NEW YORK — By the end of the eighth inning, there were swathes of empty seats in Yankee Stadium. Thousands of fans were already out the door, on the streets, murmuring their disbelief at what had just happened in Game 4 of the ALCS. The New York Yankees didn't just come up short in an 8-3 loss to the Houston Astros, they were embarrassed—reduced to playing garbage time after vowing a stirring comeback in this series.
Instead, the Astros made sure the U.S. saw every advantage they hold over the Yankees: better starting pitching, a more dangerous offense, untouchable bullpen. With a 3-1 lead, the Astros are nine innings away from the World Series, with Justin Verlander on the mound Friday in Game 5. The condensed analysis: the Yankees are just about ready to flip the calendar to 2020.
The sense of impending doom wasn't confined to the stands. The Bombers were themselves in a zombie-like state after the game. They made four errors and watched CC Sabathia throw what was undoubtedly the final pitch of his career; he suffered a shoulder injury in the eighth inning and walked off the mound in obvious pain. That was just one more psychological setback, leaving the Yankees to repeat the usual cliches of teams on the brink. When manager Aaron Boone said "stranger things have happened," you could practically hear the sounds of pitchers and catchers opening camp next spring.
The Yankees are now counting on James Paxton to hang with Verlander for at least five innings. It wouldn't be impossible had Game 4 been anything but an utter collapse. A close game, even in defeat, might have given the Yankees the scent of hope. Paxton did, after all, run off a 10-game winning streak to finish out the regular season. On his best nights, he weaponizes one of the American League's top left-handed curveballs.
But the Astros are accelerating—just ask Masahiro Tanaka. He limited Houston to one hit over six shutout innings in Game 1 but was unable to neutralize the Astros the second time around. Tanaka left trailing 3-1, victimized by George Springer's three-run home run in the third inning. It was a respectable but hardly spectacular outing, which was followed by Houston's gut-punch in the sixth inning: Carlos Correa's three-run home run off Chad Green.
Up by five runs, the Astros practically threw a toga party in their dugout, thundering Correa with hugs and head-slaps as he worked his way down the line of teammates. The crowd, meanwhile, had been stunned into silence. As Josh Reddick would later say: "[Yankee Stadium] is one of the hardest places to play on the road. The atmosphere is very intense and very unique, so it makes a big statement when we come in here and do that."
There were countless times the Astros came up big—and just as many opportunities squandered by the Yankees. They had Zack Greinke teetering on a first-inning knockout, having loaded the bases against him, taking a 1-0 lead after Brett Gardner's four-pitch walk that forced in a run.
The Astros bullpen was already active; one more hit, and A.J. Hinch would likely have removed Greinke and asked for 25 outs from his relievers. That's the game plan the Yankees had envisioned. The right-hander hadn't walked more than three batters in any game this season, yet he had already matched that in the first six Yankees he faced. Greinke didn't just look uncomfortable—he was ready to cave altogether as the decibel level in the ballpark ratcheted up to a primal level.
Taking down Greinke early was supposed to be the key to tying the series. That narrative might have turned into a reality had Gary Sanchez not ended the rally—and the inning—by striking out. Talk about a buzz kill. Not only did Sanchez go down on three pitches, but he also whiffed on a curveball that bounced a foot in front of the plate. Sanchez's "swing" wasn't even that—it was just a helpless wave. He walked back to the dugout, eyes downcast, as the booing turned vicious.
To be fair, Sanchez later smacked a two-run homer off Josh James in the sixth inning, but there would be no undoing the damage. Not on this night. The Yankees left seven men in scoring position, including the bases loaded in the fifth, when Ryan Pressly, in relief of Greinke, struck out Gleyber Torres and Edwin Encarnacion back-to-back.
More? The Yankees watched the usually steady DJ LeMahieu commit two errors. Torres added two of his own. When Sabathia left the game after injuring his shoulder, it felt like the end of the season, if not the end of an era.
"It was tough to watch that," Aaron Judge said. "He's been a warrior, a guy who's given everything he had for us. He's been our leader."
In the other clubhouse, the Astros sounded like the team that had found another gear. They have got Verlander, and if that fails, Gerrit Cole is waiting for Game 6. But after a 107-win season and three down with one to go against the Yankees, none of the Astros were thinking about the need for a safety net.
"We have all the confidence in the world [Verlander] is going to get the job done for us," Reddick said. "He's the guy you want on the mound."