Astros pitchers strikeout 13 Yankees, outstanding in the toughest moments

Hitting is great, but it's the Astros pitching that shined in Game 4

By Rich Zwelling
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Zack Greinke #21 of the Houston Astros delivers the pitch against the New York Yankees during the first inning in game four of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 17, 2019 in New York City.

HOUSTON - It all came together. Even during the worst moments. And though the two big bombs by George Springer and Carlos Correa will get most of the attention, let's focus on the pitching, which struck out 13 Yankee batters and came through against extremely dangerous hitters at moments that could have turned momentum of the entire series in the Yankees' favor.

Yes, we all had our worries when Zach Greinke started the game with a four-pitch walk to DJ LeMahieu, sending Aaron Judge to the plate with a man on. It was an immediate sign Greinke's control was off and that the Yankees could blow the game open early. And though he was able to get Judge to ground into a fielder's choice, he then surrendered a tough looping center-field single to Aaron Hicks, who was surprisingly moved up to third in the lineup. 

We all breathed a sigh of relief when he got Gleyber Torres to pop up, but then he issued back-to-back walks to load the bases and give the Yankees their first run of the game. By this point, his pitch count was approaching 30. And he'd pitched more balls than strikes. 

But of course, it's a nine-inning game, and Greinke probably told himself that despite the damage, it was just one run, and there were two outs. This was to be the first of many escape acts for the Astros Thursday night: he struck out Gary Sanchez on three pitches to end the inning and limit the damage. 

As I've said earlier, I've heard plenty of Greinke-hate since his Houston arrival, but it seems to me skewed by the unfortunate comparisons to Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who have produced Cy Young-caliber seasons this year. Greinke may not have the fastball of his earlier years, and his numbers may not be as tantalizing. But it's so much fun to watch the creativity with which he gets out of tough situations and outthinks hitters. 

That creativity came through in the second inning when he again faced Aaron Judge, always a dangerous at-bat, with a man on base. After getting ahead 1-2, Judge was able to work the count full. For six pitches, Greinke had thrown nothing but very low off-speed pitches (presumably to counter Judge's height). Then suddenly, on the seventh pitch, a 91-mph fastball down the middle to catch Judge off-guard for a swinging strike. Another inning over. 

Greinke would then retire seven straight to make it to the bottom of the fifth inning with one out. That's when trouble started again. At the top of the Yankees order, of course. LeMahieu singled, and Judge again produced a full count. Only this time, he didn't chase on a low slider from Greinke, and now two men were on. That was it for Greinke's night. 4 1/3 innings, 1 earned run, and 5 strikeouts.

Now it was Astros reliever Ryan Pressly's turn to escape major damage. Things didn't start out well, as Pressly immediately issued a walk to Aaron Hicks to load the bases with only one out. 

And then, Gleyber Torres came to the plate. This to me was arguably the most important moment of the series. 

By this point, the Astros were up 3-1 on Springer's homer. But here at the plate was a red-hot hitter who with one swing could put four runs on the board, put the Yankees up 5-3, electrify the crowd, and change the entire complexion of not just the game but the series. And on the mound was a pitcher in Pressly whom the Yankees roughed up in Game 1 for four hits and two earned runs in less than an inning of work. 

And guess who burned him in that game? Yup, Gleyber Torres. Also with the bases loaded. 

(I started to have bad flashbacks to Game 2 of the 2005 World Series in Chicago, when the Astros were up by two before Paul Konerko hit a Grand Slam to put the White Sox up two.)

But you can bet Pressly was looking to rectify that mistake, and he got ahead of Torres quickly 1-2. Torres then fouled off a few more before Pressly threw an 89-mph slider that tailed low and away. Torres threw the bat forward, but he was unable to hold up, and the first-base umpired rung him up for the out. 

Huge out, but even then, the job wasn't done, as Edwin EncarnaciĆ³n stepped to the plate. But Pressly was able to strike him out swinging on six pitches to end the inning and continue EncarnaciĆ³n's postseason struggles. It's worth repeating that Astros pitching again got out of a bases-loaded situation, this time with only one out and Gleyber Torres batting.

When the Yankees stepped in to bat for the bottom of the sixth, the Astros were on cloud nine, since Carlos Correa had just hit a three-run homer to give the Astros a 6-1 lead. Yet again, the Astros pitching ran into a bit of a spot. Josh James was in, and after surrendering a walk to Brett Gardner, he left a fastball over the plate to Gary Sanchez, who crushed a homer to break out of his hitting drought and cut the lead to 6-3. 

After getting a couple of quick outs, James gave up a hit to LeMahieu, and that again brought up Aaron Judge with two outs and a man on. And though James is by nature a fast-ball pitcher, he wisely fed Judge a few sliders to get the count to 2-2. After that, the truly unexpected from James: a 90-mph changeup that bottomed out and forced Judge to swing and come up with air. Yet another threat over, and two huge strikeouts of Judge in the game. 

From there, Astros relievers Will Harris, Joe Smith, and Roberto Osuna came in to allow not a singled earned base runner. Yankee fans might look at this as failed hitting, but it really is remarkable how well the Astros pitching fared at exactly the right moments on Thursday night. It's all about timing. That's, of course, a sign that the Astros are peaking for the business end of playoff baseball. And it's a credit to manager AJ Hinch and his ability to recognize the big moments. 

But there's still work to do, and the team would, of course, be the first to tell you that they can't afford to be complacent. There's one more game to win before the Astros have secured a trip to the World Series, and they'd love to take care of business at Yankee Stadium on Friday night. If Justin Verlander brings his best and the bullpen is as good as it was on Thursday, there's no reason the Astros can't shut the door on this ALCS without the need to return to Minute Maid Park. 
 

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