HOUSTON — The World Series is still there waiting for the Yankees, the path to Los Angeles clearly marked. That’s the good news.
The bad? The safety net is gone, obliterated by the Astros’ 7-1 rout in Friday night’s Game 6, a shattering defeat for the Yankees that also raised some concerns heading into Saturday’s Game 7 at Minute Maid Park.
Fortunately, Justin Verlander will be watching that one from the dugout, where he can’t torment the Yankees anymore. Otherwise, there was nothing positive to take away from such a smackdown, a Texas-size stomping that turned ugly when the Astros got to tattoo a hapless David Robertson during a four-run eighth inning.
All of the momentum the Yankees had built up during their three-game sweep in the Bronx, where the 101-win Astros played like a pack of frightened tourists, was erased by Saturday’s reversal of fortune. If not for Verlander, who fiercely protected a 3-0 lead through seven scoreless innings — barely hanging on for 99 pitches — maybe this Game 6 would have turned out differently. The Yankees could have cracked a lesser pitcher.
But as great as the precocious Luis Severino can be on any given night, he’s not yet equal to an experienced ace like Verlander, who for the second time in this ALCS proved himself worth every penny of the $60 million the Astros picked up in the Aug. 31 trade. Verlander allowed five hits and struck out eight, and basically willed the Astros to a Game 7 before they beat up on Roberston later for insurance.
Going up 3-2, by virtue of their Bronx sweep, was a new experience for the Yankees this October, and changed the narrative heading back to Houston for Game 6. This was no longer about the desperate Yankees trying to stay alive in a series, a wild-card team attempting to topple a 101-win juggernaut. They were one victory away from the World Series, but standing between the Yankees and an ’81 rematch with the Dodgers was a fairly big obstacle by the name of Justin Verlander.
The first meeting didn’t go well. Verlander went the distance, striking out 13 to propel the Astros to a 2-1 win in Game 2. The masterpiece did require 124 pitches, however, and you had to wonder if Verlander could duplicate that effort this deep into October, even with five days to recharge. Verlander’s rotation pal, Dallas Keuchel, was reduced to ordinary his second time around, with the Yankees battering him in the Bronx. But there was a sense going in that Verlander was a different animal.
“I consider him to have a bionic arm,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Friday afternoon. “He’s never fatigued. I trust him.”
Verlander rewarded that faith by again pounding the strike zone, with his baffling assortment of pitches, never letting the Yankees work the count, always putting them on the defensive. His attack was suffocating, and Verlander seemed to grow stronger as the game wore on. The best Severino could hope for was to match zeros, for as long as possible, as the Yankees waited for any cracks to appear.
Verlander mowed through the Yankees’ lineup with lethal efficiency, so any prayer of running up his pitch count early to get to the Astros’ porous bullpen was reduced to folly right away.
“The expectations are there,” Verlander said before the game. “My teammates, I’m sure, are expecting a lot of me. And I expect a lot of myself.”
Aside from Severino’s early exit in Game 2, with what initially was described as some vague shoulder ailment, the Yankees were confident he’d be up to the task, too. The injury scare turned out to be a false alarm, and Severino was every bit Verlander’s equal through his own four scoreless innings. When Severino rifled a 101-mph fastball past a swinging George Springer to end the third inning, he looked just as unstoppable.
Only Severino wasn’t Verlander. Not Friday night. And when Severino began to wobble in the fifth inning, starting with a leadoff walk to Alex Bregman, he couldn’t reverse course. After another walk to Evan Gattis finally handed the Astros a runner in scoring position, it was Brian McCann — a former Yankee — who brought Minute Maid Park to life with a ground-rule double that hopped over the rightfield wall for a 1-0 lead.
Jose Altuve then chased Severino with a two-out, two-run single, and a sense of Game 2 deja vu settled in. Whether the Yankees could prevent history from repeating last week’s stay in Houston was a debate that would have to be settled later.