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What the Yankees can take away from their latest battle with Justin Verlander

The Yanks dropped Game Two on Sunday, but even in a mostly quiet evening, the offense showed positive signs against Houston’s dominant righty.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

If the Yankees are to beat the Astros and move on to the World Series, they have to beat either Gerrit Cole or Justin Verlander at least once. That didn’t happen on Sunday night, though the Yanks came awfully close in an 11-inning thriller that split the series heading back to the Bronx.

Having knocked Verlander out of the game with the score tied, the Bombers were in great position to steal another win on the road and take a stranglehold on the series. They didn’t, which feels like a missed opportunity. There were still encouraging signs from Sunday’s game that could bode well as the series moves along, particularly when it comes to facing Verlander again, which would likely be in Game Six back in Houston, if necessary.

First, the nature of the Yankees’ contact against Verlander on Sunday was very encouraging. Of the 16 balls put in play against Verlander, 10 were hard hit, or over 95 mph in exit velocity. DJ LeMahieu set the tone on the very first at-bat of the game, rocketing a line drive right at Carlos Correa for an unlucky out, which happened to be the Yankees’ hardest hit ball of the night. It also had an expected batting average of .800, but alas, it was a balancing of baseball karma after Game Three of the ALDS in Minnesota.

What’s more encouraging for the Yankees was that those 10 hard hit balls, including LeMahieu’s to kick off the night, were hit by seven different players. Gio Urshela came just short of a home run to right, Gleyber Torres smashed a rocket to center field for another unlucky out, and Aaron Judge blasted a dinger 423 fee. Brett Gardner and Cameron Maybin scorched singles, with Gardner’s taking an unlucky richochet right to Correa to throw out LeMahieu at home. It was unfortunate, but again, the Yanks were making contact.

Verlander’s two best pitches are hit fastball and his slider, which, obviously, are the two he throws the most. His fastball velocity Sunday night (95.3) was a tad higher than his season average (94.6), which shouldn't be a surprise given the adrenaline of the playoffs, but of his 47 fastballs, only six generated swings and misses. Of his 109 total pitches, only 17 generated whiffs, good for a swinging strike percentage of 12.8. For context, his swing and miss percentage on the fastball in the regular season was 31.1 percent, a career high.

Verlander was able to pull the string with his slider at times to pick up strikeouts, like with Judge in the first when he hit him with three sliders, and with Gary Sanchez later in the game, seen here:

He generated the most swinging strikes on that slider, though as you can see in the video above, he did miss his spot at times, like in the second pitch of the video where Sanchez could have done serious damage had he made an offering at it. Perhaps the Yankees weren’t expecting so many sliders, considering Verlander used the pitch 39.4 percent of the time on Sunday, which was over 10 percent more often than in the regular season. His curveball, which he threw 18.5 percent of the time in the regular season, was used slightly less than that in Game Two and generated just one swinging strike. The only ball in play off the hook was a 99.2 mph single off the bat of LeMahieu, so it clearly wasn’t a very effective pitch for Verlander in this outing.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that the Yankees didn’t finish the job, but it’s not because Verlander shut them down. They didn’t get it done in a battle of the bullpens, which was the biggest failure of that night. Moving forward, a potential matchup with Verlander shouldn’t be seen as a gimme for Houston. Not after the nature of contact the Bombers generated on Sunday night.