The New York Yankees, a team built on relief pitching, went to their bullpen early and often. The Houston Astros, with one of the best rotations in the game, rode their future Hall of Fame starting pitcher as deep into the game as they could, then pieced it together from there. Each strategy had its own logic but also its own inherent dangers, especially as the game careened into extra innings.
In the end, the Astros’ 3-2 win wasn’t so much the validation of a philosophy as the result of one night’s worth of exceptional performance sprinkled with bits of good fortune — but above all, it was a massive victory for the Astros themselves, who evened the best-of-seven series at one game apiece. And it didn’t take 27 outs; it took 33.
Astros shortstop Carlos Correa ended it with a majestic, no-doubt, opposite-field home run on the first pitch of the bottom of the 11th inning from Yankees lefty J.A. Happ, New York’s ninth pitcher of the night. Correa barely budged from the batter’s box at first, then casually tossed his bat, cupped his hand to the ear-hole of his helmet and strutted up the first base line, while his teammates spilled out of their dugout and a crowd of 43,359 went wild.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew it was going over the fence,” Correa said. “The adrenaline started pumping like crazy. I don’t even know what I did. … Obviously, it’s a moment that’s going to live with me forever.”
After Monday’s travel day, the series resumes with Game 3 at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, with Houston ace Gerrit Cole facing Yankees right-hander Luis Severino.
“Before the game, we were saying, ‘We have to win this game. We have to go to New York, 1-1,’ ” said Robinson Chirinos, who caught all 11 innings and 175 pitches for the Astros. “Everybody was talking about that. Thank God we split the series here at home, so we’re going to go to New York and take care of business there.”
Sunday night’s game was an exquisite pitchers’ duel — with offense scarce and the tension rising — just not in the traditional sense.
Astros starter Justin Verlander, a longtime Yankees postseason nemesis, limited them to two runs over his 6⅔ innings and 109 pitches, with both runs coming on Aaron Judge’s homer to center in the fourth. But the Yankees, more or less by design, got only seven outs from starter James Paxton, then cycled through their five best relievers to carry the game to extra innings. Navigating the 10th required the services of converted starters CC Sabathia and Happ.
“I just felt like we were covered, as far as getting some length and having guys rested,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said. “Obviously, going into an off-day [Monday], we’re going to be aggressive. … Bottom line is, we end up giving up a third run in the 11th inning. I’d say from a run-prevention standpoint, we did pretty well.”
In a seven-game series, it is remarkable how quickly fortunes can turn. After Saturday night’s win in Game 1, the Yankees gained home-field advantage and an immeasurable psychic benefit of beating the Astros in their home park. But suddenly, after Sunday night, it is the Yankees facing an unpleasant scenario, with Cole, the most unbeatable pitcher in the game at the moment, waiting for them in Game 3 and yet another injury crisis to face.
Left fielder Giancarlo Stanton, one of a record-setting 30 Yankees players who spent time on the injured list this season, suffered a strained quadriceps muscle in Saturday night’s Game 1 and was left out of their lineup Sunday. His status is considered day to day, and any thought the Yankees might have of replacing him on their roster is tempered by the knowledge that doing so would also make Stanton ineligible for the World Series, should the Yankees advance.
Few games in recent memory had witnessed so many rockets and lasers landing in gloves. The Astros alone hit at least six line drives directly at Yankees fielders for outs — in some cases into the teeth of a well-designed shift. Both teams hit deep flyballs that appeared headed for the seats, only to die at the warning track — part of a sustained pattern across the sport this month that has some questioning the properties of the postseason baseballs.
“Every championship run, when you look back,” Verlander said, “there’s always moments throughout the course of a ballgame or a series [where it’s], ‘How did we win that game? What happened?’ And I think tonight was nothing short of that.”
A 2-2 tie in the middle innings remained so through the top of the sixth only because of Correa’s heads-up presence and elite arm. With runners on first and second and two outs, Brett Gardner hit a smash that one-hopped Astros second baseman Jose Altuve and caromed into shallow right-center field. As Yankees first baseman D.J. LeMahieu rounded third and headed home, waved in by third base coach Phil Nevin, Correa sprinted over, gathered it in and, from the outfield grass, fired a strike home to nail LeMahieu easily and end the inning.
“He talked to me before the game and said, ‘Jose, I’m going to do something big tonight,’ ” Altuve said of his double-play mate, Correa. “He really did. When he made that play, I thought, ‘Okay.’ Then he goes [to the plate] and hits a homer — I love it.”
Verlander pumped his fists coming off the mound, and Correa wagged his index finger — no, no, no — at no one in particular. But Verlander’s night ended three batters into the seventh. The Astros don’t have the same bullpen depth as the Yankees, but high-leverage slayer Will Harris got two critical outs, and closer Roberto Osuna, brought into a tie game in the eighth, collected five.
“As you start to get to the end of it, we’re both counting the number of pitchers we have left and we’re going to maximize those guys,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “You try not to run out of players. You try not to run out of pitching. But most importantly, you just try to win the game. … This was an epic game in the playoffs with everything on the line. So obviously this has only just begun. I’m not drawing any conclusions. We’re doing the best to put our players in the best position possible.”
The Yankees, meanwhile, pulled starter Paxton after only 2⅓ innings, at which point he had allowed only one run and four hits, and in a one-run game they launched the nightly parade of relievers for which they have become known. This postseason, they have yet to push a starter beyond 86 pitches, and only veteran right-hander Masahiro Tanaka, in Game 1, has secured an out beyond the fifth inning.
“I was expecting him a little bit longer,” Altuve said of Paxton, “but I was happy when they took him out of the game. He was throwing 98 with nasty curve balls and cutters.”
First up Sunday night was right-hander Chad Green, who retired all six batters he faced, throwing just 26 pitches — 19 below his season high — and he looked like he had more left when Boone pulled him, one batter into the fifth, in favor of Adam Ottavino. In doing so, Boone may have been guilty of thinking ahead to Game 3 and/or 4, hoping to conserve Green for later duty, rather than prioritizing winning the game in front of him.
But the inherent risk in “bullpenning” is that one weak link in the chain causes the whole thing to break down. With a one-run lead, the margin for error was tiny, and with Ottavino on the mound, the lead didn’t even last for one pitch. The right-hander served up a hanging slider that George Springer crushed over the Crawford Boxes in left, tying the score at 2.
Ottavino gave way to right-hander Tommy Kahnle for seven outs, then Kahnle to lefty Zack Britton for three. Closer Aroldis Chapman worked a scoreless ninth. That was all more or less by design.
But then came the 10th, and then the 11th – the highly populated Yankees bullpen dwindling down to a lonely few. And then Correa’s homer was sailing into the seats, and the Yankees were staggering off the field, all that work and all that planning undone — because baseball doesn’t follow anybody’s blueprint.