Winning streaks are coveted events in any sport, and often hard to come by. The Houston Astros had only three during the regular season that lasted six games or longer, and all of those involved opponents like the Detroit Tigers, the Oakland Athletics, the Kansas City Royals and the Washington Nationals — the dregs of the major leagues.
The playoffs are supposed to be more challenging, with the best competition from both leagues. But even with that, the Astros have built another impressive streak in the postseason by winning their first six games. Their 5-0 victory over the Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on Saturday kept them undefeated in these playoffs and looking a substantial step above the competition.
“I think we just have a bitter taste from last year, losing the World Series,” said Chas McCormick, whose two-run homer off Gerrit Cole was all the offense Houston needed. “We wanted to get back here again. We knew we had a great team. We’re just hungry. We’re really hungry and we want to win as much as possible. We want to get a ring.”
With that as their motivation, the Astros have relied on their formidable pitching staff and deep, experienced lineup, to simply overwhelming the Yankees, just as they did the Seattle Mariners in their three-game sweep in that division series.In the first two games of the A.L.C.S. the Astros pitchers struck the Yankees out 30 times and in Game 3 they threw a combined three-hit shutout.
“They are really good,” said Aaron Boone, the Yankees manager, “and obviously it starts with their pitching. ”
Can any of the remaining three teams beat the Astros in a game, let alone a series? The Yankees will ask Nestor Cortes, their popular starting pitcher, to answer that question as he takes the ball Sunday night for Game 4 against Lance McCullers Jr. of the Astros.
Only one team in postseason baseball history has come back from an 0-3 deficit, the Boston Red Sox, who did it against the Yankees in the 2004 A.L.C.S. At least the Yankees know it can be done.
“We’ve got a shot,” said Gerrit Cole, the Yankees starter, who was charged with the loss. We just have to play it one pitch at a time.”
But they will have to completely reverse their fortunes including Aaron Judge, who went 0 for 4 and left 3 runners on base. Judge is batting .156 in the postseason and is 1 for 12 in the three games against Houston.
During the regular season the Yankees won 99 games, relying heavily on home runs, and at times early in the summer they looked like the best team in baseball, with Yankee Stadium hosting nightly victory celebrations. But those happy feelings have been replaced by frustration and booing.
With their team’s season suddenly on the brink, disappointed fans showered the Yankees with boos on several occasions Saturday. Even Judge, the darling of baseball, who hit an American League-record 62 home runs this year, heard jeers when he struck out in the sixth inning.
“I definitely understand their frustration,” Judge said, and added, “I understand why there’s boos and why there’s yelling at times. But we’ve got to pick it up as a team.”
As the game progressed, the booing only got louder.
“I think they were booing a lot tonight,” said Josh Donaldson, who went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts.
The Astros opened the scoring in the second inning on McCormick’s home run, but he might not have even gone to bat in the inning if not for a mistake in the outfield by the Yankees.
With two outs, Christian Vázquez lifted a routine fly ball to right-center. Both Harrison Bader and Judge converged on it, and Bader dropped it. Vázquez was so unaware of the gaffe that after he stepped on first base he turned back toward the Astros dugout and took several steps before he realized the ball had landed safely and he needed to scramble back to the base.
It should have been the final out of the inning. Instead, McCormick laced a line drive to right that barely cleared the fence and a collective groan went through the stadium.
Cole suppressed any irritation and set down the next six batters he faced and did not allow another hit until Jose Altuve’s double with one out in the fifth. It was Altuve’s first hit since the regular season concluded after going 0 for 25, a record to start a postseason.
In the sixth, the Astros loaded the bases with none out and Boone removed Cole, who had thrown 96 pitches and looked tired, in favor of the right-hander Lou Trivino. Trey Mancini drove home a run with a sacrifice fly and Vázquez singled to left, scoring two more. All five of the runs batted in were credited to the seven, eight and nine hitters.
A former Astro himself, Cole was asked what makes them so good.
“Their ability to hit good pitches,” he said.
According to Justin Verlander, the Astros ace, Houstons approach has been to offer no quarter, which has helped them remain undefeated n postseason play.
“All the guys, especially the guys who have been here, are just preaching to keep your foot on the gas,” he said. “You never know what can happen. Playoffs is a funny thing. Right now, we obviously have some momentum, where you’re playing good baseball. But zero complacency. That’s kind of the theme. Just come here tomorrow and try to win a game like we’re down 3-0.”
If the Yankees haven’t already subconsciously conceded, Game 4 presents an intriguing matchup. McCullers was supposed to start Game 3 but he sustained an unusual injury during the Astros victory celebration a week ago in Seattle. In the midst of the clubhouse party after Houston’s series-clinching win over the Mariners, someone accidentally bashed McCullers in the right elbow with a bottle of champagne.
McCullers respectfully declined to say who swung the offending bottle, but he said there was a small cut and some swelling. The team decided to give him an extra day of rest, especially because McCullers had Tommy John surgery on the same elbow in 2018.
“I’m confident,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said before Game 3 on Saturday. “I saw him throw yesterday.”
McCullers, who has a 2.56 earned run average in 17 career postseason games, will face Cortes, who takes the ball in a desperate situation. He last pitched in Game 5 of the Yankees’ division series against the Cleveland Guardians on Oct. 18 at Yankee Stadium, and allowed only one run and three hits in five innings. But that was Cleveland, not the Astros, who have appeared in the A.L.C.S. six consecutive years.
With one more win against the Yankees, the Astros will be playing in their second consecutive World Series, and for now, no one seems able to stop them.
Gary Phillips contributed reporting.