HOUSTON -- The Yankees and Astros began the American League Championship Series viewed as two of the most evenly matched teams to meet so far in the 2019 postseason -- two powerhouse "super clubs" boasting relentless lineups that have few to no holes, one through nine.
The most glaring contrast entering Saturday night's ALCS Game 1 at Minute Maid Park -- which the Yankees won, 7-0 -- was between the two bullpens. New York's was considered its strength, a unit so cohesive that it can mask any shortcomings in the rotation. Houston, on the other hand, has terrific starting pitching, but it has a bullpen that thinned out this season due to injuries and inconsistencies.
Saturday's game followed the script. The Astros were still within striking distance of a comeback when Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka exited after six innings, but the Yanks' bullpen -- a trio of Adam Ottavino, Zack Britton and Jonathan Loaisiga -- was mostly impenetrable for the final three innings in finishing off the shutout.
Meanwhile, the Astros' relief corps, summoned after Zack Greinke allowed three runs in six innings, struggled beginning in the seventh. This allowed the Yankees to add on to their lead and glide to victory.
What went right for each bullpen? What went wrong?
The good: Right-hander Josh James struck out three of the four batters he faced, averaged 98 mph with his fastball and topped out at 99 on a swinging strikeout of Gary Sanchez that ended the eighth. James' slider was effective as well, as evidenced by Edwin Encarnacion's swing and miss that ended the seventh.
The game was already presumed to be out of reach at that point -- the Yanks were up, 5-0 -- and James contributed by simply holding the line. But perhaps he gave manager AJ Hinch a reason to believe he could pitch in a higher-leverage spot later in the series.
"Our game plan was to be aggressive," James said. "I wanted to follow the game plan. That's what I set out to do: come out, be aggressive, attack them. They did a lot of their damage when guys started falling behind. I wanted to get ahead and put them away or get them out."
The bad: Ryan Pressly, whose success or struggles in the ALCS may heavily dictate where the Astros end up at the end of the best-of-seven series, allowed four two-out hits in the seventh that turned into two runs.
"I executed a lot of pitches," Pressly said. "The only one I was kind of beating myself up over was [Aaron] Judge. He handles those pitches up pretty well. Other than that, I got singled to death.”
Rookie righty Bryan Abreu, making his postseason debut on the same day that he was added to the ALCS roster, gave up a home run on the first pitch he threw. Gio Urshela took a somewhat flattened-out slider and sent it 361 feet to the right-field stands for a leadoff homer in the ninth.
"I got Abreu in there, he made some really good pitches. He made some mistakes, he gave up a walk, or a couple of them actually, and then [Héctor] Rondón came in to clean up his inning," Hinch said. "I think it's important not to overreact to anything and credit the Yankees for having a really good first game. We'll see them [Sunday]."
The good: All of it, really. Tanaka had thrown 68 pitches when he was lifted, and manager Aaron Boone admitted he considered keeping him in the game. But Boone stuck with the original plan and trusted his relievers to flummox Houston hitters as much as his starter did.
The bullpen wasn't quite as air-tight as Tanaka, but it was close enough, and it was plenty on a night when Houston's offense mostly stood pat. More importantly for the Yankees, the lack of stressful innings helped conserve them for Game 2.
"It's big for us," said Britton, who struck out two in the eighth. "We didn't have to throw [Aroldis Chapman] today. He gets another break. I know we talk about bullpenning, but when you can get a guy like a starting pitcher like Masa did today, that's the most important thing. [Chad Green] is still down there and hasn't thrown. Chappy hasn't thrown. I don't think anybody else really got extended. What Masa did today is huge for us going into tomorrow."
The bad: It's probably nitpicking, but there was a brief moment right after Tanaka exited that could have led to disaster. This wasn't the bullpen's fault, but it is notable that it happened just as Ottavino took over.
With one out in the seventh, Michael Brantley singled, and he moved to third when a Jose Altuve dribbler up the middle -- a sure double play -- instead rolled into the outfield when neither Yanks middle infielder made a move to retrieve the ball. Had that sequence of events led to some Astros runs, you have to wonder what kind of questions Boone would have had to answer about lifting Tanaka so early.
However, it ended up being a mere afterthought when the next batter, Alex Bregman, followed with a ground ball that did end up as a double play.
"This place can get loud," Boone said. "And I'm just thinking about what happened there from a communication standpoint, obviously us shading Altuve in that situation. So it's a play where both guys can probably get to it, so you understand how that's possible, it can happen.
"And you've got Bregman walking to the plate. It's, 'OK, we've got to pick it up here, we've got to make a pitch.' And [Ottavino] did a really good job of coming right back and putting the ball on the ground again, and we turn a big double play."