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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

The difference between the Yankees and Astros is tiny

New York Yankees' Brett Gardner driving for third

New York Yankees' Brett Gardner driving for third base in the ALCS game 2 at Minute Maid Park, Houston, TX. Oct. 14, 2017 Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

HOUSTON

HOUSTON

The difference between the 2-0 Astros and the 0-2 Yankees in this ALCS is so small that it can be divided into a million pieces, broken down to the sub-atomic level.

Game of inches? Try millimeters. So far, it’s been a coin flip. Two identical 2-1 scores in favor of the Astros. If you piled up the tiny little distances that have separated winning from losing, stacked them one on top of the other, they wouldn’t reach Jose Altuve’s shoelace.

Speaking of Altuve, of course it was the Astros’ mighty mite who scored the walk-off winner to close Saturday’s Game 2 thriller, racing around from first base on Carlos Correa’s double to slide in safely (he was beaten to the plate by Didi Gregorius’ short-hop relay, which Gary Sanchez dropped).

The final chain reaction alone contained a series of minute flaws that were able to be dissected only by watching the replay over and over, a microcosm of what’s been going on during the first two games of this ALCS.

The Astros have been a hair-width better than the Yankees when it’s counted most.

“This is a team that battles,” Aaron Judge said as the Yankees packed for the return trip to New York. “We’re not going to give up.”

The fight is there, but Saturday was especially frustrating. What is it about these Game 2s anyway? As great as Dallas Keuchel was in Game 1, Justin Verlander was even better, striking out 13 in the complete-game victory. But for all of Verlander’s dominance, the Yankees were right there (again) and actually could have won (again) if not for those dang inches.

Ask around the Yankees’ clubhouse afterward, and the chorus was similar, from locker to locker. Whether it was Brett Gardner talking about not hitting second base perfectly before making the third out at third base when he tried to stretch a double or Judge short-arming his attempt to grab Correa’s reachable home run or Sanchez not gloving the game’s deciding throw. Each was a mini-failure, plays that could have been executed and were not.

The K epidemic, the power outage at DH, even Luis Severino’s mysterious departure for some nebulous shoulder injury after only four innings were contributing factors. But when the Astros pressure the Yankees in this series, these small cracks appear, and the result ends up being a Texas-sized party inside Minute Maid Park.

“Both sides are really, really emphasizing staying in the game and just continuing to fight,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “because it can shift in a heartbeat. Just when you feel good about where you’re at, it can shift back to momentum the other way.”

We’ll do the autopsy here in reverse chronological order, beginning at the end, when Sanchez muffed a throw from Gregorius that should have cut down Altuve. Complicating matters was Correa, popping up after sliding into second base and getting in Gregorius’ throwing path just enough to hinder his biggest throw of these playoffs. Girardi, after conferring with the umps, believed Correa’s actions were not illegal. Gregorius wasn’t so sure.

“That depends on the umpire,” Gregorius said. “But I’m not going to make any excuses.”

Regardless, the throw still got there in time, and Sanchez — hounded by defensive miscues all year long — committed another that was impossible to alibi for. Sure, the ball bounced, but with the game hanging in the balance, it has to be corralled.

“Bottom line, if I catch that ball, he’s going to be out,” Sanchez said through his translator.

Working backward, there also was Correa’s homer in the fourth inning, when he somehow drove a 99-mph fastball on the outside edge of the plate barely far enough to get over the rightfield wall and into the glove of a young fan decked out in Astros gear. Severino said the pitch was a little up, but not too bad. Just a few millimeters too high.

“He doesn’t have to hit it that hard for it to be a home run,” Severino said.

And maybe if Judge had been a tad more familiar with Minute Maid Park’s rightfield wall, he would have taken a more aggressive leap and snatched the ball away from the kid — just as he did to Francisco Lindor in Game 3 of the Division Series in the Bronx. At 6-7, with that wingspan, Judge easily could have snared it.

“I just didn’t get back there in time,” he said. “I didn’t have a good feel for the wall.”

For Gardner, whose futile dash for a triple blew the first chance to rattle Verlander, the mistake was not sprinting through second base correctly, slowing him enough to get thrown out and end the third inning. When his steps got screwed up, the glitch allowed his fingertips to arrive a nanosecond later than Alex Bregman’s tag.

“I was just out of whack going around the bag,” Gardner said. “I’m mad at myself for not running around the bases like I normally would.”

Every step matters in this series. Every throw, every pitch. Down to the tiniest detail. The Yankees are losing by a margin so small, the only comfort is how little it will take for them to start winning.

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