NEW YORK – At their worst they can be foul and merciless, hard even on their beloved home team.
At their best, the inhabitants of Yankee Stadium can create an atmosphere rarely matched in sports.
There were moments of both ends of the spectrum reached at full volume on a big Thursday night at the Bronx Zoo, but with a meek effort, the Yankees mostly frustrated a fan base that has come to expect deep and prosperous October runs.
A 8-3 loss to the relentless Houston Astros increased the visitors’ lead in the best-of-seven ALCS to 3-1 setting up a chance to clinch a trip to the World Series here on Friday night.
Start spreading the boos, baby. This one feels as good as over and the demanding Yankees faithful let it be known for much of the night.
“We played poorly tonight,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “There’s no other way to explain it. We need to flush this immediately.
“Stranger things have happened. A lot stranger, but we need to play a cleaner game than that.”
As has been the case through all but the first game of this rapidly concluding series, the Yankees were unable to deliver clutch hitting, even as they had an early opportunity to get to Astros starter Zack Greinke.
In fact, the sullen Astros starter even gifted the home side a first-inning run when he issued a bases-loaded walk to Brett Gardner. Bedlam followed from the sellout crowd of 49,067 at the mammoth stadium, but the sentiment wouldn’t last for long.
Not the tepid Yankees bats ruining the mood, anyway. And not with the supremely confident Astros not flinching in the slightest at the Bronx bedlam.
So when leadoff man George Springer rocked a Masahiro Tanaka offering over the wall in left centre for a three-run homer in the third, it was the beginning of what felt like the end.
The Yankees struggles at the plate certainly altered the tenor inside the stadium as it shifted from raucous to restless and ultimately worse. Symptomatic of the woeful at-bats was in the fifth inning when the Yankees had chased Greinke from the game and had the bases loaded for the second time in the night. Instead of a clutch hit – or even bat on ball – Gleyber Torres and Edwin Encarnacion both struck out.
“If we’re going to break through and have success, we’ve got to come up with a big hit in a big spot.”
The boo-birds were out in full force after that with the recognition that the series was reaching the all but dead stage. Moments later it got much more grim when pistol-hot Carlos Correa had a three-run homer to double the lead to 6-1.
The analysis didn’t need to be too deep on this one – the Astros hit with runners on base while the Yankees did not, at least not until it was too late. The Astros had a pair of three-run homers. The Yankees twice ended innings with a bases-loaded strikeout.
After the fifth, the AL East champion Yankees had scored just four runs in the previous 25 innings of the series. Gary Sanchez, who was just 1-for-15 in the series with seven strikeouts woke up with a two-run homer in the sixth to at least temporarily pull the Yankees within reach.
Any hope from that was false, however. Magic can happen at Yankee Stadium or anywhere, but it’s getting increasingly difficult to imagine it unfolding now. Not with Justin Verlander up for Game 5 on Friday and should he falter, the unbeatable Gerrit Cole for an if necessary Game 6 on Saturday back in Houston.
The fans, who spent much of the first couple innings on their feet certainly seem to recognize it as well. While they were still amusing themselves with a “(Bleep) Altuve” chant out in the left-field sections late in the game, the jeers grew louder for each passing Yankees strikeout and subsequent inability to generate a rally.In what was quite simply a must-win game for the Yankees, they did little to serve notice there is even a pulse left in the series. Not on a night they struck out 13 times, committed no less than four errors and were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
Though they only had one run to show for it, the Yankees were able to do some minor damage on Greinke in the first, drawing three walks and chipping in with a bloop single. But when Sanchez went down swinging yet again, the missed opportunity felt like it was going to be trouble.
— While Greinke laboured some through his first inning, the Yankees weren’t getting the same Masahiro Tanaka that pitched six shutout innings in the Game 1 win. In his three previous post-season games against the Yankees, Tanaka had a skimpy 0.95 ERA.
On Thursday, however, they had four hits and four earned off of him as Tanaka left the game after five innings and a batter.
— Sanchez had plenty of company in lightweight bats in the Yankees order. When Encarnacion struck out looking to end the fourth, he dipped to 1-for-14 int he series with seven strikeouts, the same number of Ks as Sanchez. Both would up that total to eight by the end of the night.
— Once Greinke got his off-speed stuff humming along, he took control. With three-up, three-down innings in the third and fourth he retired nine in a row and 11 of the previous 12 batters he faced before DJ LeMahieu hit a one-out single in the fifth.
To their credit, the Yankees fans gave retiring 19-year veteran C.C. Sabathia a standing ovation when he left in the eighth after hurting himself. Even with the frustration of the night, the fans managed to salute the popular Yankee in what was almost certainly his final major league appearance. Several Astros players applauded from the visitor’s dugout as well.
The Yankees four errors were their most since committing five in 1976.
V DAY AWAITS?
Other than the blip of losing Game 1 at home, the ALCS has unfolded near perfectly for the Astros – and that includes Wednesday’s postponement of Game 4 due to rain.
The rest day was enough to freshen Justin Verlander, who will face Canadian James Paxton in the potentially deciding game. One of the most accomplished starters in the game, Verlander is well aware of what’s at stake, but will do his best not to get too far ahead of himself.
“I guess the answer is you don’t want your mindset to change, whether you have a series lead or not,” Verlander said. “Any game can swing on any moment and the series can swing on any moment as well.
“You just don’t let off the gas, just stay focused and do the best you can.”
It’s a huge test for Paxton, the left-hander who was traded here from the Mariners in the off-season. The B.C. native has yet to win in the post season and struggled early in Game 2 of this series. But now the immediate future of his new team rests on his 30-year-old shoulders.
“He’s got to go out and pitch well and set the tone for us because we’ve got to get on that plane and go back to Houston,” Boone said. “It all starts with Pax.”
Obviously, the Astros feel confident in having Verlander as their man for a potential clincher.
“After the 27th out I had tremendous confidence,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “When the game ends, I love the fact that we have JV on our side and that he’s hopefully going to come out and set a tone and lead us to the World Series.”