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NEW YORK — It’s not easy to lose a seven-game series in Game 3, but the New York Yankees may have done just that Tuesday night.
For the second straight game, they caught one of the nastiest starting pitchers in the game at less than his nastiest, and let him off the hook.
For the second straight game, their bullpen, among the best in baseball all season, let them down just when the Yankees needed it to step up.
And for the third straight game, their offense, which scored the most runs in baseball and hit 307 home runs, the second-most in MLB history, looked rather feeble, with one notable exception.
It all added up to a 4-1 loss to the Houston Astros in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium, giving the Astros a 2-1 series edge that feels as if the Yankees are on the edge of an abyss.
Suddenly, their 7-0 victory in Game 1 on Saturday in Houston seems like a long time ago.
And the chances of them overcoming what lies ahead — a possible rainout on Wednesday followed by, potentially, four games in four days, two of them at Minute Maid Park as well as having to face Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole one more time each — seems to be a crapshoot at best.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,’’ said Brett Gardner, the only position player remaining from the 2009 Yankees, the last one to win a World Series. “But this team has come through all year and we will again.’’
But having lost on Sunday, 3-2, on a walk-off home run by Carlos Correa off J.A. Happ in the 11th inning after having wrestled Verlander to a draw for 6 2/3 innings, and then allowing Cole, the leading candidate for the AL Cy Young, to wiggle off the hook three times on Tuesday, it’s tough to imagine the Yankees ever having a better chance to take control of this series than the two they’ve already squandered.
“We had him on the ropes a couple of times, but he was able to get out of it,’’ Gardner said. “That’s what the best pitchers do.’’
And that’s about all the Yankees will face the rest of the way. To borrow the catchphrase of a former Yankee manager, it’s not what you want.
Both Boone and Astros manager A.J. Hinch had planned bullpen games for Wednesday, but the forecast looks ominous, with a 100-percent chance of rain predicted from 4 p.m. ET. If that holds, it would push the series back a day, with Games 4 and 5 at Yankee Stadium on Thursday and Friday, and Games 6 and 7, if necessary, on Saturday and Sunday in Houston. That would mean the Yankees would have to win three games in a span of four days from the team with the best regular-season record in baseball, and at least one in the home ballpark of a club that won nearly three-quarters of its home games this year.
And, they would have to beat Verlander and/or Cole, who had the two lowest ERAs among qualifying AL starters, whose combined record was 41-11, and whose team won 50 of their 67 starts this season.
Impossible, no. But likely? Hardly.
And it all could have been different had the Yankees been able to take advantage of the comparative mortality of both of Houston’s elite starters in Games 2 and 3.
The Yankees had a 2-1 lead over Verlander at the halfway point of Game 2, but Boone yanked James Paxton early and decided he could get 20 outs from his bullpen. That backfired when George Springer homered off the suddenly unreliable Adam Ottavino to tie the game in the bottom of the fifth, and exploded when Correa hit Happ’s first pitch of the 11th out of the ballpark.
Meanwhile, the Yankees offense managed just six hits all night, and just one after Verlander left the game with two out in the seventh.
Fast forward to Tuesday and the first inning against Cole. The Yankees, in a 1-0 hole courtesy of a Jose Altuve home run off Luis Severino, loaded the bases on a pair of singles and a two-out walk. But Didi Gregorius, who hit just .223 over the second half of the season and had just one hit in his first eight at-bats in this series, jumped on the first pitch and grounded out to end the inning.
That scenario played out for Gregorius and the Yankees several more times in the game. They got two runners on in the second, only to see Cole fan Aaron Judge with an unhittable slider. Two runners were on in the fourth, but D.J. LeMahieu flied out to center. And they got their hearts broken in the fifth when, with two out, Gregorius’ fly ball was caught by Josh Reddick up against the right-field wall.
Gregorius came to bat four times and saw six pitches; three times he swung at the first thing he saw. And Cole, who had not walked more than three batters in any of his 33 starts this season, gave the Yankees five free baserunners in addition to their four hits.
“I mean, the pitches were right down the middle,’’ Gregorius said of his aggressive approach at the plate. “Pitches down the middle I should not miss.’’
“We ended up with nine baserunners against him,’’ Boone said of his team’s near-success against Cole. “You kind of sign up for that.’’
But the Yankees could never break through. Gregorius was not alone. Through three games, Edwin Encarnacion is batting .083, Gardner .154, Gio Urshela .182 and Gary Sanchez .077, with one hit in 13 at-bats including six strikeouts. And Giancarlo Stanton, who Boone said might be available as a pinch-hitter, stayed on the bench with a quad injury suffered in Game 1.
Only Gleyber Torres, who knocked in five of the seven runs in Game 1, provided an offensive spark. His home run off Joe Smith in the eighth accounted for the Yankees only run of the night. Overall, the Yankee bats were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left 10 men on base.
Severino started off shakily — the Astros loaded the bases after Altuve’s home run but failed to score, and Josh Reddick nicked him for another solo shot in the second — but settled down acceptably, allowing two runs on five hits in 4 1/3 innings.
But once again, it was the bullpen that went soft, notably Ottavino, who walked the first batter he faced, allowed a hit to the second, and was yanked, having seemingly destroyed Boone’s trust and exhausted the patience of the crowd, which booed him. Zack Britton wild-pitched a run home and allowed a sacrifice fly to score another.
And the Yankees most effective reliever, Chad Green, faced just two batters, throwing eight pitches, presumably because Boone was saving him to serve as the Game 4 opener.
“I haven’t been told anything yet,’’ Green said. “But it really doesn’t matter. I get told 10 minutes before I go into a game anyway, so I’ll be ready.’’
The Yankees, of course, hope it doesn’t come to that, that the rains postpone Game 4 and allow them to go to Masahiro Tanaka on Thursday, Paxton on Friday with Severino fully rested for a possible Game 7 on Sunday.
But they know they still must beat Verlander or Cole, or maybe even both.
“We knew we were going to have to beat at least one of them to advance,’’ Britton said, “so really, nothing’s changed.’’
And yet, everything has changed. Lost opportunities today turn into lost series’ tomorrow.
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