Before Carlos Correa even stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 11th inning to clobber his walk-off homer to end Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, the Houston Astros had already gained an upper hand. By taking advantage of Yankees starter James Paxton’s uneven command and forcing his early exit on Sunday, the Astros triggered a chain of events that eventually led to the decisive J.A. Happ-Correa matchup.
Happ was the ninth Yankees pitcher of the game, setting a new franchise postseason record. The Astros, on the other hand, needed only six pitchers because their standout starter, Justin Verlander, held steady long enough to pitch into the seventh inning with the score tied.
“If you can kind of put some pressure on them and you get some matchups in your favor, they’re going to continue to make those moves,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said of the Yankees after his team’s 3-2 win to even the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
Two games into the A.L.C.S., one theme is already clear: With the Yankees and Astros fielding two of the best offenses in baseball, the margins for error on the mound are extremely thin — and the differences in the two clubs’ pitching staffs only makes the decision-making harder.
The Astros are relying heavily on their rotation aces — Gerrit Cole, who starts Tuesday; Zack Greinke and Verlander. Their ability to pitch not only well but deep into games is a luxury because it minimizes the impact of the weaker links of their pitching staff. The Yankees, on the other hand, are happy to squeeze as much as possible out of their stout bullpen, which is guided by five relievers — Tommy Kahnle, Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green.
Until Sunday, the Yankees’ bullpen (and their powerful offense) had successfully mitigated the shortcomings of their starting rotation. And Paxton had been their best starter entering Sunday: Since Aug. 2, he had a 2.74 earned run average and had guided his team to 12 wins, including one in the postseason.
Still, he is not on the same level as Verlander or Cole, both of whom logged over 200 innings and 300 strikeouts during the regular season. So even though the Yankees trailed by only one run with one out in the third inning, Manager Aaron Boone emerged from the dugout and signaled for Green to replace Paxton. The Astros were 4-for-10 with two walks against Paxton, and Boone couldn’t play with fire any longer. With no game on Monday and 10 relievers at his disposal, he felt confident he could get 20 more outs from his bullpen. Problem was, the Yankees would ultimately need more on Sunday as the game went to extra innings.
“You’re playing it to win the game,” Boone said. “You’re not playing it to, ‘What if we go 13, you know?’ 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. I’d say from a run prevention standpoint it went pretty well.”
It was also a more-aggressive strategy than the one Boone employed last October, when he drew some criticism for leaving pitchers in too long. After Green tossed two innings on Sunday, Ottavino entered in the fifth to face the top of the Astros’ lineup. Ottavino’s wicked slider seemed to be a perfect counter for Astros outfielder George Springer, who is one of the best in baseball at slugging fastballs.
But Ottavino threw a slider over the heart of the plate that Springer blasted to left field for a homer that tied the score at 2-2. “I have a lot of confidence in my slider, obviously, but credit to him: He didn’t miss it when I made the mistake,” Ottavino said of Springer.
As the innings progressed, Boone cycled through his other stout relievers. He pushed Kahnle to two and one-third innings, his longest outing since Game 1 of the 2017 A.L.C.S. After Chapman tossed a scoreless ninth inning, Boone turned to C.C. Sabathia, Jonathan Loaisiga and Happ, all of whom struggled during the season.
Sabathia, a longtime starter who had recently dealt with shoulder soreness, got one out in the 10th inning. But Loaisiga walked both batters he faced. Happ escaped that inherited jam, but faltered himself an inning later on the first pitch he threw to Correa.
It was here that the absences of Dellin Betances (Achilles injury) and Domingo German (administrative leave) were felt acutely. The Astros, thanks to Verlander’s long outing, were able to outlast the Yankees.
“We pitched really well,” Britton said. “It came down to making one more mistake than they did.”
The battle of slim margins could be further complicated by weather: Forecasts were calling for rain on Wednesday before and during Game 4, which is set to start at 8 p.m. If postponed, Games 4 and 5 would be pushed back a day.
That might prove most beneficial for the Astros, since the quality of their starting pitching drops off significantly after Verlander, Cole and Greinke. Wade Miley, the Astros’ fourth starter during the regular season, was left off the A.L.C.S. roster after a rough September. Greinke, who started Game 1, could pitch on Thursday on regular rest.
The Yankees’ plan for Game 4 was, in Boone’s words, for their bullpen to be “unleashed.” They were successful during the regular season with similar nontraditional pitching strategies, going 12-7 when employing an opener. Boone said Happ, a starter during the regular season, could be an option to pitch in some fashion in Game 4. But with a rain postponement, the Yankees could avoid that entirely and have Masahiro Tanaka, an October master, return on regular rest on Thursday in a rematch with Greinke, who he faced in Game 1.
In that game, Tanaka and Greinke each spun six innings, but Tanaka’s were spotless and Greinke allowed three runs. The only Yankees to pitch after Tanaka that day: Ottavino, Britton and, once the lead was large, Loaisiga.