NEW YORK -- The Yankees were one hit -- one stinkin' little hit -- away from Game 4 of the ALCS playing out very differently. Astros starter Zack Greinke came out with no command in the first inning and walked three batters, including Brett Gardner to force in a run. It was his first three-walk first inning since 2007.
At that point the Yankees had a 1-0 lead with the bases loaded and two outs, and Brad Peacock was warming up in the Houston bullpen. One more baserunner may have ended Greinke's night. Instead, Greinke fanned Gary Sanchez -- one of several struggling Yankees -- on three pitches to end the inning and escape down only 1-0.
"No question, that's an opportunity," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said following Game 4. "That's also taking a two-out hit. Chances are you're not going to get a two-out hit. But if we're going to break through and have success, we've had our chances here these last few days, we've got to come up with a big hit in a big spot."
The Yankees threatened again in the second inning, but Greinke struck out Aaron Judge to strand a runner at second base. He retired 11 of the 12 batters following the Gardner bases-loaded walk and allowed just one more runner to advance as far as second base the rest of the game. The exit velocities the first two times through the lineup against Greinke tell a story:
- Aaron Judge: 99.5 mph (first-inning fielder's choice)
- Gary Sanchez: 97.5 mph (fourth-inning ground out)
- Didi Gregorius: 83.3 mph (second-inning single)
Nothing hard hit. New York's first-inning rally was built on three walks and an Aaron Hicks bloop single that landed in the triangle in right-center field. The Yankees did well to remain patient when Greinke had trouble finding the zone, but they didn't exactly knock him around the yard in that first inning. It was a gift rally.
A look at Greinke's action pitches -- the final pitch of each at-bat -- shows the Yankees were missing hittable pitches and chasing out of the zone in his 4 1/3 innings:
Pop-ups on pitches down the middle and reaching out of the zone to make weak contact is no way to beat Greinke and the Astros. The Yankees wasted another bases-loaded opportunity -- their third in their last 14 innings -- in the fifth inning, when Ryan Pressly struck out Gleyber Torres and Edwin Encarnacion to escape the jam. More feeble at-bats with a chance to put a dent on the board.
Sanchez eventually got the Yankees back on the board with a two-run home run in the sixth inning, but, by then, it was too little too late. Two bases-loaded opportunities had been blown and heck, even later that inning Judge struck out with a runner on second base. The Yankees had nine plate appearances with runners in scoring position in Game 4 and put one (1) ball in play.
"We're facing good pitching. We're getting guys on base, but we're just missing that one big hit," Judge said. "That's the thing Houston was able to do tonight. They got their big hits when they had some traffic on the bases. We've just got to regroup and go back to playing our game. What got us here was being able to put the ball in play, move guys over, score guys when they're out there on the pond."
Since winning Game 1, 7-0, the Yankees have scored five runs in three games, including four on two two-run homers. They are 1 for 16 with runners in scoring position in Games 2-4 and the one hit didn't even score a run.. The culprits are numerous:
- Edwin Encarnacion: 1 for 15
- Brett Gardner: 2 for 15
- Gary Sanchez: 2 for 17
- Didi Gregorius: 2 for 16
- Gio Urshela: 2 for 15
LeMahieu, Judge, and Torres are a combined 14 for 41 (.341) in the ALCS. Those five guys above are a combined 9 for 78 (.116). Heck, the rest of the Yankees are a combined 19 for 149 (.128). That includes the injured Giancarlo Stanton, who went 2 for 4 with a homer in Game before being sidelined by a quad injury. Stanton with one leg might be one of New York's four best hitters right now.
If the Yankees lose the ALCS -- it's not over, of course, but the series is trending that way -- the story will be missed opportunities. The Yankees let a one-run lead slip away in Game 2, and had the bases loaded in the first inning against Gerrit Cole in Game 3. The same was true against Greinke in Game 4. They were unable to put a crooked number on the scoreboard.
"That's one of the differences right now is these last few games it's just having opportunities," Boone said. "And I feel like we've done a pretty good job offensively of putting ourselves in position to have that breakthrough inning where we can throw a crooked number up there or get that big hit to kind of get us rolling. Part of that is they've pitched us tough."
Hitting with runners in scoring position is neither contagious nor predictive. Case in point: New York was baseball's best hitting team in those situations during the regular season:
- AVG: .294 (1st in MLB)
- OBP: .371 (4th)
- SLG: .516 (1st)
- OPS: .888 (1st)
The Yankees ability to string together extended rallies has been non-existent in the ALCS, especially after Game 1. Astros pitching certainly has something to do that, but when you see the get-me-over fastballs popped up and the chases on breaking balls way out of the zone, the hitters deserve some of the blame as well. Too many poor at-bats have the Yankees in a 3-1 series hole.
It won't get any easier in Game 5 with Justin Verlander on the mound. The Yankees got to him for two runs in 6 2/3 innings in Game 2 and, looking back, that modest output feels like a miracle. Houston's pitchers have done a number on the Yankees the last three games. The Yankees have flailed their way out of too many important at-bats as well.
"What made this team so good is we controlled the zone and do damage when we get pitches in the zone," Judge said. "We've just got to get back to doing that. Just keep playing baseball. That's all it is. We're down right now, but we've still got a lot of games to play."