HOUSTON - Minute Maid Park hosted crowds of more than 43,000 during the first two games of this American League Championship Series, its retractable roof staying sealed to hold the noise in. On occasion, a teeth-rattling locomotive whistle blasted from the citrus-toting train high above leftfield, another unsettling feature for opposing teams.
Yet despite all that, and despite losing both of those games here last weekend, the Yankees made no mention of being intimidated by the Houston fans, or the noise level, or having any issues dealing with the Minute Maid hospitality. To them, none of that was a factor. The only thing that stung the Yankees about the two losses was the minuscule margin between victory and defeat.
Back at home, the Yankees relished their stay in the Bronx, where they outscored the Astros 19-5 during the three-game sweep and finally cracked the code on Dallas Keuchel in Wednesday’s Game 5. But returning to Houston shouldn’t be a problem, especially now that the Yankees lead the series 3-2 and easily could have closed this out already with a more favorable bounce or two in Game 1 or 2.
“We’ve got to bring it Friday,” Greg Bird said. “Just go out and win one game.”
With two chances, we might add. And only one Astros ace to worry about: Justin Verlander, who starts Friday. As fearsome as Verlander was in Game 2, going the distance with 13 strikeouts, the Yankees deserved a big assist for doing themselves in with an imperfect relay that allowed Jose Altuve to score from first base on Carlos Correa’s walk-off double.
If not for Didi Gregorius’ throw being hindered by Correa’s pop-up slide, or Gary Sanchez’s failure to come up with the short-hop throw, maybe the Yankees ultimately would have prevailed in the bullpen battle that would have followed. There were plenty of what-ifs in Game 2, a list that included Brett Gardner’s ill-fated decision to try to stretch a double with two outs and Aaron Judge pulling up a bit early on Correa’s homer, a 348-foot squeaker that barely made the front row in rightfield. And yes, it would have narrowly cleared Yankee Stadium’s short porch, too.
In those two games, the Yankees went toe to toe with the top- scoring offense in the majors and limited the Astros to a total of 11 hits (eight singles), four runs and a .190 batting average. The Yankees were even lower at .159 (10-for-63) with four extra-base hits, but the pitching staff, as it has all postseason, always kept them in striking distance.
The Yankees solved Keuchel in Game 5, which involved the simple-sounding plan of focusing more on the middle of the plate rather than worrying about the edges. There also figures to be a benefit from seeing Verlander as recently as six days earlier, something that rarely happens during the regular season.
Verlander should get an emotional boost from pitching at home, which always helps this late in October. And at 34, as a 13-year vet, he’s probably not going to be affected by the pressure of starting an elimination game, even for a team he’s been with only since Aug. 31. Verlander also hasn’t lost since the Tigers traded him, with an 8-0 record and 1.39 ERA in those eight starts.
Keuchel had great numbers, too, particularly against the Yankees. But in our view, what happened back in the Bronx was an offensive resurgence that isn’t likely to vanish simply because of a change in venue. With Judge, Bird and Sanchez taking center stage at the Stadium, it seems as if a switch has been turned on with that trio of young stars. We’re skeptical that Verlander can keep them all in check again. The Astros’ bullpen can’t, should it come to that.
“We’ve just got to take the momentum we got at home and take it on the road,” Judge said. “Like we did in Cleveland.”
The Indians thought they were in pretty good shape going home to Progressive Field for that winner-take-all Game 5, with Cy Young Award favorite Corey Kluber on the mound. Right up to the point that Gregorius took him deep twice in three innings and the Yankees’ bullpen stacked up zeros. Undefeated at home this October, the Yankees are best on the road when it’s time to turn out the lights.