Started from the bottom: Astros prevail as Yankees avoid Yordan

HOUSTON – The Houston Astros smashed the Yordan Rules before the New York Yankees had any chance to enact them. 

Facing the hitter who singlehandedly undid the Seattle Mariners in the previous playoff round, the Yankees made it painfully clear they were not going to let Yordan Alvarez beat them in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

So they threw him four wide ones his first time at the plate. Lured him into a flyout to lead off the third inning. And then, with the tying run at second and a relief pitcher coming in, Yankees manager Aaron Boone signaled four fingers for an intentional walk before Alvarez could even begin the walk from the on-deck circle. 

But quieting Alvarez hardly means short-circuiting the Astros. 

With a startling boom-boom-boom covering the sixth and seventh innings, the Astros received a go-ahead home run from No. 6 hitter Yuli Gurriel, the first postseason home run ever from No. 8 hitter Chas McCormick and then the final bit of insurance, a booming home run that banged off the wall behind the left field Crawford Boxes in the seventh inning from rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña. 

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It added up to a 4-2 victory and command of this ALCS for the Astros. 

It also made for some very discouraging math for Boone and the Yankees. 

ALCS: Verlander tosses a gem, Astros slug three homers to win ALCS Game 1

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Why’s that? Well, leadoff man Jose Altuve – whose 23 home runs are second in playoff history – was hitless in three at-bats, sending his 2022 playoff drought to 0 for 19. Alvarez put just one ball in play. Alex Bregman was 0 for 3 and outfielder Kyle Tucker hitless in four at-bats – including a bases-loaded double play that made the Alvarez intentional pass pay off. 

Yet it mattered little – not when Gurriel, McCormick and catcher Martín Maldonado drove in the Astros’ first three runs from the sixth, eighth and nine spots and Peña doubled twice and finished the Yankees off with a seventh-inning solo home run off Frankie Montas.

It was the second consecutive game with a homer for Peña, who broke a scoreless tie in the 18th inning of Game 3 at Seattle, and also singled ahead of both of Alvarez’s massive homers earlier that series. 

It’s as good a tribute as any to the fact that a club that’s reached the ALCS for a sixth consecutive year can count on their off-Broadway stars and emerging ones just as much as the guys heavily featured on network promos and highlight reels.

‘I would say that’s what makes us so good,’ says Peña, who now has seven hits in his first 20 postseason at-bats. ‘We pick each other up on any given night. Sometimes when we don’t put together quality at-bats our pitchers carry us. And when they don’t have their day on the mound we carry them with the lineup.

‘That’s what makes us a great team.’ 

Even McCormick, who bided his time as the Astros traded Myles Straw and Jose Siri, waited for Jake Meyers to return from injury, or will trot out utilitymen Aledmys Diaz and Mauricio Dubon in center field.

Wednesday, though, the Astros omitted Meyers from the playoff roster. Diaz started at DH. Center field, for the moment, was all McCormick. 

And in a sense, he had Alvarez’s back in the same way they had his as he bided his time.

‘It means a lot when the guys are behind me. I love this team. I love playing for Houston,’ says McCormick, who hit 14 homers each of the past two years, over a combined 643 at-bats. ‘The bottom of the order, even Yuli playing well tonight, myself, it’s huge for this lineup.

‘We have a really good lineup and it seems like if the big guys aren’t going, then the bottom of the lineup can get going. If the bottom of the lineup isn’t going, the big guys can get going. It just kind of talks about how complete this team is.’

In Game 1, they needed the stuntmen to counterpunch after Harrison Bader’s second-inning solo homer gave New York a 1-0 lead off Verlander. McCormick started the rally with a two-out line drive up the middle off Yankees starter Jameson Taillon. 

Maldonado followed with a double to the right center field gap to tie the game, enabling Verlander to lock in after two less than sharp initial innings. 

And take the pressure off a struggling Altuve and marginalized Alvarez.

‘I feel like from the beginning, from Altuve to me, we gotta get good at-bats, put the ball in play,’ says Maldonado, an Astro since 2019. ‘Tonight I got good pitches to hit. Yuli, he picked up where he left in Seattle. Chas, an opposite field homer and a walk, too. We bought into each other, what we have to do to win games.

‘Yordan carried us last series. He’s a guy that even when he swings and misses, people go, “Ahhhhhhh.’’

Instead, it was the emerging talents and lesser lights sending a crowd of 41,487 into its usual playoff histrionics. And perhaps carving legacies for themselves, even if it can be overwhelming at times.

‘I mean, contributing in the ALCS for the Houston Astros, Verlander on the mound, playing against the Yankees,’ says McCormick, ‘it’s all what you dream of.’  

This post appeared first on USA TODAY