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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

No need for Yankees to be concerned

Pitcher Dallas Keuchel threw seven shutout innings with 10 strikeouts as the Houston Astros defeated the New York Yankees, 2-1, in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017 at Minute Maid Park. (Credit: MLB)

HOUSTON

For the record, Joe Girardi decided to use a replay challenge Friday night in ALCS Game 1, and it didn’t work. Otherwise, what happened to the Yankees in their 2-1 loss to the Astros was largely beyond the manager’s control.

Anyone who wants to point fingers this time, you can aim them in the direction of Dallas Keuchel and Jose Altuve, the two most responsible for putting Girardi & Co. in an 0-1 hole, to the delight of the frenzied, orange towel-waving crowd of 43,116 at Minute Maid Park.

This was the Yankees’ first defeat since that ALDS Game 2 stomach-churner against the Indians, an agonizing affair that required Girardi’s infamous non-challenge, a blown five-run lead and 13 innings to complete. After taking so much abuse for not going the replay route last week, Girardi chose to burn his challenge this time in the fifth inning, even though Greg Bird definitely looked out at the plate as he tried to score on Aaron Judge’s bullet single to leftfield.

Girardi was hoping for a Hail Mary. Pressed on his thinking, he cracked a smile, saying, “We thought he was out, but God knows I’m not doing that again.”

We laughed. For Girardi, never one to be confused with Jerry Seinfeld, the comic timing was passable. Plus, losing Game 1 to Kuechel the Yankee-killer is not an insurmountable obstacle. Since the ALCS went to a seven-game format in 1985, the team that wins Game 1 has taken the series 58 percent of the time (18 of 31), so there’s a slight historical edge there, but hardly worth freaking out over.

What’s the big deal, anyway? It’s not as if the Yankees haven’t been here before. A week ago, they were in an 0-2 hole against the Indians, with everyone calling for Girardi’s head. The manager himself was tearing up in news conferences. Losing by one run to the Astros, in their building, should be easy to shake off.

“We’ve had ups and downs all year,” Judge said. “Just don’t panic. Keep playing our game.”

Judge did strike out again. But he also drew a walk, made contact twice and came within a few inches of a two-out RBI single if Bird had been a tick faster around third base.

As for Bird, he crushed a long home run off Ken Giles in the ninth that gave Houston something to think about for the next time. Giles was needed for five outs and 37 pitches, so that likely won’t be in Saturday’s Game 2.

“We’ll bounce back,” Bird said.

This was the clubhouse dialogue we expected after what the Yankees already had been through, winning four elimination games in the span of nine days. At least they waited for a clean slate, a push of the reset button, to finally lose again. If Keuchel had their number, so be it. The Yankees won’t see him again for a while, and Masahiro Tanaka — who allowed two runs in six innings — showed that he’s capable of another solid performance in Game 5.

Girardi still has a DH problem, with Matt Holliday going 0-for-3. Jacoby Ellsbury batted for him and whiffed against Giles, so no last-minute spark there, either.

But this defeat had more to do with the Astros doing just enough to squeak by the Yankees, who used only Chad Green to keep things close. Their bullpen edge remains intact for Game 2 to back Luis Severino. Now it’s a matter of solving Justin Verlander to avoid falling into another 0-2 crater before the ALCS travels to the Bronx.

“We don’t want to make a habit of that,” Brett Gardner said. “Unfortunately, tonight we just came up short. We’ll do better tomorrow.”

Gardner renewed his blue-collar-hero status with the grinding, 12-pitch RBI single that sealed the Yankees’ ALDS clincher in Cleveland, and he was the first to get a hit off Kuechel with his two-out single in the third. The Yankees did have a few shots against Keuchel, despite his 10 strikeouts, and maybe his mastery won’t continue if there’s a rematch later in the series.

We’re still betting there will be. Nothing that happened Friday night changed our thinking.

New York Sports