At 11:58 p.m. CT Sunday night, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa ambushed a first-pitch fastball from Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ, belting it 394 feet into the right-field seats.
Correa cupped his right hand behind his right ear before he rounded the bases, listening to the emphatic roar of the sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park — the same crowd he’d just sent into an absolute frenzy.
A 4-hour, 49-minute instant classic had come to a dramatic conclusion in the home half of the 11th inning, leaving the visitors to walk off the field knowing that — deep down — they had missed out on a massive opportunity.
Sure, the New York Yankees had come away with an American League Championship Series split in Houston. And that’s all well and good.
But it could’ve easily been 2-0 in favor of The Bronx Bombers. And it wasn’t.
“We had them on the ropes basically all game and weren’t able to seal the deal,” Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge told reporters after Correa gave the Astros a 3-2 victory with a walk-off solo shot against Happ leading off the 11th in Game 2.
The Yankees had gotten nemesis Justin Verlander out of the game with the score tied. And their bullpen was largely terrific in place of an ineffective James Paxton.
But their high-octane offense mustered only one hit after the sixth inning. And once again, it was Correa delivering the final blow — just as he had two years ago with a walk-off double against Yankees flamethrower Aroldis Chapman (also in Game 2 of the ALCS).
“It was a struggle tonight,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said of his team’s offense, which had scored 30 runs en route to a 4-0 start in the postseason. “They are the Houston Astros, and they’re tough to score runs off of — especially on a night when Verlander is out there. They held us down tonight. That’s going to happen. We know this isn’t going to be an easy series by any means. But over time, I’ll take our guys and their approach.”
The Yankees now have to face superstar righty Gerrit Cole on Tuesday afternoon in Game 3. Cole has won his last 18 decisions while allowing only one run through his first two postseason starts. They could’ve taken some pressure off of themselves had they been able to finish this one off.
Although early on, it looked like they might.
Boone managed aggressively for the second straight night, pulling Paxton (four hits, two walks) with two on, one out and the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the third (via an RBI double from Correa). The 30-year-old lefty wasn’t particularly aggressive or effective, throwing first-pitch strikes to just three of the 12 hitters he faced. And he also may have been tipping his pitches — something he’d already done in Houston during the regular season.
“I mean, I don’t think so,” Boone maintained, although Astros third baseman Alex Bregman had appeared to indicate that Paxton was giving his pitches away with his glove. “I mean, I think we’re pretty vigilant about that stuff.”
In any case, Boone went to Chad Green, who got out of the jam, and Judge blasted a 423-foot, two-run homer off Verlander in the fourth — snapping an 0-for-8 stretch against the veteran righty in the postseason — to put the Yankees ahead 2-1. Green ended up using his heavy fastball to get six outs on 26 pitches (21 strikes), and looked to be in control; he has a 0.42 ERA in his last 14 appearances.
But Boone then turned to the shaky Adam Ottavino, who proceeded to give up the game-tying solo shot to George Springer with one out in the fifth. Springer, who had slugged .875 against four-seamers coming in, ambushed a hanging slider from Ottavino and sent it 418 feet to left-center to knot the score at 2-2; it was just the second homer Ottavino had allowed since June 13.
This time, the eye-test won out against the numbers. Springer came into the at-bat 0-for-4 in his career against Ottavino with three strikeouts, but the righty reliever had already failed to retire fellow righty slugger Nelson Cruz in the ALDS — after struggling toward the end of the regular season. And it now becomes a question of whether the Yankees can afford to turn to Ottavino in high-leverage spots.
“I thought he was aggressively attacking the strike zone tonight,” Boone said of Ottavino, who retired only one of the four batters he faced before being bailed out by Tommy Kahnle (seven outs). “I thought he threw the ball well. He’s going to be very important for us this series with their righties.”
The Yankees ultimately got a combined 7 2/3 innings of three-hit, two-run, four-walk, 11-strikeout ball from eight different relievers.
Most nights, that’s more than good enough. But this wasn’t one of those nights.
They simply ran out of high-leverage relievers at the end, having to turn to the likes of CC Sabathia (one out), Jonathan Loaisiga (two walks) and Happ after one-inning pitchers Zack Britton and Chapman worked a scoreless eighth and ninth, respectively. Meanwhile, Houston’s bullpen was supposed to be inferior, yet it managed to keep New York off the scoreboard for 4 1/3 innings before Correa’s heroics.
“I mean, you’re playing it to win the game,” Boone said of his bullpen strategy, a collaborative effort with the front office. “You’re not playing it to what if we go 13 [innings]? You’re playing it to what gives us the best chance to win here. And the bottom line is we end up giving up a third run in the 11th inning, so I’d say from a run prevention standpoint it went pretty well.”
It’s just that it didn’t go well at all from a run-scoring standpoint.
The Yankees were without Giancarlo Stanton due to a strained right quadriceps, something that could be an issue for the team going forward. Regardless, they began to work deeper counts on Verlander as the game progressed, and he required 109 pitches to navigate 6 2/3 innings. But they simply couldn’t string hits together, mustering all of six on the night. Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion combined to go 0-for-9 with six strikeouts.
The Bombers had their best chance in the sixth when Brett Gardner (2-for-5) hit a sharp-one hopper that caromed off second baseman Jose Altuve with runners on first and second and two outs. Third-base coach Phil Nevin aggressively waived D.J. LeMahieu home, but Correa — who else? — alertly grabbed the ball and fired an 87-mph strike to the plate to get the sliding Yankees first baseman by a wide margin for the final out of the frame.
“It’s a great heads-up play by Correa to be in that position,” Boone said of the Derek Jeter-like moment. “I had no issue with the send.”
Then, with two on and two out in the 11th, Sanchez and Houston’s Josh James engaged in an epic 10-pitch at-bat in which the Yankees catcher made the final out of the frame three different times — first, on a pop-up that hit the roof; next, on a pitch in the dirt that he swung through but was wrongly ruled a foul ball; and finally on a strike-three pitch that appeared to be a make-up call since it was off the plate.
Seriously. You couldn’t make it up if you tried.
“I felt like he had some quality swings, but he’s just not getting a lot of quality results right now,” Boone said of Sanchez, now 2-for-17 in the postseason.
That set the stage for Correa — who had been dropped to seventh in the order and came into Game 2 with three hits in his first 22 postseason at-bats after dealing with back problems — to finally end it.
“He knew he was going to end it during the pitching change [from Loaisiga to Happ],” Bregman said. “He told us, and then he did it.”
“It’s all worth it for moments like this,” Correa said.
Not so much for the Yankees, who will look back to Game 2 with significant regret if they don’t end up advancing to the World Series.
“Just back and forth — the two best ballclubs in the game,” Judge said. “I wish we could have come away with two here, but now it’s time to regroup and get ready for Tuesday.”
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