Houston's 'pen outlasts vaunted counterparts

October 14th, 2019

HOUSTON -- The early innings of Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday night hinted that the Astros may end up with the upper hand, simply due to how quickly the Yankees were forced to turn the game over to their bullpen.

While gutted out a 109-pitch grinder, Yanks lefty lasted just 2 1/3 innings, throwing only 51 pitches. But despite the early lopsidedness of the starting-pitching matchup, the game came down to a bullpen showdown. It took 11 innings for one side to blink.

And this time, it was Houston's bullpen that prevailed, and the Astros won 3-2, evening the series.

"So far everybody we've played has had a better bullpen than us," said, with a touch of sarcasm. "I think when you look at the guys that we've got down there, we know how good we can be.”

Five relievers, starting with , held New York in check, long enough for Carlos Correa to finally end the whole thing with a walk-off homer.

"I don't know how many scoreless [innings] in a row we had, but it was a lot," Houston manager AJ Hinch said.

Collectively, Astros relievers carried a 5.63 postseason ERA into this game, with question marks popping up around many of the bullpen's core members. But one by one, they gave Yankees hitters little to work with and even fewer opportunities to score. The sequence began with Harris, the bullpen's top performer in the regular and postseason. He relieved Verlander and struck out Didi Gregorius to end the seventh, and then fanned DJ LeMahieu to open the eighth.

absorbed another five outs, creating a bridge to Smith, the side-armer who needed seven pitches to get through the 10th before recording two quick outs in the 11th. Smith's outing included retiring slugger Aaron Judge on a meek grounder back to the mound.

"We get asked a lot about how the length of our bullpen and how they're going to handle different things," Hinch said. "I put Joe Smith in a tough spot facing two lefties, he generally faces righties. He gets [Aaron] Hicks to ground out, he gets Gregorius out, and then goes back out against the heart of their order, guys that hurt us last night and hurt us tonight, and did his job."

Smith, who missed a lot of the season recovering from surgery to repair a torn left Achilles tendon, hadn't pitched in five days when he took the mound on Sunday. He's also not considered one of the "high-leverage" relievers the team relies on in close games when leading. But with uncertainty surrounding and no guarantees elsewhere, Smith, a valuable weapon against the Yanks' right-handed-heavy lineup, suggested he can be trusted in key, tense situations.

“We know what we've got down there, and we just smile and nod and go about our business and hopefully we come out on top,” Smith said.

The Astros' final reliever of the night, , faced the fewest batters but arguably had the most eventful outing of the group. During a 10-pitch confrontation with Yankees catcher Gary Sánchez, James thought he had a strikeout, found out he didn't, and then threw a pitch outside of the zone -- and got the called strike three.

If that's hard to follow, imagine what James was thinking while trying to nail down that last out.

"You move on to the next pitch, and let that pitch move on to the next one," James said. "That's all I tried to do was just move on and make better pitches."

Sánchez swung and missed the ninth pitch of his at-bat vs. James, an 87 mph slider that bounced and gave the impression that Sánchez may have gotten a piece of the ball. Home-plate umpire Cory Blaser seemed convinced it was a foul tip, though replays showed the ball did not touch Sánchez's bat.

James' next pitch, a 99 mph heater, seemed to clearly miss the plate by a few inches. That one was called a strike, which ended the Yanks' 11th.

"It was tough," James said of Sánchez's at-bat. "Just when I thought I would be able to get by him, he was on everything. He was on sliders, he was on fastballs. It was really tough, it was a hard-fought battle. I thought I got him on a slider. It was a great battle. It was fun."