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Astros Junk Yankees to Take 1-0 Lead in ALCS

It won't be easy for the Yankees to walk this one off

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Masahiro Tanaka appeared in a game, he was charged with saving the Yankees’ season. Facing an Indians club that had shut down New York’s offense in Game 1 of the ALDS and then put the Yankee bullpen to the sword in Game 2, Tanaka matched Carlos Carrasco out for out, allowing just four baserunners in seven scoreless innings. He needed Aaron Judge to rob a home run and Greg Bird to take Andrew Miller deep, but a lesser pitching performance would have allowed Carrasco and the Indians to wrap up a sweep.

Tanaka pitched well again on Friday night in Houston: He didn’t allow a hit until the fourth inning, and let up just four hits and a walk in six innings. If José Altuve weren’t crazy fast, Tanaka might’ve gotten out of this start without allowing a run. But in the sixth inning, Josh Reddick took a hanging sinker up in the zone and hit a 101 mph laser beam right back to the box. It hit Tanaka right in the hanging sinkers. This just three innings after Gary Sánchez—who you might remember suffered a brutal crotch shot in the Wild Card game—took an Alex Bregman foul ball on one hop off the perineum.

It was a night of getting kicked in the crotch for the Yankees, who dropped a hard-fought and (uncharacteristically for these playoffs) low-scoring Game 1 to the Astros, 2-1.

Here are three other painful incidents.

1) Dallas Keuchel Was Near-Godlike

There’s a reason all the focus on the Astros’ rotation this postseason has been on Justin Verlander and not their other Cy Young winner. Keuchel went 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA before the All-Star break, but his opponent OPS jumped more than 200 points and his ERA leapt to 4.24 after the break. Keuchel pitched well against Boston in Game 2 of the ALDS, but he wasn’t unhittable—a better offensive team than the Red Sox could’ve roughed him up.

Against the Yankees, though, Keuchel was magical. His usual 2017 plan has been to go fastball-heavy early, then introduce his off-speed stuff later in the game. First time through the order this year, he threw his slider 11.4 percent of the time, a figure that rose to 21.1 percent the second time through the order and 23.2 percent after that. Sure enough, Keuchel’s first 10 pitches of the night were two-seamers, and he threw only four sliders out of 33 pitches the first time through the order. Five Yankee hitters saw nothing but two-seamers their first time up.

In his last 17 batters faced, Keuchel threw 76 pitches, 24 of them sliders. Judge saw five straight fastballs in the first inning, then four sliders in six pitches en route to a third-inning strikeout. The third time up, Judge didn’t even see a fastball in six pitches.

“He just lives on the corner and he doesn’t miss his spots,” Judge said. “There weren’t too many pitches over the heart of the plate. He commands well, he mixes speeds well; he just keeps you off-balance.”

All told, Keuchel allowed just four hits and a walk (and only a handful of hard-hit balls) in seven innings. He struck out 10, becoming the third Astro ever to hit double-digit strikeouts in a playoff start (after Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott, both in 1986).

“I saw some hard, hard cutters when he needed to establish that side of the plate,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “And then I saw the vintage movement. His ball was moving all over the place and they had a hard time centering him up. They only hit a couple balls hard, and he came up with big pitches in big moments.”

2) José Altuve Owned the Fourth Inning

To the 43,116 fans at Minute Maid Park who chanted “MVP! MVP!” every time Altuve came up, this series is not only about winning the pennant, but also about a proxy war between the two leading candidates for AL MVP. Judge went 1-for-20 with 16 strikeouts in the division series, while Altuve went 8-for-15, including a three-homer effort in Game 1 against Boston.

Altuve made headlines before the game by saying he’d vote for Judge for MVP, but while Judge went 1-for-3 with a walk—a bonanza by the standards of his recent playoff performances—Altuve went 3-for-4 and swung the game on his own in the fourth inning. In the top half of the inning, he made a spectacular diving stop to rob Didi Gregorius of a base hit.

Then in the bottom of the inning, he legged a run into existence more or less out of thin air. After beating out an infield single, he stole second and—more impressively in this day and age of meticulous replay—kept his foot on the base after the slide. Within moments, he was scampering home from second base on a Carlos Correa single.

3) Greg Bird Just Barely Missed Knotting It Up

Just like in Tanaka’s last start, the Yankees’ only run came off a late Bird homer, this one a towering solo shot off Ken Giles that clanked off the very top of the right-field foul pole. But it came with two outs in the top of the ninth, too late to change much.

But a half-inning after the Astros put two runs on the board off Tanaka, Bird tried to score from second on Judge’s single, but Marwin González threw him out at the plate from left field.

Talk about nut shots. Judge couldn’t find his bat in the Division Series, and when he finally comes up with a big hit with men in scoring position, the Yankees run into an inning-ending out.

“If Bird’s safe, maybe we really get to [Keuchel] that inning, but he wasn’t,” said manager Joe Girardi.

González, a converted shortstop who also cut down a runner at the plate in Game 4 against Boston, agreed.

“That was their best moment in the game to stop the momentum,” González said. “All I was thinking was to get the ball as fast as I could, since I knew he was on second, and I knew that that was the only [way] to get a chance at home plate.”

Girardi challenged the play, not because he necessarily thought Bird was safe, he said, but because he remembered the disastrous consequences of not challenging Lonnie Chisenhall’s hit-by-pitch in Game 2 against Cleveland.

“God knows I’m not doing that again,” Girardi said.

Another thing Girardi doesn’t want to do again is lose in Game 2, which would require the Yankees to take four of five from Houston to advance. If they win Game 2, however, it would guarantee a Game 5, which Tanaka would probably start. Depending on how the next few games go, Tanaka might find himself pitching for the Yankees’ season once again.