor throw. “I short-hopped the ball a little bit, so I’m not going to blame it on him,” he said of Sanchez.
The catcher said he should have caught the ball.
“The bottom line is if I catch that ball he’s going to be out, and I dropped the ball,” Sanchez said.
Neither of the mistakes was particularly egregious, but in a series that has been defined by the narrowest of margins, they are the kind that the Astros have not made.