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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Aaron Boone stretches out Yankees' bullpen to the max

As the ALCS shifts to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night, Game 3 poses a bigger issue for the Yanks as they will face Astros starter Gerrit Cole. Newsday columnist David Lennon on more on the Game 3 matchup. (Credit: Newsday / William Perlman)

HOUSTON 

The difference between the Yankees and Astros in Sunday night’s elongated ALCS Game 2, which by the 11th inning morphed into early Monday morning on the East Coast, was a single pitch.

Overall, the two teams threw a combined 355 pitches in the course of this 4-hour, 49-minute marathon, and the Yankees needed 179 to take the game to the 11th and preserve any hope of returning to the Bronx with a 2-0 ALCS lead.

But it was the 95-mph fastball that converted reliever J.A. Happ threw to Carlos Correa — pitch No. 180 — that decided Game 2 in a flash. On the first pitch of the Astros’ half of the 11th, Correa hammered a no-doubter into the rightfield seats, stood rock-still to admire the ball’s flight, then partied at home plate with the rest of the Astros to celebrate the series-tying 3-2 victory at a rejuvenated Minute Maid Park.

“I think it’s inevitable, right?” said Zack Britton, one of the nine pitchers used by the Yankees. “It’s just the way these games are going to go.  It came down to making one more mistake than they did.”

Brian Cashman’s brain trust — scouts and analysts alike — have scripted countless scenarios and outcomes for every moment of this ALCS. But to have Happ on the mound for the 11th inning, against Correa, likely was not among their best win-probability models.

Nor was Jonathan Loaisiga before him, or even CC Sabathia to open the 10th inning. The record will show that the back end of the Yankees’ bullpen got them five outs worth of chances against former Mets sidearmer Joe Smith and the lineup still couldn’t capitalize, failing to score after Aaron Judge’s two-run blast off Justin Verlander in the fourth inning.

To expect anything more, after all of Aaron Boone’s high-leverage arms had been burned, was not realistic. The Astros are too good to be baffled forever.

Once Boone gave James Paxton a self-preserving quick hook in the third inning, though, the Yankees went to full bullpenning mode and nearly pulled it off.

“I don’t really think anything of it,” Adam Ottavino said. “We’re just trying to win, next guy up, go in there and do your job. We were prepared. We were out there early and ready for anything.”

Ottavino’s entrance was among the more questioned of Boone’s moves, as he replaced a cruising Chad Green with one out in the fifth inning and the Yankees holding a 2-1 lead.  Green is the Yankees’ troubleshooter, and he did his job by not only getting Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez to strand Paxton’s two runners in the third inning but retiring six straight into the fifth inning.

Then Boone had another decision to make — push Green a little further than his 26 pitches or opt for Ottavino to face George Springer.

Watching Green’s dominance, conventional wisdom would say stick with him for Springer. But a deeper dive, with insight from Statcast guru Mike Petriello, pointed to Springer’s league-best slugging percentage against four-seam fastballs, a pitch that is Green’s specialty.

Knowing the Yankees’ almost religious fervor for analytics, those are the numbers that drive such moves and better explain Boone’s in-game tactics. In this case, though, the binder backfired. Ottavino’s first pitch was an 82-mph frisbee slider that didn’t slide and Springer hammered it to the base of the train tracks high above the leftfield wall.

“I have  a lot of confidence in my slider,” Ottavino said. “Credit to him. He didn’t miss it when I made a mistake.”

Ottavino’s slip against Springer was one of only two hits the Yankees’ bullpen allowed in the 7 2/3-inning stretch between Paxton’s exit and Happ’s brief showdown with Correa in the 11th. This was some heavy lifting, a real strain, and nothing like Masahiro Tanaka’s 68-pitch, six-inning marvel that helped propel the Yankees to the 7-0 victory in Saturday’s Game 1.

But it was Tanaka’s gem that enabled Boone to preserve Green for six outs Sunday and have the other high-leverage arms ready on back-to-back nights. It was all set up perfectly for Boone’s deployment, and once Judge stunned Verlander to grab a 2-1 lead, the Yankees thought they had all their lanes paved for another road victory.

“You’re playing to win the game,” Boone said. “You’re playing it to what gives us the best chance to win here. And the bottom line is we end up giving up a third run in the 11th inning. I’d say from a run prevention standpoint, it went pretty well.”

There’s no arguing with the manager on that. Game 2 was decided by the slimmest of margins, nearly five hours of work undone in a blink. Now the Yankees have to hope the residue of this draining loss can be shed almost as quickly.

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