HOUSTON – For a game that’s not ruled by a clock, baseball can sure be impacted by mere fractions of seconds.
If Aaron Judge had reached the right field fence a split second earlier in the fourth inning Saturday, he likely would have caught Carlos Correa’s drive that went for a home run.
If Josh Reddick hadn’t gotten Correa the ball in such timely manner, Brett Gardner would have been safe at third base the inning before. If catcher Gary Sanchez had an extra tick of the clock, he might have caught the throw to nab Jose Altuve at the plate in the ninth.
All those scenarios probably played out in the minds of the Yankees as they flew home following a maddening weekend in Houston, where the Astros took a 2-0 lead in the American League Championship Series when Carlos Correa’s ninth-inning double drove in Altuve for a 2-1 walkoff victory.
The Yankees had played clean baseball and pitched superbly against the majors’ most potent offense, yet they dropped both games by identical scores.
“It’s frustrating,’’ New York manager Joe Girardi acknowledged. “The good thing is we’re pitching really well, and if you continue to pitch well you’re going to have a shot.’’
Not if they keep running into performances like the one turned in by Justin Verlander, who struck out a career postseason-high 13 in going the distance. And not if they don’t catch a couple of breaks. They’re going to have to force those, just like the Astros have done.
They sent the sellout crowd of 43,193 into delirium when Altuve scampered from first and slid home safely on Correa’s one-out double off closer Aroldis Chapman, who had not allowed a run since late August, a stretch of 18 2/3 innings.
Judge cut off the drive in right-center and threw to shortstop Didi Gregorius, whose relay beat Altuve to the plate but short-hopped Sanchez, who could not get a handle on it as the Astros poured out of their dugout in celebration of another taut win.
“It was a good decision to send me because we all know with Chapman on the mound that might be the last hit we get in the inning,’’ Altuve said of third-base coach Gary Pettis opting to wave him home. “It was worthwhile to take that risk.’’
So far the Astros have enhanced their chances in risky situations by executing beautifully, whereas the Yankees have fallen short.
With two outs in the third in a scoreless game, Gardner broke one of the game’s cardinal rules by making the inning’s final out at third trying to stretch a double, but it took a quick reaction by right fielder Reddick and a strong relay by shortstop Correa to nab him. Gardner was initially deemed safe before the call was reversed on replay review.
That same inning, Reddick crashed against the fence in right just in time to catch a liner by Chase Headley. In the fourth, a similar drive by Correa barely made it into the first row past Judge’s extended arm for the game’s first run.
“There’s just no room to breathe in these games,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Both sides are really throwing high-end pitching, both sides are putting up really good at-bats. Hits are hard to come by against good pitching. I think we’re starting to recognize that over the last couple of games in this series.’’
When Girardi pulled starter Luis Severino after four sharp innings out of concern he might have incurred an injury, the game turned into a battle of New York’s vaunted bullpen – with Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson throwing two scoreless innings each – against a determined Verlander.
The Astros had traded for the former AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner believing he could be a postseason stud, and he has been even better than advertised. Verlander was 7-0 with a 1.48 ERA in seven outings since joining Houston, including a first-ever relief appearance in Game 4 of the division series.
Saturday’s start was much more familiar territory, as were the results. Verlander gave up five hits and one run – on back-to-back doubles in the fifth by Headley and Todd Frazier that tied the game – and received a rousing ovation when he walked off the mound in the eighth after striking out the side. With 109 pitches – 83 of them strikes – on his ledger, his night appeared over.
But Houston closer Ken Giles had thrown 37 pitches to record five outs the night before and Verlander was still feeling frisky, so he came out for the ninth and put up another zero while giving up a single. Verlander said these are the kind of games he came to Houston for, agreeing at the last minute to waive his no-trade clause, and he wasn’t coming out.
“After the eighth inning he didn’t even ask,’’ Verlander said of Hinch checking on him. “I don’t think he needed to. He asked after the seventh and I probably wasn’t the nicest guy to him and just like, ‘Yeah, I’m good.’ And then there was no conversation after the eighth. It was mine to win or lose.’’
Correa’s double made him and the Astros winners, once again by the smallest of margins.