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Tanaka outduels Verlander, but bullpen blows lead late as Astros down Yankees

Zack Britton and Adam Ottavino couldn’t prevent the Astros’ comeback as Masahiro Tanaka’s sterling start was wasted.

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

Despite getting ahead early, the Yankees dropped the opener of this three -game set in Houston 4-3. The first two-thirds of the game gave us a tense pitcher’s duel, but when it came time to go to the pens, the Yankees’ uber relief corps was bested.

Masahiro Tanaka twirled a gem through six innings, but manager Aaron Boone lifted him with a 3-1 lead for Zack Britton to start the seventh. Tanaka only threw 78 pitches to that point, but he did get into a jam in his last inning and the Yankees had several of their high-priority relievers available. The team invested heavily into maintaining the bullpen’s strength, and going to it in this situation is debatable yet reasonable.

With hindsight, however, the decision quickly backfired. Britton allowed a leadoff single to Carlos Correa, induced a potential double-play ball that the infield couldn’t quite turn, and then got a groundball to himself that Britton hesitated before taking the out at first instead of attempting the double play again. Robinson Chirinos, the Astros number-nine hitter, stepped up to the plate after a four-pitch walk to Tyler White and drilled a two-run double to center that tied the game.

Adam Ottavino relieved Britton to secure the final out of the inning, but Ottavino got into a jam of his own in the eighth inning. Ottavino delivered a one-out walk to Alex Bregman, and Michael Brantley slapped a single to center that put Bregman 90 feet away from scoring. Correa delivered the back-breaker, a snubbed infield single in front of first that brought home the winning run. The Yankees went down in order in the ninth, and the Houston comeback was complete.

Tanaka did his part to win the game, and it was equally impressive that he did so facing off against Justin Verlander. Verlander has had the Yankees number since his trade to the Astros, allowing just two earned runs in 30 innings pitched entering tonight. Tanaka had one slip-up, a mistake to Jose Altuve in the fourth inning that was sent way back into the stands for a solo-home run, but otherwise was extremely efficient in recording outs and keeping the Astros from threatening to score.

Verlander, meanwhile, had to grind to get through six innings. He exited with 112 pitches thrown, and allowed nine baserunners during his outing. The Yankees managed to do damage to him in three different spots, first cashing in a bases-loaded single from Luke Voit in the third. Aaron Judge, who was hitless against Verlander entering the game, went 2-2 including a solo shot to right field in the fifth inning. Clint Frazier drove home the team’s final run, launching a ball off of the wall in left field to score DJ LeMahieu in the sixth.

There will be more opportunities to get back in the series, but dropping the first game in this fashion is a frustrating start. Tanaka had everything working, Verlander was mortal, and the Yankees got the ball to the bullpen with a lead, but sometimes, you can’t predict baseball Suzyn. In any event, tonight continued the Yankees and Astros’ recent tradition of staging excellent, well-played, thrilling shows. Let’s hope that continues tomorrow, but instead manifests itself in a Yankee victory.

Box Score.