The game: Dallas Keuchel continued his mastery over New York hitters and got support from a two-run rally fueled by Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa as the Astros won for the fourth time in five playoff games.
In a rematch of the 2015 wild card game against Masahiro Tanaka, Keuchel again prevailed by silencing one of the loudest offenses in the majors. The Yankees hit the most home runs in the majors and ranked second in runs during the regular season, but had no idea how to solve Keuchel.
Picked to start the series opener partly because of his history of excellence against New York, the 2015 Cy Young Award winner did not disappoint, throwing seven sparkling innings and allowing just four hits while striking out 10. That was hardly shocking. Keuchel came in with a career ERA of 1.24 in seven starts (including playoffs) against the Yankees. That’s the lowest of any pitcher ever with at least 50 innings vs. New York.
The Yankees had won their last three games and four elimination games in a row, prompting Houston manager A.J. Hinch to say earlier in the day, “Today’s not an elimination game, so they can relax.’’
Their hitters were not so much relaxed as mesmerized by Keuchel and his precise offerings. He walked just one and finished strong, retiring his last six batters, three via strikeout.
Altuve beat out an infield single in the fourth for the Astros’ first hit, and after stealing second he scored on Correa’s line single to left. After Correa reached second on a groundout, Yuli Gurriel drove in the game’s second run with a single.
These two teams ranked 1-2 in the big leagues in runs scored and homers, and at one point in this series their offenses are likely to go off. But strong pitching was the order of the day Friday, with Tanaka looking sharp himself. After throwing seven scoreless innings in his division series appearance, the Japanese right-hander allowed just four hits and two runs against the Astros in six innings.
The Yankees’ lone run came with two outs in the ninth when Greg Bird took closer Ken Giles deep. Giles then struck out pinch-hitter Jacoby Ellsbury to nail down the victory.
State of the series: The Astros take a 1-0 series lead after winning a game tilted in their favor by the home-field edge and the presence of Keuchel on the mound.
Saturday’s game pits veteran Justin Verlander – who fashioned a 1.06 ERA in fifth starts after joining the Astros in a trade, then won two games in the division series – against fireballer Luis Severino. Verlander will be making the 19th postseason appearance of his career, whereas it will be just the third outing for Severino.
But the Yankees right-hander, 23, showed remarkable maturity in getting past his brutal start in the wild card game (1/3 inning, three runs) and won Game 4 of the division series with seven innings of three-run ball.
Man of the moment: Keuchel, who loves the challenge of the big stage. Keuchel limited New York to three hits over six innings in Houston’s 3-0 victory in the wild card game two years ago, at Yankee Stadium, and was brilliant again Friday. He became just the third Astros pitcher to strike out as many as 10 batters in a postseason game, after Mike Scott and Nolan Ryan. Pretty good company.
Manager’s special: Keuchel had thrown 109 pitches by the end of the seventh, so Hinch’s decision to pull him was understandable. The choice of Chris Devenski to start the eighth was more questionable because the setup man did not fare well in the division series, giving up three runs in 2 1/3 innings, and had faded in the second half of the season.
Devenski’s leash was short, though. After getting the first out in the eighth, he walked Brett Gardner and was replaced by Giles, who secured the victory after allowing Bird’s homer to right.
Needing a mulligan: Gary Sanchez. The Yankees catcher hit the most home runs of anybody at his position in the regular season with 33, but Keuchel had him eating out of his hands, striking him out three times. Sanchez also threw a one-hopper to second on Altuve’s steal in the fourth, when a decent peg may have gotten him.
Pivot point: Marwin Gonzalez’s perfect throw from left field in the fifth inning nailed Bird at the plate and spared Altuve some self-recrimination.
Gonzalez, a natural infielder who started 38 games in left as the Astros’ do-everything man this season, fielded Aaron Judge’s two-out single and didn’t seem to have much of a chance at throwing out Bird running from second, but fired a strike to catcher Brian McCann for the out. The call was upheld on replay, preserving Houston’s 2-0 lead.
After Bird led off the inning with a single, Altuve botched a Matt Holliday chopper in his haste to try for a double play. Keuchel picked him up by getting Todd Frazier and Gardner for the next two outs, then Gonzalez kept the Yankees off the board with his throw.
What you missed on TV: The huge ovation that greeted Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan when he was introduced before the game, along with former Astros standouts from previous LCS teams, including Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Enos Cabell, Jose Cruz, Lance Berkman, Phil Garner and Chris Burke.