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3 reasons Yankees took 1st sweep by Astros

@alysonfooter
April 11, 2019

HOUSTON -- The Yankees knew this wouldn’t be easy. As they lost key player after key player through Spring Training and into the very early days of the regular season, it surely was impossible to look at the roster and think this was going to be a smooth April. Reminders

HOUSTON -- The Yankees knew this wouldn’t be easy. As they lost key player after key player through Spring Training and into the very early days of the regular season, it surely was impossible to look at the roster and think this was going to be a smooth April.

Reminders about how banged up this team is are everywhere. The day begins with reporters talking to manager Aaron Boone not about strategy, but about injuries. There were at least five updates on hobbled Yankees provided each of the three days the Yankees were in Houston.

The Yankees were swept by the Astros for the first time in their history when they lost on Wednesday, 8-6. The two teams don’t have a long history -- their first regular-season meeting wasn’t until 2003 at Yankee Stadium -- but it’s notable that the Yanks have a 29-22 record all-time vs. Houston, not including the American League Wild Card Game in ’15 and the epic seven-game ALCS that went in the Astros’ favor in 2017.

None of that mattered this week. The Yankees, sorely missing several potent bats, could catch no breaks. They didn’t pitch particularly well. Their bullpen was stretched and exploited.

The offense was better Wednesday, but the lack of key veterans and the rawness of some of the young players was apparent throughout the series.

“We were in position to win a couple games here and we weren’t able to close the deal,” said Brett Gardner. “The injuries, we’re going to keep hearing about that every day. But that’s no excuse. I’ve said all along, we’ve got a really good team. One of the reasons we do is because of the depth that we have. That depth is getting tested.”

Wednesday’s game was arguably the most compelling of the three, with several key elements impacting the Yankees’ seventh loss of the season.

1) Paxton ineffective

The Yankees needed the Astros-killer version of James Paxton in this game. It didn’t happen.

As a Mariner, Paxton had a 2.89 ERA over 12 career starts vs. Houston, and he hadn’t had a bad outing against them since July 2016.

On Wednesday, Paxton yielded five runs on eight hits over four innings and gave up two solo homers to Jose Altuve.

Paxton said he didn’t feel that his curveball and cutter were breaking: “For some reason, I just didn’t have that extra gear,” he said.

He threw 95 pitches.

“To the Astros' credit, they extended some at-bats on him,” Boone said. “A lot of 3-2, 2-2 counts where they were fouling off pitches, spoiling pitches. And they were able to get to him.”

2) McHugh’s electric slider

Houston righty Collin McHugh is not an overpowering pitcher, but who needs an unhittable fastball if no one can do anything with the slider anyway?

Forty-six of McHugh’s 93 pitches were sliders, which served as his out-pitch for every one of his nine strikeouts.

The only hitter who had much luck against McHugh was Gardner, who connected with a leadoff homer -- on a 91.1 mph fastball.

“[The slider] was definitely a problem for us,” Boone said. “I think he kept us honest enough with the fastball, but he had a good feel for that slider. He was throwing it short some, he was moving it off the plate away some."

3) Sanchez strikes out

The plan was a reasonable one -- give Gary Sánchez a game off to rest his overworked legs, and use him only in a crucial situation with the game on the line.

That moment arrived in the eighth inning, after the Yankees mounted a four-run attack on the Houston bullpen -- more specifically, on hard-throwing righty Josh James. With two outs, a one-run deficit and DJ LeMahieu on third, Boone opted to pinch-hit Sanchez for Tyler Wade.

Houston manager AJ Hinch called on Ryan Pressly to face Sanchez, who struck out.

The inning ended with the Yanks still trailing, 7-6, and the Astros tacked on an insurance run in the bottom of the inning, all but sealing the sweep.

If there is a silver lining in all of this, it’s that the Yankees return home for their third-longest homestand of the year, and they will play three teams who are also struggling: the White Sox, Red Sox and Royals.

“The season’s full of times when you really have to grind,” Boone said. “We’re grinding right now. It’s not easy for us right now, but we’ll come out of it.”

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.