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Justin Verlander remains the difference-maker for Astros against Yankees

Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander follows through

Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander follows through on a pitch against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, June 23, 2019. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Justin Verlander gave the Yankees a glimpse of their own mortality in Sunday’s 9-4 loss to the Astros. Fortunately for them, it was Game No. 77. The only thing at stake was a potential sweep and staying perfect on this homestand.

What should be more worrisome is looking ahead to the postseason, where these two teams certainly will end up, and another meeting with Verlander — but in a do-or-die Game 7.

Verlander remains the difference-maker, just as he was during the 2017 ALCS, when he went 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in two starts to earn MVP honors. The Yankees had won three straight in the Bronx before Verlander stopped them cold in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park with seven scoreless innings (eight strikeouts) to instantly flip the series momentum.

Two years later, nothing has changed. Verlander has allowed a ton of home runs this season (who hasn’t?), but he stared down the Yankees in their cozy backyard, giving up only DJ LeMahieu’s three-run blast during his seven-inning stint.

It’s a reminder that no matter how much the Yankees continue to fortify their lineup in an effort to make this group Verlander-proof, there is no such thing. Regardless of the muscle assembled against him, an elite, playoff-tested pitcher such as Verlander will find a way.

As Luke Voit explained, Verlander didn’t have his good breaking pitches early, so he instead “painted” with his fastball, then mixed in his curveball and slider. It was a different approach from Verlander’s last start against them, on April 8 in Houston. The Yankees had only one hit through the first four innings Sunday, LeMahieu’s leadoff single in the first.

“That’s why he’s a Cy Young and a potential Hall of Famer,” Voit said. “It’s incredible that he was still throwing 97 in the seventh inning.”

Now healthy, the Yankees threw their A-minus lineup at Verlander. The lone punch pulled was sitting Giancarlo Stanton, who was 1-for-8 with a homer and five strikeouts against the Astros’ ace. Brett Gardner started in his place and wrangled a walk and single, later scoring on LeMahieu’s blast.

Verlander struck out nine and allowed only one Yankee to reach second base. Voit, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion went a combined 0-for-11 with a walk.

Verlander entered Sunday tied for third in the majors with 20 homers allowed, an average of 1.25 per start. The Bronx mound shouldn’t have been an antidote for a fly-ball pitcher, but that’s his strength, defying convention by constantly adjusting to the situation.

“He doesn’t get too much into patterns,” Aaron Boone said.

The Yankees have regretted not pushing harder for Verlander in 2017 almost from the moment he first slipped on an Astros uniform. Houston wouldn’t have gotten past the Yankees that October without him, nor would they have won the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

You can’t over-emphasize what the Verlander trade has done for them, so it was a no-brainer for the Astros to give him that two-year, $66 million extension.

What we learned again Sunday is that adding more offense is not necessarily going to help a team beat Verlander, and in the process, topple Houston in a short series.

The Astros didn’t pitch Gerrit Cole during this visit and also didn’t have George Springer (hamstring) or Carlos Correa (broken rib). The Yankees did what they should in exploiting that advantage to win the first three games, but Verlander was every bit the roadblock they’ve come to anticipate.

“We always feel like we match up well against other clubs,” Boone said. “They’re obviously a great team. We may again cross paths playing for a lot more.”

For that next time, the Yankees could use their own Verlander, or a closer facsimile than J.A. Happ tried to be Sunday. The AL East leaders are going to need outside help, whether it’s Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman or Zack Wheeler. Brian Cashman thought he did enough over the winter by trading for James Paxton and bringing back Happ on that two-year, $34 million deal, but he’s still noticeably short.

Like Verlander, Happ has struggled with the long ball. He teed up three homers Sunday, including a fourth-inning grand slam by Tyler White that ultimately blew up the game.

Unlike Verlander, Happ has failed in his attempt to limit the damage from this year’s supercharged baseball, a weakness that continues to haunt the Yankees. “I put us in a bad spot,” he said.

And Verlander, as he usually does, made sure the Yankees stayed there.

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