Astros Pounce on Yankees’ Mistakes in Game 3, Move Closer to ALCS Sweep

Harrison Bader Aaron Judge
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK — Cristian Javier finally got his turn. After making 12 postseason appearances out of the bullpen from 2020 through this year’s American League Division Series, the 25-year-old righty followed in the footsteps of teammates Justin Verlander and Framber Valdez, stifling the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALCS — and in Yankee Stadium, no less. Javier held the Yankees hitless until the fourth inning and allowed just one hit through 5.1 frames before yielding to a bullpen that the banged up Bronx Bombers remained unable to solve. New York didn’t collect another hit until down to its final out and finished with just three.

Meanwhile, the Astros capitalized on a costly two-out error by Harrison Bader in the second inning and chased Gerrit Cole in the sixth. Houston’s 5–0 victory gave the team a commanding 3–0 lead in the ALCS and put it within a win of its second straight trip to the World Series under manager Dusty Baker and the franchise’s fourth pennant in the last six years.

After totaling 19 starts for the Astros in 2020–21, Javier began the year in the bullpen before joining the rotation in late April. Thanks to the combination of an elite, high-spin fastball and a devastating slider, he was the majors’ toughest pitcher to hit in terms of both batting average (.169) and BABIP (.228) among those with at least 140 innings pitched. Additionally, he finished in a virtual tie with Shohei Ohtani for the top strikeout rate at that cutoff (33.2%) and led that group with a 2.43 xERA. The Yankees knew that coming in, because on on June 25, in his lone regular-season start at Yankee Stadium, Javier struck out 13, walked just one and allowed no hits over seven innings in what became a combined no-hitter.

Javier closed the season with a scoreless streak of 26 consecutive innings; his last run allowed came on September 7, and he gave up just six hits over his final four starts. The last of those was on October 1, however, and prior to Saturday’s start, his postseason action had been confined to 1.1 innings in Game 1 the ALDS, when he served up a solo homer to Eugenio Suárez.

Whatever rust Javier had was made up for with his adrenaline and effective wildness. In a 1-2-3 first in which he threw 10 four-seam fastballs (three of them above the zone), his heater averaged 96 mph, 2.2 above his regular-season average, with 2,354 RPM, 169 RPM above average. Through the first 3.1 innings, the only batter to reach against him was Gleyber Torres, who walked to lead off the second. Giancarlo Stanton finally broke the ice via a one-out double in the fourth — the first ball the Yankees hit to the outfield all night — but didn’t score; New York would go 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position on the night.

Meanwhile, two second-inning mistakes proved costly for the Yankees and Cole, who had shaken himself out of a September slump via a pair of stellar starts against the Guardians in the Division Series. With two outs, Christian Vázquez hit a routine fly ball to right-center field, with an 87 mph exit velocity and a 29-degree launch angle. Bader and Aaron Judge converged, and while normally, that’s the center fielder’s play, the ball was tailing toward right field. It landed in Bader’s glove, but with a 6-foot-7, 280-pound behemoth of a right fielder converging upon him, the 6-foot, 200-pound center fielder may have been just a wee bit distracted. The ball popped loose, and Vázquez, who thought he was out and had slowed to a jog, had to hustle back to first base.

Bader, who was charged with the error, said afterward that he and Judge didn’t hear each other due to the crowd noise:

“That’s just what happens on defense when you’ve got two guys who go really hard when the ball’s hit in their vicinity… It’s a loud atmosphere, fans want to win, they’re cheering, and it was just placed perfectly. We’re calling it to the very end, and we both got a little spooked… It’s unfortunate that it happens, but it happens.”

“I definitely messed him up on that play,” Judge said. “I gotta take responsibility for that. He’s the center fielder. When he calls it, I gotta drop and get out of the way. I just couldn’t really move quick enough.”

Regardless of whose responsibility the play was, the mishap proved particularly costly when Cole left a 98.3 mph four-seamer too close to the middle of the zone against Chas McCormick. Houston’s no. 9 hitter ripped a drive that scraped off the top of the right field wall and bounced into the short porch for a two-run homer that sucked all of the air out of Yankee Stadium.

At an estimated 335 feet, the shot was the second-shortest postseason homer of the Statcast era, after Carlos Correa’s 326-footer into the Crawford Boxes in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series. For Cole it was his ninth consecutive postseason game allowing a homer, tying the still-intact streak of Yu Darvish for the longest in major league history.

Cole otherwise pitched reasonably well, though he ended up being charged with a total of five runs (three earned) as the Astros broke things open in the sixth. Relying on a slider-heavy mix and de-emphasizing his fastball — he threw 37 of the former and 23 of the latter, in addition to 22 curves, 13 changeups and a cutter — he struck out seven, walked two and allowed just five hits. He got into trouble in the sixth when Alex Bregman hit a sharp double down the left field line and Kyle Tucker walked, prompting a visit from pitching coach Matt Blake and action in the bullpen.

When Yuli Gurriel’s bloop landed in shallow right field near the line to load the bases with nobody out, manager Aaron Boone pulled Cole, though he had thrown just 96 pitches and had the bottom third of the lineup coming up. Then again, between McCormick’s homer and a fourth-inning walk to Trey Mancini, he hadn’t exactly dominated those hitters.

Though Cole “threw the ball incredibly well” in his view, Boone felt the urgency of the moment, saying afterward, “With us struggling to put some points on the board and down a couple already, I felt like Mancini had some good at-bats against [Cole] already, [and] three consecutive guys getting on there. I just felt like maybe we could get some soft contact or put ’em on the ground.”

The manager called upon Lou Trivino, who after arriving in the Frankie Montas deadline trade had held righties to a .252 wOBA, struck them out 28.4% of the time, and producing a ground ball on 55% of those in play — a performance that had earned Boone’s trust and seemed particularly well-suited to the matchups. Trivino, however, surrendered a sacrifice fly to Mancini and then a two-run single to Vázquez; Houston’s 5–0 lead might as well have been 50–0 against a Yankees team that had managed just four runs and 10 hits through the first 23 innings of the series. “I got Trivino up just in case [Cole] needed some help there with the bottom righties that we liked [Trivino] against,” Boone explained. “But obviously it turned out it didn’t work for us.”

By that point, Javier’s early-inning dominance had yielded to an effective wildness. He walked Bader to start the fifth, but Vázquez made a perfect peg to catch him trying to steal second base. When Javier issued his third walk of the night to night to Anthony Rizzo with one out in the sixth, Baker came and got him. For the night, he threw 84 pitches and generated nine swings and misses (32% whiff rate) on his four-seamer, with his velocity tailing off after the first; his 94.1 mph average ended up just 0.3 mph above his season mark. He got another three swings and misses with the slider (30% whiff) and struck out five.

While Javier allowed five hard-hit balls of 95 mph or more, only Stanton’s 110.9-mph drive and a 102-mph liner by Oswaldo Cabrera were threats to do real damage; the former was the Yankees’ lone base hit until the ninth, the latter merely a third-inning out to Jose Altuve. Stanton’s ball and a routine fly by Matt Carpenter — 98 mph but at a 41-degree angle, notable at the time mainly for breaking his streak of consecutive strikeouts at eight — were the only balls that made it to the outfield against Javier.

Though Javier retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced, to Baker, he “started off a little rocky” before going to the stretch: “When he was in the windup he couldn’t find his rhythm, and then he went to the stretch on his own, and then he was more compact and was getting the ball down, because early in the game he was wild high.”

Said Vázquez of Javier’s performance, “It was electric, the fastball up, the slider. He was throwing so good, that it was a lot of swing-and-miss. It was awesome, fun to watch and [catch] him.”

Héctor Neris relieved Javier, striking out Judge on three pitches, the last of them a splitter in the dirt, and getting Stanton to ground out. Ryne Stanek struck out the side in the seventh, but the Yankees showed signs of life when Josh Donaldson and Cabrera both walked to lead off the eighth against Hunter Brown. They couldn’t convert, however, as Jose Trevino, Rizzo, and Judge went down in order; facing Rafael Montero, the slugger grounded to third to complete a dismal 0-for-4 night in which he failed to get a ball out of the infield and struck out twice. For the postseason, he’s hitting .156/.182/.344 with one walk and 13 strikeouts in 33 plate appearances. Nearly all of the balls he’s made contact with have been hard-hit — 14 out of 18 have been 95 mph or higher — but he’s had some bad luck, such as on his near-homer in the eighth inning of Thursday night’s game that would have gone out if not for the wind and the angle at which it was hit (MLB Advanced Media’s Tom Tango estimated that the slice alone cost it 40 feet of distance).

The Yankees finally added to their hit total once they were down to their final out in the ninth inning against Bryan Abreu, when Carpenter and Bader collected back-to-back singles, but Donaldson struck out swinging to end it.

For the series, the Yankees have hit a meek .128/.212/.223 with 41 strikeouts and nine walks in 104 PA. It’s not just Judge who’s failed to come through; Rizzo, Torres, Donaldson, and Carpenter each have as many hits (one) as him. New York’s catchers and shortstops are a combined 0-for-18, and the team is 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position.

That’s not entirely on Yankees hitters, though. The Astros’ starters — a future Hall of Famer who’s probably going to take home his third Cy Young, a lefty who set a record with 26 consecutive quality starts, and literally the majors’ most un-hittable starter this year — have combined to allow one run, eight hits and four walks in 18.1 innings, striking out 25. Houston’s bullpen has struck out 16 of 35 batters faced. The pitching has helped mask an offense in which Altuve (who finally broke his 0-for-25 postseason slide with a fifth-inninng double), Yordan Alvarez, and Tucker have combined to go 3-for-32 without a single RBI. Turns out this Astros team is pretty deep, and now it’s one win away from the AL pennant.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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1 year ago

A tale as old as time: good pitching beats…so-so hitting…

This is what the 2022 Yankees are without Judge at his best. Too many post-prime name hitters and fragile bodies. Great at their best but they don’t suit up togdther often enough.

They rode the hot start as far as the playoffs but losing half the bullpen isn’t their only problem. ESPN has been “gifting” eliminated teams with three big questions for the off-season but the Yankees have more like six.

At least getting Bader paid off…

Last edited 1 year ago by fjtorres
1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Judge’s postseason failures is interesting. He’s had a pretty big sample size now of not performing well in the playoffs, and if his name was ARod he’d be destroyed by the Yankees fan base already.

1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

If you prorated out his postseason performance to 600 PAs he’d have a 40 homer season in the playoffs.

To be fair, he’s been ghastly this offseason but even if you take his entire offseason record at face value (instead of less than 200 PAs) he still doesn’t come out as “bad.”

1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Judge’s record against Cleveland probably got the rest of the league the videos to figure out what they were doing to see if they can echo it.
Not exactly what his agent wanted to see after the great season he had.

1 year ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Judge started slumping the last two weeks of the season once he hit his 60th HR. He clearly started pressing after that, changing his swing ever so slightly. He did keep his pitch selection discipline, however, through the seasons end. But that’s now gone. He’s chasing bad pitches and missing or taking pitches that he would have mashed just a few weeks ago.

Whether he was hurt by the long bye-round layoff is impossible to know but he is making more contact now. Still, he’s obviously not locked in like he was for the whole second half of the season.

David Klein
1 year ago
Reply to  baubo

He’s getting booed even though he carried the team to the playoffs as you can tell I’m not a fan of booing your own players.