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Yankees 2, Astros 4: Never let Justin Verlander off the hook

Early scoring chances went by the wayside and sketchy middle relief cost New York the ALCS opener in Houston.

Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

There is something to be said for the most annoying type of loss to an ace being one where he almost looks vulnerable. You get lulled into a false sense of optimism that perhaps this is the time that he falters. Then comes the wrecking ball and all of a sudden, you’re losing again and the early hope is a distant memory.

That was the story of Game 1 of the 2022 American League Championship Series. Justin Verlander didn’t look like the 2017 ALCS MVP during the first few innings, but he limited the damage to a single run and when the Astros got to feast on the Yankees’ middle relief, that was all she wrote. Verlander resumed his dominance over New York, the Houston bullpen took over, and the Astros won the series opener, 4-2.

The Yankees put baserunners on against Verlander in the very first inning. It wasn’t a flashy rally, but a two-out hit-by-pitch from Anthony Rizzo and an error by Jose Altuve that allowed Giancarlo Stanton to reach. Baserunners are baserunners, and the Altuve miscue was a gift on a poorly-played ball with a slow runner. Josh Donaldson failed to take advantage. He struck out on one of the worst swings that you’ll ever see, continuing his ugly stretch since ALDS Game 1.

The onus was on No. 4 starter Jameson Taillon to match the likely Cy Young Award winner, and he did eventually put up a zero after a bit of trouble. With one man down, Jeremy Peña laced one to left field that went over Stanton’s head for a double. Playing his first game in the outfield since late-July, some eyebrows were raised on his bad read of the ball, but it wouldn’t have been a slam-dunk catch for a Gold Glover, either.

Following a four-pitch walk to Yordan Alvarez, the Astros had a chance with Alex Bregman at the plate, and he hit a ball that looked about as difficult to catch as the Peña drive. The problem is that Bregman hit it to the wrong direction:

That’s a simply sensational catch by Judge, not to mention one he’ll probably feel in the morning after the way he came down on the grass. But he’ll trade the aches and pains for saving at least a two-run double. Taillon then got Kyle Tucker to ground out to Rizzo, ending the threat.

Perhaps buoyed by his fellow outfielder’s sparkling defense, Harrison Bader decided that the next half-inning was the perfect opportunity to add to his rapidly-burgeoning October resume in pinstripes:

Bader homered 5 times in 313 plate appearances during the regular season between St. Louis and New York. When that 411-foot rocket returned to Earth, Bader had 4 homers in just 19 postseason plate appearances. I don’t get it either, but I’m sure as hell not complaining.

The 1-0 lead was oh-so-brief, and Taillon had to be thankful that he didn’t trail when the second inning was over. It seemed like a quiet frame from the bottom of the Astros’ order until Chas McCormick singled to center. Martín Maldonado was next, and despite his meager 70 wRC+ on the season, he pummeled a Taillon curve to the opposite field. It went off the right-center-field wall for an RBI double and the game was tied at 1-1. Altuve walked, forcing a mound visit from pitching coach Matt Blake. The Minute Maid Park crowd wanted blood, but to his credit, Taillon held firm by getting Peña to ground out to third.

The Yankees put the pressure back on Verlander in the top of the third. Rizzo walked with one out and Stanton scalded a 112.8-mph double to right to put both men in scoring position. A fly ball from Donaldson could have scored a run, but he turned in his second-straight ugly at-bat off the future Hall of Famer and went down looking; Carpenter followed suit to strand ‘em both. Verlander didn’t sweat for the rest of the night.

Manager Aaron Boone rolled the dice on Taillon returning to the mound in the fifth to face the top of the Astros’ order for a third time. He got Altuve to roll one over, but Peña blistered a pitch down the left-field line for a double. That was the end of the road for Taillon, as Boone took another risk by calling on rookie Clarke Schmidt over veteran fireman Lou Trivino (who warmed up after Schmidt). They intentionally walked Alvarez to face Bregman, who then worked a standard walk to load the bases.

Just when it seemed like the game might break open, Schmidt pulled a rabbit out of his hat with Tucker at bat. The All-Star rolled one over for a double-play ball, keeping the game tied and ending Taillon’s night at 4.1 innings of one-run ball — perfectly acceptable for the No. 4 starter against a dangerous lineup.

Boone tried to double down on Schmidt’s success when he returned for the sixth. It turned out to be a brutal mistake, as Yuli Gurriel jumped on a far-too-good 0-2 pitch for a Crawford Boxes bomb.

All the goodwill from the Tucker GIDP was gone, and frustration only increased when Chas McCormick went back-to-back with Gurriel. Only then did Trivino enter the game — with a two-run deficit. He finished the inning on seven pitches and that was all that Boone asked of him. Instead of starting the seventh with Trivino, in came Frankie Montas for his first appearance since September 16th ... and out went Peña on a monster homer that looked almost as majestic as Bader’s. That made the score 4-1, and the deficit honestly felt even greater.

For as tedious as I found some of Boone’s bullpen decisions in Game 1, they mostly amounted to a hill of beans with how weak the offense looked after Verlander’s initial scuffles. The Donaldson and Carpenter strikeouts began a string of six K’s in a row from the 39-year-old right-hander. As the game went on, the Yankees just looked all the more hopeless. You would never have known that Verlander had a rough patch if you only looked at his final line: six innings, three hits, one run, one walk, and 11 strikeouts. That’s a big ol’ whoopsie, and you need perfect relief pitching to win a game with this little offense.

Although Héctor Neris twirled a perfect seventh, the Yankees did muster one last gasp in the eighth. After back-to-back strikeouts of Gleyber Torres and Judge from Rafael Montero, Rizzo provided Bader some company in the scoring department by launching a solo homer to make it 4-2.

Stanton followed with a smash up the middle and even the beleaguered Donaldson walked to put to the tying run on base. In came Ryan Pressly to face Carpenter, and after a few ugly hacks, out went the Yankees’ hope. Carpenter is now 0-for-6 with strikeouts in all of his plate appearances this postseason. The veteran’s timing might just not be there after two months on the IL. Not everyone can be 2016 Kyle Schwarber.

To cap off a weird night of decisions, Boone didn’t pinch-hit Oswaldo Cabrera for either Isiah Kiner-Falefa or Jose Trevino in the ninth inning against Pressly. I suppose he just gave up, because Cabrera provides more potential than either of them at the plate right now and just one hit would’ve brought the tying run to the plate and flipped the lineup over. Oh well. The final was 4-2, Houston, and the Yankees struck out 17 times while mustering only 5 hits.

I’m going to choose to take the optimist’s view and say that it was always unlikely for the Yankees to win this particular matchup. The loss had its frustrating moments, but there have been worse games. The Yankees still have a shot at stealing home-field advantage in this series tomorrow night in Game 2 with a more familiar starter going for them in Luis Severino. He’ll get the nod against All-Star southpaw Framber Valdez with first pitch at 7:37pm ET. Bring it back to the Bronx with a 1-1 series.

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