HOUSTON -- There was little time for nostalgia as Jameson Taillon walked into Minute Maid Park on Wednesday, a building that once played host to his childhood heroes. The pitcher tried not to be fazed when he spotted Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio watching from the seats; he had a different Hall of Fame-level talent to be concerned with on the matchup’s other side.
Pitted against Justin Verlander, Taillon bobbed and weaved into the fifth inning, but nothing ever felt comfortable against this high-octane Astros lineup. The Yankees’ 4-2 loss in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series offered a stark reminder that they must figure out how to outpitch Houston, and the clock is running.
“It’s a really good lineup with a ton of playoff experience,” Taillon said. “It’s their sixth ALCS in a row. They’ve played in big moments, they’ve played under pressure and they’ve seen us a good amount. You have to have everything going.”
When a one-out double chased Taillon in the fifth inning, manager Aaron Boone chose rookie Clarke Schmidt to extinguish the flames. Schmidt was on the wrong side of a blown save in a deflating Game 3 loss to the Guardians in the AL Division Series and now savored a moment of redemption, his dotted sinker inducing Kyle Tucker to hit into an inning-ending double play.
Schmidt whirled and pumped his fist, a display that tempted Boone to keep the good vibes rolling. Despite swelling his roster to 13 pitchers for this round, the manager is still searching for the right buttons to push. Houston took control of the game in the sixth, as Schmidt surrendered homers to Yuli Gurriel and Chas McCormick before exiting.
“We knew it was going to be a slog getting through those middle innings,” Boone said. “It was good to see Clarke come in, as tough a situation as you can be in the middle of their lineup, and get through it. But then the two-strike mistakes hurt him [in the sixth].”
Jeremy Peña added a seventh-inning homer off Frankie Montas, helping Houston to its sixth win over the Yankees in eight tries this year.
In the history of best-of-seven postseason series, teams that have taken a 1-0 lead have gone on to win 119 of 185 times (64%). In all series with the current 2-3-2 format, teams that have taken Game 1 at home have gone on to win 64 of 96 times (67%).
“They’ve got a great staff, top to bottom,” Aaron Judge said. “They’ve got great arms out of the ‘pen that are effective on both sides of the plate and good starting pitchers that can mix three to four pitches. It’s a tough matchup, but you want to compete against the best. That’s what we’ve got in front of us. We’ve got to go out and do our job.”
There were legitimate questions about Boone’s bullpen use (Domingo Germán, for example, hasn’t thrown a pitch in a game since Oct. 5), but any pitchers would have needed to be near-perfect to steal a win for an offense that struck out 17 times -- the Yankees’ second-most in a postseason game (2020 ALDS Game 2 vs. Tampa Bay, 18).
Verlander was excellent, striking out 11, though he wobbled early. After Judge contributed a tremendous diving catch in the first inning to rob Alex Bregman of an extra-base hit, possibly saving two runs, Harrison Bader hit a second-inning homer to become the first player in franchise history to slug four homers in his first six postseason games with the Yankees.
Somewhat improbably after their grueling ALDS battle and early-morning arrival in Houston, the Yankees had a lead on Verlander. Martín Maldonado touched Taillon for a game-tying double, but New York was set up in the third when Anthony Rizzo walked and Giancarlo Stanton smoked a double.
A fly ball would have restored the advantage; instead, Josh Donaldson struck out and Matt Carpenter was caught looking -- the second of four strikeouts for Carpenter, who has not seemed ready for prime time, his storybook season interrupted by an Aug. 8 foot fracture. That began a string of six consecutive strikeouts for Verlander, who held New York to just three hits.
“Honestly, the way he threw the ball tonight, I could have played for the last two months and it would have been a tough day,” Carpenter said.
Rizzo hit an eighth-inning homer off Rafael Montero that cut the deficit to two runs, but the Yankees couldn’t muster anything further. Now the responsibility of evening the series rests in Luis Severino’s capable right hand, a veteran of the 2017 and ’19 heartbreaks in this building. He, better than most, understands how daunting the task ahead could be.
“We have the team that beat us a couple of times in front of us,” Severino said. “We have to go out there, give 100 percent and play good baseball.”