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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Yankees’ season ends with sweep by Astros

The Houston Astros are the third team to sweep a division series and a league championship series in the same season.

By James Wagner

At one point in early July, halfway through the six-month regular season, the New York Yankees were on pace to set a significant record. The two winningest teams in Major League Baseball history are the 1906 Chicago Cubs and the 2001 Seattle Mariners, both of which won 116 regular-season games. The Yankees were headed toward 119.

Then, their charmed season fell apart. Everything that went right in the first half — health, performance, wins — didn’t in the second. The Yankees recovered in September, won the American League East and finished the regular season in early October with 99 wins, but heading into the postseason, they simply weren’t the same.

And in this best-of-seven AL championship series between the league’s top two seeds, the gap between the perennially contending Houston Astros and the Yankees was painfully wide and clear. With a seesawing 6-5 loss in a rain-delayed Game 4 on Sunday that capped a sweep, the Yankees added the coda to a season that began with so much promise but ended the same way as so many others before it.

Despite so much spending and effort, the Yankees have not been to or won a World Series since 2009. For a franchise that prides itself in its history, its tradition and the past glory of its MLB-leading 27 championships, the Yankees’ drought extends into another season.

“It’s an awful day, just an awful ending,” manager Aaron Boone said shortly after the game. “It stings.”

The Astros, on the other hand, ended their sixth consecutive trip to the ALCS with a repeat visit to the World Series. After losing it last year to Atlanta, the Astros get a chance to redeem themselves starting Friday in Houston against the Philadelphia Phillies, who toppled the San Diego Padres in the NL championship series Sunday. The Astros, winners of the World Series in the since-tainted 2017 season, have now reached the final round four times in six years. And this time they did it by sweeping Seattle in three games and the Yankees in four games, joining the 2014 Kansas City Royals and the 2007 Colorado Rockies as the only teams to sweep a division series and a league championship series in the same season.

The Astros now have another goal: joining the 1976 Cincinnati Reds as the only teams in the division era to complete a perfect postseason.

Asked how close the Yankees were to being able to get past the Astros, Boone said they were “not close enough” before saying he wished the teams could have met with the Yankees at full strength.

“We need to do better if we want to beat those guys,” Yankees pitcher Luis Severino said of the Astros. “We need to play the game the right way. We need to pitch the right way. We need to do everything the right way.”

The Yankees now face a long winter of decisions, but the most important one will involve superstar right fielder Aaron Judge, who is viewed as a leading candidate to win the AL MVP award and is a free agent.

The Yankees, Judge included, were outplayed by the Astros. The Astros pitched better, hit better and defended better. The Yankees blew two leads Sunday, including one in the seventh inning that may be replayed in Yankees fans’ nightmares all offseason.

Leading 5-4 thanks to a home run by center fielder Harrison Bader, Yankees second baseman Gleyber Torres tossed the ball wide of shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa at second base, allowing José Altuve to advance and Jeremy Peña to reach base. So instead of an inning-ending double play, Yankees reliever Jonathan Loáisiga had to keep pitching.

The next batter, Astros slugger Yordan Alvarez, smacked a game-tying single to right field. The following hitter, Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, sent a pitch from right-handed reliever Clay Holmes into right field to give his team the winning difference. Torres watched from his position as Yankee Stadium went quiet.

“The thing about this team is that they don’t panic,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said after the game. “They never panic. They try to find a way.”

Torres blamed himself for the play.

“I feel like it’s my mistake,” said Torres, adding later, “I feel terrible in the moment because I know we can make a double play and finish the inning. I made that mistake. I feel like I need to learn to be a little more in control in that situation. It’s a tough loss.”

“Every mistake we made they take advantage,” Torres added.

To start Game 4, the Yankees looked better than they had all series. In the first three games against the Astros’ vaunted pitching staff, the Yankees hit .128 and scored four runs. In the first two innings Sunday, the Yankees nearly matched that total.

Bader, the Yankees’ best hitter this postseason, led off the bottom of the first inning with a single off Lance McCullers Jr. Two batters later, McCullers hit first baseman Anthony Rizzo with a pitch.

Seeing that McCullers’ command was off, designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton drilled a slider over the plate into right field for a run-scoring single. It was the Yankees’ first run since the fourth inning of Game 2 on Thursday. Torres then dunked a ball into the outfield for a single that gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead.

An inning later, McCullers walked Judge with two outs and surrendered a double to Rizzo. The hit not only gave the Yankees a 3-0 lead but brought energy to a stadium that was bereft of it the day before, when the home team produced only three hits and no runs.

That quickly evaporated when the Yankees squandered the lead with one of their stalwarts on the mound. Left-handed starter Néstor Cortés, whose breakout season helped boost the Yankees and earned him lots of fans and an All-Star selection, delivered a strong outing on short rest in the winner-takes-all Game 5 of the AL division series against the Cleveland Guardians.

Back on normal rest, Cortés took the mound Sunday and seemed like his usual self. But in the third inning, his command wasn’t the same and his velocity dropped. Never a hard thrower, Cortés’ fastball dropped to 88 mph and his slider down to 74 mph.

After Cortés walked Astros catcher Martín Maldonado and Altuve, Boone and a trainer visited the mound. But after talking with Cortés, Boone left him in and let him face Peña. The decision proved fateful.

On the fifth pitch of the at-bat, Cortés hung a slider and Peña, who was later named the ALCS MVP, slammed it into the left field seats for a game-tying home run. Boone and a trainer then reappeared from the dugout and took Cortés out of the game this time.

Bader, once again, tried to save the Yankees in the sixth. Facing right-handed reliever Héctor Neris, Bader drilled a solo home run — his fifth of the postseason — that gave the Yankees a 5-4 lead. But the lead, once again, was short-lived.

The Yankees blew it in the seventh inning. And two innings later, in what could be his final at-bat with the team, Judge grounded out to end the Yankees’ season.

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