The New York Yankees no longer need to count the days. They know Verlander is waiting for them around the corner, and Cole is looming just beyond, and the Yankees’ cold reality is this: to win the American League Championship Series, they will need to vanquish them both.
That grim reality was the consequence of the Yankees’ unsightly 8-3 loss in Game 4 of the ALCS on Thursday night at Yankee Stadium — a game that moved the Astros, who now lead the best-of-seven series three games to one, to within one more win of a World Series date with the Washington Nationals, and pushed the Yankees to within one more loss of their season ending.
Astros mainstays George Springer and Carlos Correa each hit three-run homers — the former off Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka in the third inning, the latter off reliever Chad Green in the sixth — to highlight what amounted to an explosion of runs for a Houston offense that still hasn’t performed to its full, best-in-the-majors capabilities this month.
As if their plight isn’t bad enough, the Yankees will next have to deal with Verlander, who received no decision in the Astros’ victory in Game 2 and who is expected to get the ball Friday night in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, opposing Yankees lefty James Paxton. Should the Yankees survive that, it would send the series back to Houston for Game 6 on Saturday. And if they win that as well, they would get Cole, the Astros’ firewall and a pitcher who hasn’t lost a decision since May 22, in Game 7.
“Our guys are studs, and I think they embrace the challenge,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “I can’t wait to see them go out there and play our game.”
“Stranger things have happened in baseball,” Yankees slugger Aaron Judge said. “We’re down right now. But there’s a lot of games still to play.”
Game 4 had been rescheduled from Wednesday night due to rain. Thursday’s weather, by contrast, was dry, cool and windy, with the flags atop the stadium — lowered to half-staff to honor the passing of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) — whipping and snapping in the wind. Any pop fly was an adventure. Occasionally, the playing field was visited by a stray plastic bag drifting in the wind.
A crowd of 49,067 was by turns electric, restless and salty — booing lustily, for example, as the Yankees’ infield booted four grounders, two each by first baseman D.J. LeMahieu and second baseman Gleyber Torres, and when struggling reliever Adam Ottavino failed to retire either of the two batters he faced in the eighth (one of whom reached on LeMahieu’s second error). Twice, the public address announcer had to remind fans not to throw objects on the field.
“The errors hurt,” Yankees center fielder Aaron Hicks said. “We need to clean it up. Play our baseball — clean baseball. If we play the game the way we know we can play, we’ll win ballgames.”
But the crowd put aside its vitriol and rose to its feet in the eighth to bid a rousing farewell to veteran lefty CC Sabathia — who suffered an undisclosed shoulder injury at the end of a four-batter appearance and who, having already announced his retirement, has likely thrown the final pitch of his career — and some of the Astros stood on the top step of their dugout to join the ovation.
“That’s a warrior right there. That was tough to see,” Judge said. “That’s our leader, man. He left it all out there.”
For all their offensive prowess this season — they led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage — the Astros’ lineup had struggled to produce this postseason, averaging a little more than three runs a game and hitting just .217/.286/.373 as a team entering Thursday. In the first three games of this series, they had gone 1 for 19 with runners in scoring position.
On Thursday night, their first chance with runners in scoring position came in the second inning, when Robinson Chirinos led off with a walk and Josh Reddick followed with a line-drive single to right. On a 1-0 count to Springer, Tanaka hung a splitter over the plate, and Springer crushed it into the seats in left.
Tanaka would depart one batter into the sixth, giving way to Green, who later that inning served up the 0-1 fastball that Correa crushed to left for another three-run homer. Tanaka was charged with three earned runs in all, the first time in eight career postseason starts that he had given up more than two.
Astros starter Zack Greinke, meanwhile, survived an uncharacteristic bout of wildness — he walked three batters in the first inning alone, as many walks as he had issued in his previous nine starts combined — to pitch into the fifth inning, allowing only a single run in that messy first.
“Zack getting out of the first with only [giving up] one run, having spent a lot of pitches — and a lot of stressful pitches . . . was pivotal for us to hang in there,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said.
The Astros’ lead swelled to 6-1 on Correa’s homer in the top of the sixth, shrunk to 6-3 in the bottom of the sixth when Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez hit a two-run homer off rookie right-hander Josh James, then expanded to 8-3 thanks largely to the Yankees’ spotty defense. Even then, Hinch took no chances, using all his best relievers to carry the lead home — Will Harris for three outs, Joe Smith for two and closer Roberto Osuna for four.
By the ninth inning, Yankee Stadium was a sea of empty seats and bitter resignation.
The Yankees, despite an unprecedented run of injuries, won 103 games this season, swept the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series
and took the opener against the Astros. It has been a remarkable season. But its survival is now predicated upon a terrible equation.
It has been four months — dating back to a mid-June series in Cincinnati, of all places — since a team has won games started by Verlander and Cole within the same series. Over the entire 162-game regular season, no team hung a loss on both pitchers. To get to the World Series, the Yankees will almost certainly need to become the first.