New York

Yankees sweep up at home, take 3-2 ALCS lead back to Houston

Astros offense suddenly looks lost
New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts after the fifth inning Wednesday.
New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts after the fifth inning Wednesday.

NEW YORK — You could explain away the respective transformations of the Houston Astros and New York Yankees over the 27 innings of baseball played at Yankee Stadium this week in pure baseball terms. Over the middle games of the American League Championship Series, the Astros, so crisp and fine in the days before, suddenly stopped hitting, started kicking the ball around and saw even their most reliable pitchers stumble. The Yankees got hot at the plate, pitched well, rallied from behind and locked down every lead they gained. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

But your eyes, your gut and the hairs on the back of your neck told you something else was going on here. The body language told you the same thing — the Yankees swelling with confidence with each passing inning, the Astros shrinking at the biggest moments. It told you: Yankee Stadium had changed everything.

With a 5-0 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday night, the Yankees completed a mini-sweep of the three games here, in convincing fashion, and seized a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Yankees now stand just one win away from a World Series berth, but there is still much work to do, with Houston’s Justin Verlander awaiting them in Game 6 on Friday at Minute Maid Park, just six days after shutting them out in Game 2 in the same building.

The first two games of the series, in Houston, and these past three, in the Bronx, bore almost no resemblance to each other. There, the Astros seemed to make every big play, execute every big pitch and redeem every big scoring chance. Here, they could do almost nothing right, their performance seemingly cratering in the biggest moments — moments that typically came amid suffocating noise and palpable electricity across the ballpark.

On Wednesday, some of those moments came in the pivotal fifth inning, when the Yankees chased chief nemesis Dallas Keuchel with a pair of runs on consecutive, two-out RBI singles by Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius. Another came on Sanchez’s seventh-inning homer off Brad Peacock. Others came when Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka, who delivered seven scoreless innings, had two strikes on an Astros hitter, and the crowd of 49,647 rose to its feet in anticipation. Eight times, Tanaka gave them the strikeout they wanted.

If these Yankees, full of youth and big-moment knack, are beginning to remind locals of the early years of the 1996-2001 dynasty, so was the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium beginning to feel reminiscent of the old days.

Over the three games here, the final home games the Yankees are guaranteed to get in 2017, the team milked its past for all it was worth. The ceremonial first pitches were thrown by Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill and Andy Pettitte, all of them stalwarts from the 1996-2001 glory days. The giant video board in center field at one point highlighted Reggie Jackson’s famous, three-homer World Series game, which happened to have occurred 40 years ago to the day.

The October lore around here is so real and alive, it should have its own uniform number — probably 27, for the number of World Series titles in franchise history. If the Astros were paying attention, their jittery sense of dread may have also felt real enough to get its own corresponding uniform number — which, of course, would be zero.

Designed to be grand in scale, the new Yankee Stadium, which opened in 2009, has always been more welcoming and antiseptic than the smaller, grittier building it replaced, with seats further from the field and an atmosphere that typically lacked any sense of edge or menace. But as the sky above Yankee Stadium slowly shifted from bright sunlight to purple twilight to pitch black Wednesday evening, its cavernous walls kept creeping in on the Astros.

Over 57 2/3 career innings against the Yankees before Wednesday, Keuchel had pitched to a 1.09 ERA. In 34 career innings at Yankee Stadium, he had allowed a total of five earned runs. But on Wednesday, in what was likely the biggest start of his career, and certainly the one on the biggest stage, he gave up four earned runs and was chased with two outs in the fifth after the singles by Sanchez and Gregorius. Of the 21 runs the Yankees have scored in the series, 13 have come with two outs.

Meanwhile, the Astros offense, the most prolific in baseball, suddenly appears lost, the latest evidence coming in the seven shutout innings authored by Tanaka.

Whether due to New York’s superb advance scouting — an area where the Yankees are known to spend big and get big results — or Houston’s own teamwide shortcomings, the Yankees’ pitchers seem to have honed in on the holes in individual swings and exploited them to spectacular effect. Josh Reddick is 0-for-17 in the series. Alex Bregman is 2-for-16. Carlos Beltran is 1-for-12, Marwin Gonzalez 2-for-15, George Springer 2-for-18.

On Wednesday, they put runners on second base with fewer than two outs three separate times in the first five innings against Tanaka, but failed to get him home each time. On the last of those occasions, with runners on first and second and one out in the fifth, Tanaka struck out Springer and Reddick to end the inning.

The seizing of a lead, any lead, by the Yankees felt like a massive advantage, given their sizable advantage in bullpen depth and reliability. The Yankees had lost only 19 games all year, regular and postseason combined, when they scored first. They are a good team when trailing or tied, but when they are ahead, they are deadly. On Wednesday, thanks to Tanaka, they had to dip into their bullpen only once, with right-hander Tommy Kahnle collecting the six leftover outs.

Was the transformation of the respective teams in Games 3, 4 and 5 permanent? Did the Yankees’ bats awaken for good? Are the Astros traumatized beyond repair? Or will everything revert to the way it was earlier, once the series returns to Houston?

The world will soon see, but for now, the best that can be said for the Astros is that they absolutely, positively will not have to play another game at Yankee Stadium until well after fall turns to winter, and winter to spring.

Categories: Sports

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