Yankees-Astros ALCS: Correa hits walk-off to reward Verlander

The Astros are two wins from the World Series. Thanks to Justin Verlander and Carlos Correa, Houston narrowly downed New York, 2-1, with a walk-off double in the ninth off Aroldis Chapman to take a 2–0 ALCS lead. Both teams will now take a day off to rest and travel before the series resumes on Monday in the Bronx.

1. Verlander Turns Back The Clock

It figures that a matchup of the two best offenses in baseball—and the two teams with more regular season home runs than anyone—would feature two tightly contested pitchers’ duels. In Game 1, it was Masahiro Tanaka and Dallas Keuchel who stymied offenses, with the latter emerging the victor. In Game 2, it was Luis Severino and Verlander giving hitters nightmares, with the latter looking like his 2011 MVP self in a brilliant start.

When it’s all said and done, the most impactful trade of the 2017 season may be the one that sent Verlander to Houston, giving the Astros a second ace alongside Keuchel for the postseason. Imagine where the Astros would be without him—likely forced to start Brad Peacock or a compromised Lance McCullers in Game 2 against a powerful Yankees lineup. Instead, it was Verlander slicing and dicing New York over nine incredible innings, allowing just one run and striking out 13 on 124 pitches. Using a fastball that he dialed up to 97 and a hard slider that drew 12 swings and misses, Verlander was untouchable save for the top of the fifth, when back-to-back doubles from Aaron Hicks and Todd Frazier put the only blemish on his record.

As otherworldly as Verlander was, though, Severino and the Yankees’ bullpen were his equals. The former was strong over four innings, allowing only a run on a Correa home run, before a line drive off the bat of Yuli Gurriel struck him in the left wrist and apparently forced him from the contest (though he luckily suffered no injury). No matter: New York’s relievers picked him up. Proving once again that getting into the Yankees’ bullpen only seems to hurt your chances of winning, the combination of Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson—part of arguably the second-most impactful deal this season when Brian Cashman snagged them from the White Sox—kept Houston off the board over the next four innings, striking out three.

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But it finally came undone in the ninth.  Chapman, working for the first time since his six-out save in ALDS Game 5, started the frame by striking out Josh Reddick but could get no further. Jose Altuve—who else?—reached on a single past a diving Didi Gregorius up the middle for his second hit of the day, then scampered home on Correa’s opposite-field double into the right-center gap. Gregorius relayed the throw home from Aaron Judge and it easily beat Altuve to the plate, but Gary Sanchez couldn’t hold onto the ball, allowing Altuve to score the winning run and hand the Astros a 2–0 series lead—and a well-deserved win to Verlander for his beastly start.

2. Judge and Sanchez Still Snoozing

At some point, for the Yankees to have a real shot at a pennant and a World Series title, they’ll need their two best hitters to start swinging. Saturday’s Game 2 saw Judge and Sanchez go a combined 0-for-8 with four strikeouts; for the postseason, the former is 4-for-31 (a .129 average) with an astonishing 19 strikeouts, and the latter is 6-for-34 (.176) with 15 punchouts. After combining for 85 home runs in the regular season, the two have just three homers between them over eight games; Judge hasn’t gone deep since the wild-card game against the Twins.

It’s been easy to identify Judge’s weakness in this postseason: pretty much anything outside. Pitchers have lived down and away against the imposing righty, spinning breaking balls just out of his reach and staying away from putting a fastball anywhere within the strike zone. That was Verlander’s modus operandi, making Judge reach for sliders in the dirt or that broke on the corner. Until Judge proves he can either go the other way with that ball or lay off of it, there’s no reason for any Houston pitcher to stray from that strategy.

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There are other holes in New York’s lineup that need to be addressed, too. Frazier had the big hit in Game 2 but he’s otherwise been invisible, as has Starlin Castro. Yankees designated hitters, meanwhile, are putting lie to that title: They’re still hitless in the postseason after Chase Headley’s 0-for-3 effort on Saturday. But true success hinges on Judge and Sanchez; without them, the Yankees’ surprise run won’t last much longer.

3. Rumble in the Bronx Could Be Big Trouble for Houston

For both Houston and New York, Games 3 and 4—and potentially 5—present a substantial challenge. Both teams have used their aces and now must count on the back of the rotation to keep things afloat. For the Astros, that means turning things over to Peacock, Charlie Morton and potentially McCullers in the imposing environs of Yankee Stadium. For the Yankees, that will involve getting big outings from the duo of CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray.

That’s definitely shakier ground for Houston. Peacock’s lone Division Series start was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it affair, as he collected only eight outs and allowed three runs. Morton reached the fifth inning in his turn, but that was as uncomfortable a start as can be imagined, as he avoided bullet after bullet in Boston. And McCullers has thrown just three innings all postseason, all coming in relief of Peacock in ALDS Game 3.

Sabathia and Gray are more reliable options, but not by much. The big lefty looked good in his two ALDS starts, striking out 14 in 9 2/3 innings, but he can’t be counted on for length, having been pulled in the sixth in Game 2 and running out of steam in the fifth in Game 5. Gray, meanwhile, was knocked around by the Indians to start the Division Series, giving up three runs in 3 1/3 frames. Joe Girardi clearly doesn’t have much confidence in the young righty, having pushed him all the way back to Game 4 of this series, but he may end up being the man on the mound in an elimination game.

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In other words, expect both bullpens to figure heavily in the next two games. That’s a positive for the Yankees, who have the better and deeper relief corps. But Verlander’s Herculean outing bought a day of rest for the Astros that could have a big impact—particularly for closer Ken Giles, who had to throw 37 pitches to get five outs in Game 1. The key will be the likes of Chris Devenski and Will Harris soaking up innings once Peacock and Morton falter. Otherwise, there’s a very good chance that the Yankees will tie this series up in a hurry.

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