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USATI

NEW YORK -- Tuesday afternoon, the AL East rival New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox opened a supremely important three-games-in-two-days series at Yankee Stadium. The two clubs will play a doubleheader Tuesday to make up a game that was postponed during New York's COVID-19 outbreak immediately following the All-Star break.

Heading into Tuesday's doubleheader, the Red Sox sat in the top wild card spot, a half-game up on the Athletics and two games up on the Yankees. A Red Sox sweep would deal a significant blow to New York's postseason odds. A Yankees sweep, meanwhile, would move them into postseason position for the first time since May 29. Both teams have a lot at stake.

Thanks to a fifth inning rally against the Boston bullpen (and a seventh inning escape job), the Yankees earned a come-from-behind win in the doubleheader opener (NY 5, BOS 3 in seven innings). Here are six takeaways from the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader.

The local kid had a good afternoon

Growing up in the Bronx, Andrew Velazquez dreamed of one day wearing pinstripes and playing in Yankee Stadium. He signed a minor league deal with his home-borough team this past offseason, and when Gleyber Torres went down with a thumb injury earlier this month, the Yankees summoned Velazquez from Triple-A. His dream had come true.

"This is where my love for baseball began. I'm looking forward to putting the uniform on," Velazquez told reporters, including Dan Martin of the New York Post, after joining the team on the road last week. "It kind of feels like my (MLB) debut again."

The 27-year-old Velazquez drew the start at shortstop in the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader, and he made an impact on both sides of the ball. In the first inning he made a great running tag on Hunter Renfroe as Renfroe tried to take third base, helping Jordan Montgomery escape a jam. One inning later Velazquez punched a two-out, two-run single to center open the scoring. He also made another nice defensive play in the sixth inning.

"Another day, just better seats," Velazquez joked after the game. "The boys are battling. It's beautiful."  

Velazquez had two other chances to come up with big hits, though he flew out to center with two on and two out in the fourth inning, then struck out with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth. Even then, it was a pretty good afternoon at the ballpark for the Bronx product.

"Huge hit to get us going there, two outs. Great job there to give us the lead," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "Tremendous play that he made look really easy on the backhand to get [Rafael Devers] out. Really special play. We saw this in spring training. We saw a guy we all liked. All the coaching staff was like, 'We like this guy and what he can do defensively.' In Triple-A, he's put together a really strong season and earned this opportunity. It's good to see him come up here and contribute."

Houck held the Yankees down again

In his brief MLB career, Red Sox righty Tanner Houck has had his way with the Yankees. He held them to two runs (both unearned) in 13 2/3 innings spread across two starts and one relief appearance going into Tuesday, and in those 13 2/3 innings he struck out 15. Houck's low arm slot and power stuff match up very well against New York's righty heavy lineup.

Velazquez's two-run single was the only blemish on Houck's line Tuesday afternoon. He limited the Yankees to just the two runs on five hits (all singles) in five innings, striking out two and walking zero. The Yankees made plenty of contact against Houck, though their average exit velocity was only 84.3 mph. It was a lot of weak contact, not a lot quality contact.

"If he improves, he's a Cy Young award talent," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said about Houck prior to the game. "He's been really good. He's been really good for a while, and we're very impressed with not only the way he's going about his business in between the lines, but also in the clubhouse ... He's been really good, his stuff is trending up. We're very happy with his development."

Sox did damage with two strikes

The Yankees are starting to get their COVID list players back. Gerrit Cole returned Monday, Montgomery and Gary Sánchez returned Tuesday, and Anthony Rizzo is expected to rejoin the team later this week. Cole was dominant Monday. Montgomery was OK at best Tuesday, holding the Red Sox to three runs in 4 2/3 innings while on a short leash in his first start since Aug. 1.

"We're just trying to keep the game close and come through with some W's," Montgomery said following the game. "I wanted to set the tone today for this first game."

Boston made Montgomery and the Yankees pay for poorly executed pitches in two-strike counts in particular. In the third inning, Enrique Hernández turned an 0-2 count into a walk, then Xander Bogaerts lined an 0-2 pitch to left field for a game-tying two-run single. Two innings later, Christian Vázquez clobbered a 3-2 cutter off the facing of the second deck for a go-ahead solo homer.

The Red Sox went into Tuesday with a 22.8 percent team strikeout rate, below the 23.5 percent league average, and they're among the best two-strike hitting teams in baseball. They rank second in batting average (.178) and third in slugging percentage (.297) in two-strike counts. I know that looks terrible, but the league averages are .165 and .267 in two-strike counts, respectively.

Boston's bullpen melted down

As good as Houck was Tuesday and has been this season, the Red Sox rarely let him go through the lineup a third time, and that was true again Tuesday. Cora pulled his young right-hander after 18 batters, exactly two turns through the lineup, and that decision blew up on the Red Sox. They needed three relievers to get three outs as the Yankees took the lead in the fifth.

First out of the bullpen: Garrett Whitlock, a former Yankees prospect plucked in this past offseason's Rule 5 Draft. After striking out DJ LeMahieu to begin the fifth inning, Whitlock walked Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge to put the tying and go-ahead runs on base. Lefty Josh Taylor entered next, and he walked Joey Gallo to load the bases. Four batters, three walks for the bullpen.

"I feel like we're seeing that a lot now with our guys. A lot of heavy at-bats," Boone said. "Go back to Sunday [against the White Sox], [(Lucas) Giolito throwing 77 pitches in three innings. We weren't able to really break through on him, but the more we do that, the more we put ourselves in position to bust through. I think the guys are taking a lot of tough team at-bats right now, and Gardy and Judgy really setting the table there, and Gallo as well, and were able to come up with big hits to get a lead."

Taylor was forced to remain in the game because of the three-batter minimum, and it played right into New York's hands. Righty Luke Voit, filling in for Rizzo, dunked a broken bat two-run single into center to turn the 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead. Giancarlo Stanton pinch-hit for the lefty swinging Rougned Odor and shot a rocket single back up the middle to drive in an insurance run.

Although the Red Sox bullpen was very happy to walk batters that inning, Stanton turned it loose in a 3-0 count, and the result was a 116.3 mph single. He hit it so hard that Renfroe had trouble handling the hop in center field. Stanton has 97 batted balls at 116 mph or better since Statcast launched in 2015. No other player has more than 33.

"That was a tough fifth inning. Tanner gave us four," Cora said following the game. "Where we were bullpen-wise, matchup-wise, we felt like Whit could get through the fifth, and JT in the sixth against some of those lefties. We ended up walking Gardner and Judge, and we felt JT was a good matchup against Gallo and Voit, actually. So we went to him. We walked Gallo, then the bloop single. At the end of the day that's what they do. They control the strike zone, they don't chase too many pitches, and the walks today put us in a bad spot."  

The total damage in New York's go-ahead fifth inning: three runs on two singles and four walks. All three outs were strikeouts too, so the nine-batter, 40-pitch inning featured only two balls in play (the Voit and Stanton singles). Boston's bullpen faced 15 batters and put nine on base Tuesday afternoon. Since Aug. 5, the bullpen has allowed 36 runs in 39 innings.

"We still have good stuff, right? We've got to make sure we get ahead guys and put them away," Cora added. "There's too many deep counts. We've been walking a lot of people. We've just got to be better in those situations."

The Red Sox blew a golden opportunity

It is no secret the Yankees are having major bullpen issues. Aroldis Chapman is hurt and Zack Britton is pitching so poorly that he asked out of the closer's role. The usually reliable Chad Green has been shaky at times as well.

"Obviously we've played more than our share of really close ones," Boone said after Tuesday afternoon's game. "The good thing is I think our guys are really comfortable in those situations. Whatever the outcome may be, guys are comfortable in those spots."

New York's top reliever at the moment -- and really all season -- is righty Jonathan Loaisiga, who spent the last three years working as a swingman. He's found a home in the bullpen though, and has become Boone's most-trusted reliever. Boone went to Loaisiga to face the middle of the Red Sox lineup in the sixth inning Tuesday, and he retired the side on eight pitches.

With an important win there for the taking, Loaisiga went back out for the seventh, though the Red Sox loaded the bases with no outs on three ground ball singles. It was easy to think another Yankees bullpen meltdown was coming. Instead, Loaisiga got Travis Shaw to fly out to left, then struck out Hernández and Renfroe to end the game. Bases loaded, no outs, zero runs.

"Lo was great," Boone said. "A broken bat dribbler to start the inning and a good at-bat by Vázquez shooting it the other way, then another rolled hit. He didn't flinch. You could just see his confidence out there like, 'I got this.' He was able to execute and wiggle out of it. It's a great job."

"It's a different kind of energy when you come into a game and you try to close the game," Loaisiga said earlier this month. "It's hard to explain the sensation."

Boston still owns the season series ...

... but the Yankees gained ground in the postseason race. Even after the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader, the Red Sox are 10-4 against the Yankees this year, and they've outscored them 64-48 in the 14 games. The season series has been extremely one-sided in 2021. 

More important than the season series is the postseason race, however. Here are the updated wild card standings following the first game of Tuesday's doubleheader:

  1. Athletics: 68-51
  2. Red Sox: 69-52
  3. Yankees: 67-52 (1 GB)
  4. Blue Jays: 63-54 (4 GB)
  5. Mariners: 63-56 (5 GB)

According to FanGraphs, New York's postseason odds improved from 56.1 percent to 61.4 percent following Tuesday afternoon's win. Those head-to-head wins again the team you're chasing are huge this late in the season. The Red Sox, meanwhile, saw their postseason odds slip from from 83.5 percent to 79.1 percent with the loss.

The Yankees and Red Sox will play the second game of Tuesday's doubleheader at 7:05 p.m. ET.