NEW YORK — The Yankees had their chances against Gerrit Cole on Tuesday afternoon, golden opportunities of the type few if any of the 29-year-old righty’s opponents saw this season — the type that can haunt a team if it fails to convert them. The Yankees could not, stranding nine baserunners through the first five innings and going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Though less dominant than usual, the Astros’ co-ace wriggled out of jam after jam, and may have gotten the benefit of a de-juiced baseball when a fifth-inning Didi Gregorius drive that appeared destined to become a Yankee Stadium short porch special — a potential three-run homer that would have erased Houston’s 2-0 lead — died at the wall in right fielder Josh Reddick’s glove. Meanwhile, Reddick and José Altuve each homered off starter Luis Severino, helping to power the Astros to a 4-1 victory in Game 3 of the ALCS, giving them a two games to one lead.
As noted in my piece on Cole, throughout his otherwise incredible season, he was at his most vulnerable in the first inning, allowing 16 runs in 33 starts, a rate of 4.36 per nine innings. As the shadows stretched across the diamond in the Bronx, the Yankees were poised to add to that litany when leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu singled up the middle on Cole’s fifth pitch, and Aaron Judge followed with a shift-beating single to right field. Through the entire season, Cole had given up just seven hits before recording his first out, and only once (April 20 against the Rangers) allowed back-to-back hits to start a game. Here he recovered to retire Brett Gardner on a routine fly ball and Edwin Encarnación on a popup, then walked Gleyber Torres on four pitches, producing just the ninth bases-loaded situation he faced all year. His first-pitch curve to Gregorius, however, produced a harmless groundout.
The Yankees had another chance in the second inning, when with two outs, Aaron Hicks — starting his first game since August 3 after suffering a right flexor strain that was believed to be season-ending — battled his way to a 10-pitch walk, and LeMahieu smacked the next pitch up the middle for a single. Cole escaped by fooling Judge with a mix of curves and sliders, striking the big slugger out chasing one of the latter, low and away. Eleven batters into his start, the pitcher who punched out 326 hitters this year finally recorded his first K of the day.
“I actually think the beginning of the game he had a hard time finding his stuff and finding his tempo, his rhythm,” said manager A.J. Hinch afterwards. “He was still getting through his outing, made some really big pitches, had some pressure on him.”
After striking out Judge, Cole retired the next five batters, three via strikeouts, before issuing back-to-back two-out walks to Gio Urshela and Hicks on a total of nine pithes, though LeMahieu flew out to center. The Yankees’ most deflating chance, however, came in the fifth, when with two outs, Encarnacíon snapped a streak of 17 hitless plate appearances (16 outs, one walk) with a double into the right field corner. Torres worked an eight-pitch walk, Cole’s fifth of the game, matching a career high set on June 18, 2018 against the Rays and equalling his total over his last five starts. Gregorius saw a first-pitch 98.6 mph four-seamer, and appeared to crush it:
The ball left the bat at 101.4 mph, with a launch angle of 41 degrees. Per Statcast’s Exit Velocity & Launch Angle Field Breakdown tool, similar drives have been homers only 23.1% of the time in the past five seasons, but that doesn’t consider the direction of the ball, to say nothing of a ballpark that’s a mere 314 feet down the right field line. While there actually hasn’t been a ball struck to those specifications in Yankee Stadium during the Statcast era, from around the league in 2015-19, a total of 172 similar fly balls (with launch angles between 40 and 42 degrees, and exit velos between 101 and 102 mph) averaged 353 feet, where Gregorius’ drive was estimated at just 343 feet. For this year alone, 37 such drives with those specs averaged 354 feet. Limiting the search to balls that were pulled, as the lefty-swinging Gregorius’ was, for the five-year period there were 71 such drives averaging 356 feet, and for this year there were 11 averaging 362 feet.
Of the two managers, the Yankees’ Aaron Boone, who obviously knows this park better than his counterpart, was less inclined to believe the ball was a homer at first. “I wasn’t sure,” he said. “I knew he got it good. But I also knew he got under it and hit it high. So I was kind of just hoping a little bit.”
Hinch, by contrast, was very concerned:
Off the bat — first off, I think every fly ball in 2019 is a homer. In season, regular season, postseason, I don’t care. It’s kind of been conditioned that way.
But the ball off the bat, I immediately watched the hitter. The hitter tells you the most. And he didn’t respond right away with sort of the pure excitement. He kind of watched it for a minute and then I looked up and saw Reddick getting back, settling underneath it, I watched Didi again, then I felt a little bit better.
Cole wasn’t worried… at first:
When he initially hit it, the trajectory was more towards second base or where the second baseman would normally be. We shift Didi so Altuve is in right field.
So initially off the bat I wasn’t worried, and then I turned around and realized where we were playing and so I got a little worried. Reddick kind of drifted back. He usually — when he’s got a bead on it, it keeps my blood pressure down a little bit.
Drawing a parabola in the air for illustrative purposes, Cole added, “But the emotions kind of followed the fly ball, right? So it was kind of like low to freaking out to not so worried anymore.”
As to the notion that the ball has changed, a possibility suggested by Baseball Prospectus’ Rob Arthur based upon his model approximating a sharp increase in the drag on the balls, relative to the regular season, Boone was noncommittal: “Hard for me to say at this point. I’ve heard a couple of things about that. I don’t know.”
“I haven’t really put much thought into it,” said Cole. “I just try to respond to if it goes out or if it doesn’t go out the best I can.” The pitcher and teammate Alex Bregman both pointed out that two drives to left field by Martín Maldonado similarly gave the Astros a stir. “I think everyone in our dugout thought both the ones Martín hit were gone, but they didn’t [go out] and one was a double, one was caught,” said Bregman. Maldonado’s fourth-inning double, which came with two outs and the bases empty and did not figure in the scoring, left the bat at 101.5 mph and 36 degrees, traveling an estimated 380 feet. His sixth-inning drive (99.7 mph, 39 degrees, 350 feet) was instead a warning track fly out.
To the point of Gregorius’ fly out, Cole had thrown 89 pitches through five innings, but from there, it was smooth sailing. He retired the final six hitters he faced, three via strikeouts, on just 23 pitches, calling it a day after 112 pitches. He finished with 13 swinging strikes, eight on sliders, three on fastballs (he averaged a sizzling 97.9 mph), and two on his curve. Given the five walks — including two apiece to Hicks and Torres (“They’re not all bad walks,” said Hinch) — his overall line wasn’t pretty, and his streak of 11 consecutive starts with at least 10 strikeouts came to an end. He finished with seven, but he allowed just four hits, and, most importantly, no runs.
“Once he found his curveball it was pretty lights out,” said Hinch. “I think he finished his outing as strong as ever.”
As for Severino, a long first inning against the Astros hitter more or less guaranteed he would have a short afternoon. The 25-year-old righty needed 36 pitches to escape the opening frame, and while he allowed just one run in the process, the damage could have been much worse — and it did raise some suspicions that he was either tipping his pitches (as the Rays’ Tyler Glasnow was in the decisive Game 5 of the Division Series) or that the Astros had the Yankees’ signs.
Severino opened by retiring George Springer on a grounder on his second pitch, but then he hung a slider to Altuve:
That’s 106.6 mph and 420 feet, or 77.53 Altuves if you don’t have your calculator handy.
Michael Brantley followed the homer by working an eight-pitch walk, and then Alex Bregman battled for 11 pitches before striking out on a 97 mph fastball. A Yuli Gurriel infield single and a five-pitch walk to Yordan Alvarez prolonged the inning before Carlos Correa brought it to a merciful halt by popping out. Given that Severino had averaged just 75.5 pitches in his four starts after returning from the injured list, that laborious opening did not bode well.
Alex Rodriguez, working in the FS1 studio, believed mischief was afoot:
To recap Severino's first inning:
18 secondary pitches
11 swings on fastballs
5 swings on off-speed pitches, no misses
No chases on off-speed pitches.
If you look at Astros' hitters body language, this screams tipping.
— Alex Rodriguez (@AROD) October 15, 2019
For Severino, things went from bad to worse six pitches into the second inning, when he hung another slider, this one to Reddick:
Severino struck out both Maldonado and Springer, but Altuve reached on his error on a comebacker, and stole second without a throw. Brantley struck out swinging at another fastball, but by this point, the Yankees starter’s pitch count was at 62.
He kept his team in the game, however, and whether or not the Yankees actually figured out that the Astros had their number, he cruised through a six-pitch third and a 12-pitch fourth that turned the lineup over.
“I felt like he got a little bit sharper,” said Boone. “As he got into his outing, I thought he got better and stronger.”
With the lineup having turned over for a second time, it would not have been a surprise if Severino had departed before the fifth inning, but he returned, then had to wait out a 15-minute delay; home plate umpire Jeff Nelson had suffered a foul ball-induced concussion, thus requiring second base ump Kerwin Danley to strap on the gear to relieve him. With one out, Severino put two aboard, then departed after 97 pitches. In all, he got 12 swinging strikes, 10 of them via the fastball (which averaged 96.0) and just one apiece via the slider (out of 21 thrown) and changeup (out of 19). Hmmmm.
“I wish I knew. He struck me out,” said Bregman when a reporter passed along Rodriguez’s allegation. “But I mean every time we get hits now, everyone thinks somebody’s tipping, but we’re just trying to compete, put together good at-bats.”
When told that the Astros swung and missed at just two of 40 off-speed pitches, Bregman added, “I don’t know, maybe we saw the ball well. I couldn’t tell you. I wish I knew, because I think I was one of those swinging strikes [both belonged to Springer]… He punched me out on a fastball that exploded out of his hand and the rest of them looked very small as well. He was throwing pellets.”
Chad Green extricated Severino from that jam with a fly out and a strikeout to keep the score at 2-0. After Tommy Kahnle threw a scoreless sixth, Adam Ottavino continued his October struggles, failing to retire a batter for the third time in six postseason outings. He walked Springer, and gave up a single to Altuve on a beautifully executed run-and-hit that opened up a hole in the right side of the infield by drawing Torres to the bag; Springer took third. Zack Britton came on and induced Brantley to hit a grounder to LeMahieu, who threw home and caught Springer in a rundown. He was eventually caught, but Altuve took third and Brantley second; the former scored on a wild pitch, the latter on a sacrifice fly by Gurriel to run the score to 4-0.
After Cole departed, the Yankees finally broke through when Torres homered off reliever Joe Smith. The solo shot immediately followed an overturned play that cost the Yankees a baserunner. On an Encarnacíon chopper to third, Bregman’s throw pulled Gurriel off the bag. While he was initially ruled safe, replays showed Gurriel tagging him on the back before he arrived:
— MLB Replays (@MLBReplays) October 16, 2019
With heavy rain in the forecast for Wednesday, Game 4 may end up being pushed back a day, potentially forestalling a bullpen-heavy affair; at this writing, neither manager has announced his starter. A washout would allow the Yankees to return with Game 1 starter Masahiro Tanaka on Thursday, then go all hands on deck for Game 5, though either way, the Astros are likely to center their pitching around rookie Jose Urquidy, who could provide starter-type length. Regardless of the plan, the Astros have now recovered from the Yankees breaking serve in Game 1, wriggling off the hook time and again to put themselves back in control of this series.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.