All the data from the Yankees’ GPS so far points to an October showdown against Justin Verlander. It has happened before — the Astros’ ace was instrumental in stopping the Yankees’ playoff run in 2017 — and there’s good reason to believe another battle is looming in 2019. The two American League powerhouses again appear to be on a collision course for October, which means every at-bat against Verlander before then has a purpose: to collect as much information as possible. The Yankees’ hopes for a championship could depend on it.
It’s not that Verlander has any new weapons in his arsenal or that the Yankees’ 9-4 loss to Houston on Sunday was any sort of revelation. Verlander was magnificent as usual, allowing just three runs in seven innings while striking out seven. And J. A. Happ’s early collapse robbed the game of any drama. But the Yankees were nevertheless reminded of one of baseball’s oldest axioms: Good pitching, especially underwritten by 97-m.p.h. heat, always beats good hitting.
“The guy is just incredible,” Luke Voit said of Verlander, who leads the majors in opponents’ batting average (.157) and WHIP (0.75). Aside from the fifth inning, when D. J. LeMahieu flicked an opposite-field, three-run home run over the wall in right, the Yankees never once put a runner in scoring position.
The Yankees’ inability to solve Verlander ended their eight-game winning streak, although not before the A.L. East’s balance of power had been radically altered.
Even with the loss, the Yankees hold a commanding four-and-a-half-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays — with the struggling Toronto Blue Jays coming to the Bronx next. The Yankees’ roster is nearly at full strength with no sign of turbulence ahead. But Happ’s inconsistency this season has served as an ever-present reminder of the starting rotation’s hole — a Verlander-caliber ace who can match up with the master himself.
Happ was hardly up to the task on Sunday, allowing three home runs in four-plus innings, leaving the Yankees with an 8-0 deficit as he walked off the mound to a torrent of boos from a sold-out crowd at Yankee Stadium.
Happ was taken deep in just his third pitch of the afternoon — a shot into the mezzanine by Jose Altuve — and never quite recovered. The Astros made it 2-0 in the third on Michael Brantley’s run-scoring single, then buried Happ for good on Tyler White’s grand slam in the fifth. The blast capped a rally that began with consecutive singles by Yuli Gurriel, Robinson Chirinos and Josh Reddick. White’s homer, followed by Yordan Alvarez’s two-run shot in the fifth, were the 19th and 20th surrendered in 2019 by Happ, who hardly looks like the same pitcher who was 7-0 after the Yankees acquired him from the Blue Jays last summer.”
Happ admitted that “not a whole lot went right today,” adding later, “I know I can do better.”
If nothing else Happ was a victim of the law of averages: The Yankees’ winning streak, their longest of the season, was bound to end sooner or later. And the Astros, who had lost seven in a row, were due to finally come up for air. It was a perfect time for Verlander, 36, to be on the mound, considering he has not lost to the Yankees since Houston acquired him at the 2017 trade deadline from the Tigers.
That transaction still smarts in the Bronx, as General Manager Brian Cashman had petitioned ownership for the green light to acquire Verlander. But Hal Steinbrenner vetoed adding to the payroll, allowing the Astros to swoop in. Not only did Verlander pitch his new team to a championship, but it was his masterpiece in Game 6 of the A.L. Championship Series that derailed the Yankees. Verlander shut them out over seven innings in a 7-1 victory, setting up the Yankees’ elimination the next night in a 4-0 decision in Game 7.
Perhaps having learned his lesson, Steinbrenner said this week that he had given Cashman the go-ahead to exceed the highest luxury tax threshold ($246 million) if it meant significantly improving the roster. (The Yankees are currently $20 million under that mark.) Perhaps the Nationals’ Max Scherzer could soon be wearing pinstripes, but unlike the circumstances two years ago, when the Tigers were openly shopping Verlander, the there is no clear indication yet that Scherzer is available.
In the meantime, the Yankees were forced to deal with Verlander’s overwhelming combination of velocity and precision on Sunday: his four-seam fastball topped out at 96.9 m.p.h. and was thrown for strikes 75 percent of the time. When Voit said Verlander was “painting,” it meant hardly any mistakes for hitters to feast on. Verlander was modest, saying, “the biggest thing was coming away with a win, not just for myself but for the team.”
That was another way of saying the Yankees and Astros have both affixed an asterisk on the calendar. With an eye toward October, this game will be filed under “To Be Continued.”
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