HOUSTON – Off the bat, Aaron Judge’s eighth-inning drive appeared to be on a home run trajectory.
A standing, orange-toweling waving sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park froze for a moment as Kyle Tucker moved to the warning track and caught the ball at the top of the wall.
On a warm, windy Thursday night, the New York Yankee slugger’s bid for a late, go-ahead homer off reliever Bryan Abreu was the Yanks’ last best chance in Game 2.
Alex Bregman’s third inning, three-run homer off Luis Severino held up, sending the Yankees to a 3-2 loss and 2-0 deficit to the Houston Astros in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series.
If the Yankees are going to prevent the same fate against the Astros, who bested the Yanks in both the 2017 and 2019 ALCS, they’ll have to turn it around beginning Saturday in the Bronx with Gerrit Cole on the mound.
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Yankees lineup limited again
Before Ryan Pressly closed it out in the ninth, Houston starter Framber Valdez pitched effectively over seven innings, striking out nine batters and yielding four hits without issuing a walk.
And the Yankees’ only runs against him were gifted by Valdez himself.
In the fourth inning, Valdez made two errors on the same Giancarlo Stanton comebacker, botching the chopper and then making a seat-of-his-pants throwing error to first base.
That gave the Yanks runners at second and third with one out, with Anthony Rizzo (RBI groundout) and Gleyber Torres (RBI infield hit) cutting Houston’s lead to 3-2.
Then with the tying run (speedy Tim Locastro) on first base in the ninth, Pressly struck out pinch-hitter Matt Carpenter to end it.
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Fan on the field
The top of the ninth was delayed about five minutes, due in part to some shockingly lax security at Minute Maid Park.
A male fan in an Astros jersey made it onto the field and hugged Houston second baseman Jose Altuve for an uncomfortably long moment before five uniformed personnel eventually pulled him away, got the guy on the ground and escorted the reluctant fellow off the field.
One costly mistake
Severino’s start came down to one badly located fastball.
With two outs and ahead of Bregman 1-2, Severino followed a good change-up – getting a swing and miss – with a 97-mph fastball right down the middle of Crawford Street.
Bregman sent it over the left-field wall, giving Houston an instant 3-0 lead in the third inning, and stirring the orange-clad crowd of 41,700 fans.
Up to that point, Bregman was just 3-for-19 (.158) against Severino, with no homers.
Setting up that inning, Severino plunked No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado and gave up a one-out single to Jeremy Pena.
But Severino pitched into the sixth and struck out six batters, including Yordan Alvarez twice.
A wrecking ball in Houston’s AL Division Series sweep against Seattle, with a game-winning homer in Game 1 and a go-ahead shot in Game 2, Alvarez is 1-for-6 with a single and two walks in the ALCS.
An amped-up Severino ended the fifth inning by getting Alvarez to whiff on a 99-mph 0-2 fastball, stranding a runner at first.
Jose (0-for-23) Altuve
After going hitless in 16 at-bats during the ALDS, Yankees nemesis Jose Altuve is now 0-for-23 this postseason but was twice robbed of hits during Thursday’s 0-for-4 night.
Leading off the first inning, Altuve had a single stolen by Yankees rookie shortstop Oswald Peraza with a field-and-spin move of a grounder ticketed to left field.
And in the seventh, Altuve’s hot, 107-mph smash knocked down second baseman Gleyber Torres, who picked it on one hop and flipped to Peraza to start a spectacular inning-ending double play.
In a Game 2 lineup shakeup by Boone, Isiah Kiner-Falefa was benched in favor of Peraza, with Oswald Cabrera back in left field and Giancarlo Stanton at designated hitter.
Carpenter (0-for-7, seven strikeouts this postseason) was back on the bench against the lefty starter, and Harrison Bader (1-for-3, walk) elevated to the leadoff spot.
The right hitting decisions?
Would you have lifted Kyle Higashioka for a pinch-hitter in the seventh, against Valdez?
Right-handed hitters Jose Trevino and Isiah Kiner-Falefa were available on the bench, with one out and the Yankees trailing by a run.
At that point, Boone likely reasoned that Higashioka’s ability to tie the game with one swing was a better play than sending up another hitter with the Nos. 8 and 9 batters to follow.
Anyway, Higashioka wound up striking out for the third time Thursday against Valdez.
Carpenter eventually pinch-hit for Higashioka in the ninth, making the final out.
Paired with Severino for the past three straight games, Higashioka is unlikely to draw another start unless Severino gets another start.
Even then, there’s no guarantee Boone goes with Higashioka.
But Trevino hasn’t been the offensive presence he was during an All-Star first half, and he’s 1-for-15 with a sacrifice fly this postseason.