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Do the Yankees Have Any Chance to Get Back Into the ALCS?

New York fell into a 3-1 hole with Thursday’s ugly loss and are now set to face the Astros’ dual aces in back-to-back games

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It doesn’t matter much how you lose when you drop the fourth game of a best-of-seven series to fall behind the best team in baseball 3-1, with one of the two top contenders for the AL Cy Young award scheduled to start Game 5 and the other lined up for a potential Game 6 or 7, both of which would be played on the road. It could be the most crisply played, tightly contested loss in baseball history, and you’d still be staring at oblivion. But the Yankees’ defeat on Thursday was about as ugly as a loss can look when the final score is only 8-3.

The Yankees committed four errors for the first time in a playoff game since 1976—two apiece from D.J. LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres—with a wild pitch and a passed ball added to their list of defensive demerits. They went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base, after going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position and leaving nine on base in Game 3. The first of their runs came on a gift from Zack Greinke, who walked three in the first inning and forced in a run, and although the Astros’ bullpen was busy, the Yankees couldn’t add to that tally and drive Greinke out of the game. The Yankees bumbled and booted, flubbed and flailed. Hell, Aaron Boone couldn’t even spit without some of the saliva dribbling onto his jacket.

The Astros didn’t win Game 4 because the Yankees whiffed on or kicked a bunch of infield batted balls. They won because the Astros—one of six teams that scored more than half of their runs on homers during the regular season—hit two three-run bombs courtesy of George Springer and Carlos Correa, then received a combined 4 2/3 innings of two-hit relief from five pitchers in relief of Greinke, with the only blemish being the two-run homer Gary Sánchez launched off Josh James in the sixth. Three of the Yankees’ errors, as well as the wild pitch and passed ball, came after the big blows, allowing the Astros to add a pair of unanswered runs as the suffering stretched on for four hours and 20 minutes.

The two tack-on runs were insults after injuries: not just the injuries that the Astros’ 2011 and 2012 first-rounders dealt to the Yankees’ pennant hopes, but the actual left shoulder injury suffered by CC Sabathia, who entered with two on in the eighth and got two outs before his 39-year-old body broke down again. Sabathia, who was scratched from the ALDS with a shoulder problem, will be replaced on the ALCS roster, which means that his 1-1 cutter to Springer was likely the last pitch of his career. Sabathia’s one-batter, one-out appearance in the bottom of the 10th in Game 2 would have made for a more dignified exit, but our last looks at old athletes are regular reminders that we don’t get to choose the way we go.

Sabathia, at least, left with the vocal support of a formerly quiet crowd, one that woke up from an Astros-induced stupor for a final salute to a future Hall of Famer who did most of his pitching in pinstripes and always wanted the ball, even after his body couldn’t cooperate. Hard-throwing righty Jonathan Loaisiga replaced the soft-tossing southpaw with a 2-1 count on Springer and struck him out on two pitches, providing proof of concept for the mid-plate-appearance pitching change, but that wasn’t the way anyone wanted to see that strategy deployed.

The Yankees have scored six runs in total in the three games they’ve played since thrashing the Astros 7-0 in Game 1. During the regular season, the Yankees were by far the best team in baseball with runners in scoring position, producing a .294/.371/.516 slash line. Astros pitchers combined for 13 strikeouts in Game 4, compared to the Yankees’ six. Contact can help in October, but the Yankees’ lineup isn’t particularly prone to whiffing when it counts. Their regular-season strikeout rate with runners in scoring position, 20.3 percent, was almost identical to the Astros’ 19.9 percent, and relative to their overall line, they performed far better with runners in scoring position than the Astros did.

Unlike a lot of the other playoff teams, the Yankees were clutch during the division series, too, going 11-for-34 with runners in scoring position against the Twins. Their outage this week is likely nothing more than terrible timing against a good team, and there’s no way to predict or prevent that. Edwin Encarnación, who hit well in the ALDS but went 1-for-15 in the first four games of this series, summed the situation up well.

For the Yankees, every aspect of Game 4 was, as their former manager almost certainly would have said, “not what you want.” If we want to find positive takeaways for the Yankees—and I’m really reaching here—we could note that their best starter, James Paxton, will take the mound in Game 5, and they didn’t tax their bullpen so heavily on Thursday that they can’t chart a pitching path through the weekend if the offense supplies some support. Boone didn’t use Aroldis Chapman or Zach Britton in Game 4, and Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle threw an inning apiece. Adam Ottavino threw 10 pitches without recording an out, inflating his ERA this October to 19.31. He’ll be available again on Friday, not that Yankees fans would be heartened to see him in light of his recent results.

FiveThirtyEight and FanGraphs put the Yankees’ odds of coming back to take this series in seven at 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively. That seems almost generous considering the obstacles the Yankees face: Verlander on regular rest in Game 5 followed by back-to-back must-wins in Houston, one of which will be started by Gerrit Cole, who’s riding a streak of 16 starts without an Astros loss. Houston has the advantage on both sides of the ball, but the Yankees’ poor performance in the clutch could easily improve as suddenly as it soured. The Yankees would like to go back to being savages in the box, but after an unsightly loss like this one, they’d settle for a few fortuitous plate appearances. Anything would be better than handing the Astros extra outs, or making so many at the most inopportune times.