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Yankees 4, Astros 7: Bullpen’s bad day blows sweep

SB Nation logo SB Nation 5/6/2021 Andrew Mearns
a baseball player throwing a ball © Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Thursday afternoon was going along swimmingly as the Yankees searched for a six-game winning streak and a sweep of the Astros. Sure, Gerrit Cole wasn’t quite as electric as he had been in April, but he still left with a 3-2 lead. Sure, the Yankees’ offense didn’t look quite as sharp as most of the past week, but they’d still put together a late lead for the dominant bullpen. The relief corps had been so dominant that the Yankees were 37-1 when leading after seven innings since the start of 2020.

Unfortunately, that elusive 1-in-38 mistake bubbled up today. Chad Green and Justin Wilson both coughed up late home runs to Jose Altuve and Martín Maldonado, and the Yankees lost, 7-4. It was a bummer of a note and a rare bullpen meltdown to close out an otherwise-thrilling three-game set.

Cole started the game in uncharacteristic fashion, giving up a leadoff single to Altuve. Almost as if annoyed by the grounder up the middle, he induced a double play from Michael Brantley and caught Alex Bregman looking for a called strike three. In fact, following the Altuve hit, he retired 10 of the next 11 batters he faced — the only exception being a bloop single by Maldonado, who was stranded.

The Yankees immediately had a shot at denting home plate thanks to a wild Lance McCullers Jr. The right-hander walked Giancarlo Stanton with one out in the first, and after fanning Aaron Judge, issued back-to-back walks to Gio Urshela and Gleyber Torres. Mike Ford then hit 2-0 rocket at an exit velocity of 100.8 mph ... but right to Yuli Gurriel at first, ending the inning.

After a smoother second, McCullers was rudely greeted by the red-hot Stanton in the third. The slugger extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a 117.3-mph missile to the opposite field that sailed over the wall for a solo shot:

Yeah, it turns out that you can’t exactly leave sinkers sitting in the middle of the strike zone to dudes like Stanton — especially when they’re nigh-unstoppable at the plate.

diagram © Baseball Savant

The man is indeed seeing beach balls right now.

It didn’t take them long to counterpunch, even against Cole. The ace was in a rhythm with two outs in the fourth and a two-strike count on Yordan Alvarez, who he had previously struck out in the second. However, even the greats are occasionally fallible. Alvarez looked for a pitch down and in, and boy, he got it:

Alvarez’s 424-foot shot tied the ballgame at 1-1.

To the Yankees’ credit, they didn’t let the game stay knotted for long. Aaron Hicks beat out an infield single to begin the bottom of the fourth, and after McCullers got Kyle Higashioka to line out to right, he let Clint Frazier line a ball to right as well. The problem was that Frazier squared one up at an exit velocity 10 mph higher than Higgy, and with a higher launch angle.


Video: Fans return for Yankees opening day (USA TODAY)

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In right field at Yankee Stadium, sometimes that’s all you need:

Frazier’s third homer of the year was a two-run shot to put the Yankees up, 3-1, and it was some very nice opposite-field hitting*, especially for someone who entered Thursday with just five knocks in the past month. The man needed that blast.

*Not as nice as Giancarlo’s from earlier, but consider this the more normal, non-demigod division.

Much like after Altuve’s leadoff single, Cole steamrolled through the Astros’ lineup with determination and ease following the rare Alvarez blemish. Once again, his roll was only interrupted by his former catcher, Maldonado, on a single that led to him being stranded shortly afterward (thanks in part to a very nice play by DJ LeMahieu ranging a long way to right-field foul territory to catch an Altuve popup).

Once again, though, Alvarez brought the dominance to a halt with a bomb:

The man does not hit cheapies. Although Cole had only allowed one homer in April, Alvarez became just the third player to ever take him deep twice in a single game. The ace fanned Gurriel and Carlos Correa to end his outing in style, but the Astros scratched one run closer.

The Yankees went down in order against reliever Andre Scrubb, and Houston quickly got to work off Green in the top of the eighth. The normally reliable setup man didn’t have his “A” stuff on Thursday. He issued a leadoff walk to Kyle Tucker, and Aledmys Díaz hit a sharp grounder to third that Urshela snared, but then botched with a bad throw to first.

Green struck out Maldonado, but the next man up was the maligned Altuve, who exacted his revenge on Yankees fans:

Ouch. The pitch Altuve took deep wasn’t even a strike. It was actually the first time in Green’s career that an opposing hitter took a high heater from him up and out.

The Astros led, 5-2, and as Green departed for Lucas Luetge, a bad situation got worse when Urshela also limped off the field in favor of Tyler Wade. We’re not sure what happened yet, but it seems like he hurt himself in the dive on that Díaz grounder. Hopefully it’s just a cramp and nothing too serious because Urshela has hit .327 across the last two weeks and has been a steady presence as the surprisingly good primary cleanup hitter.

*Update: Urshela hurt his knee and is going to get an MRI. Aaron Boone said that it seemed stable in tests at the Stadium, but oof, not what you want to read.

In the bottom of the eighth, the Yankees got run back thanks almost entirely to an extraordinary heads-up play by Torres. He led off with a single to right, and after Ford struck out (on an iffy call, mind you), Hicks hit a grounder that deflected just off Correa’s glove. Seeing that no one was covering third, Torres kept running ... and then kept running, still:

That’s taking Johnny Damon’s 2009 World Series play to the next level. It would’ve been enough for Torres to go to third, but to notice that there was still no one covering home? That’s awesome. He caught the entire Astros infield — including pitcher Ryan Pressly — napping to steal a run.

Sadly, it was all for naught. Wilson put a man on and left a cookie out over the heart over the plate to Maldonado in the top of the ninth. The catcher deposited it in the left-field seats and that was the back-breaking blow. The Astros were up, 7-4, and it’s a lot harder to rally from three runs down than one. Sure enough, Brett Gardner led off with a single, but LeMahieu struck out and Stanton bounced into a double play to end it.

The Yankees are now 16-15 on the season and will welcome the Nationals to town for an interleague set beginning tomorrow night at 7:05pm ET. Jameson Taillon will face Patrick Corbin as the Bombers hope to begin another winning streak.

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