John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Two years ago the Yankees owned the Astros in the Bronx portion of the ALCS, dominating a team that seemed to be unnerved by the hostile atmosphere, and though it didn't lead to a series win, such history offered great hope only a few days ago for the New Yorkers.
However, it turns out that times have changed. The Astros are a grown-up, championship-hardened ballclub that clearly isn't intimidated by either the Yankees or the raucous Stadium crowd.
This time around, in fact, they're doing the dominating in the Bronx, maybe even the intimidating, applying so much pressure in every phase of the game as to make the Yankees look overmatched, even rattled, making four errors in Thursday's ugly 8-3 loss that puts them on the brink of elimination.
Yes, the Yankees trail 3-1 in the series, with seemingly no hope of pulling off a comeback when they're playing so poorly in every way. For example:
They can't hit a lick in the clutch in this series, 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position while losing three straight games.
The bullpen has failed in a big way to live up to the expected dominance.
The starting pitching is ok but certainly not what would be needed at this point to match the likes of Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole the rest of the way.
And perhaps the mounting pressure is causing cracks in unexpected ways, with two errors apiece from usually reliable defenders like D.J. LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres.
All of that futility makes it feel as if this series is over.
As you'd expect, Aaron Boone insisted otherwise, even likening being in this 3-1 hole to the record-setting number of injuries they overcame this season.
"Our guys are studs," Boone said. "They'll embrace the challenge."
However, the manager admitted that he'd made a point of speaking to his team after the game, feeling the need to make a point after such a stunningly bad loss.
"We played poorly, there's no other way to explain it," he said. "We need to flush this and get over it in a hurry. We just talked about it. Stranger things have certainly happened."
Boone was a year removed from the Yankees, thanks to a basketball-related knee injury that paved the way for Alex Rodriguez to don pinstripes, when the Red Sox famously became the first team in baseball to overcome a 3-0 series lead against them in 2004. But you couldn't help but wonder if that's what he was referencing there.
And indeed, nobody saw that bit of history coming after those Yankees routed the Sox in Game 3, but even if this team manages to win Game 5 and get this series back to Houston, they'd have to win a bullpen game with a bullpen that has suddenly sprung leaks, and then find a way to beat Cole, the hottest pitcher in baseball.
Instead, for the moment this already feels like an autopsy of sorts. How did it go so wrong? Is this more about the Astros' superiority or the Yankees simply coming unglued at the worst possible time?
With that in mind, it's worth noting that the Astros know how good they are, and as such A.J. Hinch seemed to set a tone for the night before the game even started, throwing some chin music of his own at the Yankees to let them know a lot had changed since they were here in October two years ago.
Hinch was upset, or at least pretending to be upset, at allegations the Astros were whistling from their dugout in Game 1, as first reported by SNY's Andy Martino, as a way of relaying stolen-sign information to hitters in the batter's box.
He said the allegations were "a joke," but then made a point of addressing the Yankees directly, more on the subject of pitch-tipping, basically telling them such an issue is their problem.
"So to the Yankees, nothing bad going on," Hinch said, referring to the whistling. "(But) pitch-tipping is a little bit of a different story. If you don't want us to know what pitch is coming, don't do something that demonstrates what pitch you're going to throw."
If that sounded arrogant, even condescending, well, Hinch surely knew the Yankees would take it that way when they read the quote, and obviously he didn't care.
Call it subterfuge to distract from the sign-stealing issue, something the Astros have been accused of by other teams as well, or call it the fearlessness of a manager who knows he has the best team in baseball.
If it's the latter, the Astros seem to be on their way to proving that he's right, and his players are beginning to flaunt it as well.
"We can hit, it's not all about pitch-tipping," Carlos Correa said after hitting a three-run home run in Game 4. "When I listen to people talking about that, I just laugh. If you're tipping your pitches, fix it.
"But nobody was tipping pitches tonight and we scored, what, eight runs? We're great hitters. We've been doing it all season."
Doing it in the Bronx, where they melted down two years ago, was all the proof anyone needed.