Astros Stifle Yankees’ Offense Again, Take Commanding ALCS Lead

© Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

After striking out 17 times Wednesday night, the Yankees ran that number up to 30 for the Championship Series, taking another tough loss in Game 2, this time 3-2. This time, Framber Valdez, the second half of Houston’s two-headed ace monster, was responsible; he struck out nine across seven strong innings. Typically known for his groundball prowess, Valdez racked up a career-high 25 whiffs Thursday night, with 16 of them coming via a nasty curveball. Those curveball whiffs, another career-best and a playoff record since the pitch-tracking era began in 2008, exceeded the next-highest mark from this season (including the playoffs) by three. (For context, three was also the gap between the outings with the second- and 12th-most curveball whiffs this year.)

But Valdez didn’t look all that sharp out of the gate. While his velocity was up 1.3 mph on the sinker, his primary offering, three of the first four and four of the first six hitters he faced went up in the count 2-0. In addition to possibly causing command issues, that extra zip may have led to higher exit velocities for the Yankees: their first three hitters each put 100-mph screamers in play. Luckily for Valdez, they were all hit pretty close to fielders, but with two down in the second, he wasn’t as fortunate; Josh Donaldson hit a perfectly placed 92.1-mph liner — the Yankees’ softest-hit ball to that point — into short right field for a double. But Valdez registered his first strikeout of the game when the next batter, Kyle Higashioka, went down after five straight curveballs, whiffing on the last:

Luis Severino, the Yankees’ starter, ran into some trouble of his own in the bottom half of the inning. After a one-pitch Alex Bregman fly out, Kyle Tucker walked on six pitches. Yuli Gurriel followed that up with a seven-pitch battle; the second hit-and-run of the at-bat, this time on 3-2, resulted in a 110.4 mph liner to the left side that was just beyond the reach of a diving Oswald Peraza, and Tucker moved to second. But Severino won the next seven-pitch scuffle, whiffing Aledmys Díaz on 98.3 mph heat. Severino’s first two pitches to the next hitter, Chas McCormick, were also fastball whiffs; on the night, Severino’s four-seamer notched 10 whiffs, good for a 20.8% swinging-strike rate. Sevvy went back to the pitch on 0-2 and the Astros center fielder popped out to end the threat.

Despite its whiffiness, Severino’s fastball failed him the next inning. The hurler plunked Martín Maldonado on the forearm with an 0-2 heater to start things off, and while the next batter, Jose Altuve, struck out swinging on a fastball, Jeremy Peña dunked a first-pitch four-seamer in front of Harrison Bader for a hit. Severino then got the dangerous Yordan Alvarez, already a hero in these playoffs, to ground out on a 1-2 slider. But that’s when Bregman strode to the plate. For a 1-2 offering, Severino again tried to use his heater as an out-pitch, but Bregman was ready. The third baseman shortened up his swing on the inside pitch and cranked it into the Crawford Boxes. The high-arcing shot, which had a launch angle of 36 degrees, elevated Bregman to first place all-time in postseason home runs by a third baseman:

After the game, Severino expressed surprise that Bregman’s looping 91.8 mph fly left the park and Aaron Judge’s 106.3 mph shot to right didn’t. He mentioned the wind as a factor; the roof was open at Minute Maid, and the swirling air currents may have brought balls back into the park in right field but lifted out those hit to left. Yet, it’s hard to discern the ultimate impact environmental factors had on the game’s outcome; there were plenty of Astros who flied out to deep right as well, notably Peña, who hit a 99.2-mph, 22-degree drive that stayed in the yard. Besides the wind, batted ball spin may have caused Judge’s knock to fall short.

Either way, the Yankees suddenly found themselves down three. In the top of the fourth, though, they were able to put two on the board. After Judge led off with a groundball single through the left side, Giancarlo Stanton tapped one back to Valdez. The southpaw fumbled it, losing the double play on the error; he then rushed to pick it up and overthrew first for a second error on the play:

The runners advanced to second and third. While Valdez accrued 25 whiffs on the night, he couldn’t put Anthony Rizzo away on 0-2; the first baseman moved the runners up with a groundout to the right side, scoring Judge. Again on 0-2, the next batter, Gleyber Torres, grounded an infield single to Peña at short, scoring Stanton. Valdez then struck out Donaldson and Higashioka on curveballs to limit the damage.

Severino’s day ended one out into the sixth after Tucker notched a single. The righty didn’t surrender a single barrel and kept his hard-hit rate below the league average of 38.2%. Yankees’ relievers Jonathan Loáisiga and Wandy Peralta followed suit, maintaining the low hard-hit rate and also keeping the ball away from Astros barrels. For his part, Valdez allowed a hard-hit rate of 58.8% as well as a barrel, a Torres fly out to right that the wind may have influenced. Bryan Abreu, who relieved Valdez, gave up a barrel in the near-homer to Judge, which would have left the yard in the Bronx (though nowhere else) even in its potentially wind-diminished form. Abreu’s hard-hit rate was 50%. Yet, the Yankees still lost and had four fewer hits. Baseball is funny like that sometimes.

Regardless, the peripherals and other factors indicate that the Yankees played much better in this one than in Game 1. They hit the ball harder, utilized their best relievers in crucial spots, filled their lineup optimally, and held things down on defense. The rookie Peraza deservedly received his first-career postseason start after mashing to the tune of a 146 wRC+ in a September call-up audition, but he rewarded the team by flashing the leather in this game. One web-gem, a sliding grab and subsequent missile throw on an Altuve grounder, kept the Astros second baseman without a hit in 20 postseason at-bats to that point. After a strikeout and a popout in his next two appearances, Altuve stood in against Loáisiga with a man on first. On the 1-1 offering, he drove a grounder 106.7 mph out to second where Torres, falling backwards, picked it. From the ground, Altuve’s second-base counterpart flipped it to second and Peraza fired it to first for the inning-ending double play. Altuve now holds the all-time record for the longest hitless streak to begin a postseason:

After a delay caused by a fan running onto the infield to hug Altuve, Ryan Pressly again shut the door in the top of the ninth. He walked Donaldson, but the closer struck out everyone else he faced. The Yankees’ bats couldn’t muster any contact that traveled as far as the currently-jailed fan did.

Now down 2-0 in the series, it is crucial for the Yankees to win every game they play in their coming homestand in order to avoid losing to Houston in the ALCS for the third time in the last six years. The good news for Yankees fans is that when the series resumes on Saturday in the Bronx, Gerrit Cole will be taking the hill. After his two strong starts in the Division Series propelled the Yankees to victory, look for a big outing from the righty in his first postseason start against his former team. The Astros have yet to announce their starter but appear likely to use some combination of Lance McCullers Jr. and Cristian Javier. While still dangerous, both come with more question marks than either of the Astros’ two previous starters. How the teams’ starting rotations have lined up presents an especially ripe opportunity for the Yankees to get back in the series over the next couple of games.

Alex is a FanGraphs contributor. His work has also appeared at Pinstripe Alley, Pitcher List, and Sports Info Solutions. He is especially interested in how and why players make decisions, something he struggles with in daily life. You can find him on Twitter @Mind_OverBatter.

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1 year ago

I thought the Yankees would have to sweep at home to even have a chance in the series coming into it, because I don’t think they can squeeze out more than one win in Houston.

Also, Peraza should stay in the lineup. At very least, can we just not have IKF and Donaldson in the lineup at the same time? Donaldson has looked pretty cooked most of the season. If he guesses right, he can still hit the ball hard. He doesn’t guess right very often.