NEW YORK -- The Houston Astros entered the postseason with the luxury of knowing they were a threat to win every game because of the quick-strike, potent, multifaceted nature of their lineup. Regardless of what city they’re in, the Astros wake up with an offense that doesn't sleep.
Three games into the American League Championship Series, that premise is suddenly being tested. The Astros are never out of any game -- provided they have Justin Verlander or Dallas Keuchel crafting Cy Young-caliber magic on the mound.
The Astros have a 2-1 lead over the New York Yankees in this series thanks to two crisp, dramatic, tightly played victories at Minute Maid Park. But contrary to all expectations, Houston’s prolific offense has gone into a small-sample-size October funk.
In three games against the Yankees, the Astros have scored a total of five runs. They’re hitting .169 as a team and have produced a total of three extra-base hits in 89 at-bats.
The double-play combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa is hitting a combined .391 (9-for-23) against the Yankees. The other guys in the batting order are batting an aggregate .091 (6-for-66). The list of notable offenders includes George Springer, Josh Reddick and Marwin Gonzalez, who have combined for one hit in 30 at-bats.
How rugged was it in Monday’s 8-1 loss to CC Sabathia and the Yankees? The Astros scored their only run when New York manager Joe Girardi saw an opening to throw control-impaired setup man Dellin Betances into the fray with zero pressure in the ninth inning. Betances promptly walked two batters on 10 pitches, and Tommy Kahnle eventually walked in a run with the bases loaded to put Houston on the board.
Appropriately enough, in this debacle of a game for the Astros, the always-reliable Altuve grounded into a double play to end it.
The three games against New York marked only the second time this season that the Astros were held to two runs or fewer in three consecutive games. It happened previously on Sept. 10-13, when they were outscored 19-4 in a three-game stretch by the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels.
If the Astros weren’t so gosh-darned loose and confident as a group, they might have reason to be concerned.
“This isn’t the normal Astros lineup we’re used to,” Reddick said. “Our whole lineup isn’t hitting. We relied on Altuve and Correa a little too much in the first two games, and we’ve just got to come together as a team and maybe talk it out and work on the things we were doing in the Boston series.
“We need to put this game behind us. We got our butts whipped tonight. That’s the only way to put it. We didn’t come out and do our jobs. But it could be worse. We could be down 1-2. At least we’ve got a little bit of a lead now.”
The Astros’ regular-season profile suggested they were that rare team with an offense capable of running the table in October. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this year’s Houston team was only the seventh club in MLB history to post the highest slugging percentage and fewest strikeouts in a season. The Astros joined the 1948 Yankees and the 1995 Cleveland Indians as the third team since 1911 to achieve that rare double.
That combination of power and contact ability seemed tailor-made for October, and things played out according to script in the Division Series. The Astros beat up on Red Sox ace Chris Sale and logged a .333/.402/.571 slash line as a team while eliminating Boston in four games.
In fairness, New York’s pitching is a major factor in the Astros’ offensive travails this series. The Yankees shut down a strong Cleveland lineup in the Division Series, and Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka and Sabathia have been effective with markedly different styles and repertoires in the ALCS.
Sabathia, who is 9-0 with a 1.83 ERA in 12 starts after a Yankees loss this season, was masterful enough to elicit two animal references in the same postgame quote from teammate Todd Frazier.
“He’s a bulldog,” Frazier said. “Look at the size of him. And he looks like a bear out there on the mound, just ready to pounce on somebody. He’s made for this, for sure.”
Little things are magnified when an offense goes south, and the Astros didn’t catch many breaks in Game 3. Starter Charlie Morton, who pitched better than his box score line indicated, threw a 95 mph fastball over the lower outside corner against Frazier in the second inning, and the Yankees’ third baseman somehow found a way to line it over the fence for a three-run homer.
The Astros had one big, early opportunity to make a dent when they loaded the bases in the third on a Springer walk, an Alex Bregman single and another walk to Altuve. Correa took a strike from Sabathia, then lofted a harmless popup to short on a 91 mph fastball to end the inning.
The prototypical Astros sequence of the evening came in the eighth, when Correa and Yuli Gurriel crushed balls to center field off Yankees reliever Adam Warren. Both balls died in Aaron Hicks’ glove at the warning track. It was that kind of night for Houston.
“The scoreboard doesn’t always show how hard you hit the ball,” Springer said. “I thought we hit some balls hard tonight that didn’t fall. We’re not going to change our approach just because we fly out to the track. We have a plan and an approach, and we stick to it.”
The Astros have struck out only 16 times in three games in this series. So unlike the Indians, they’re at least finding a way to put the ball in play. But contact doesn't count for much when so many Houston hitters wind up jogging back to the dugout.
Next on the agenda: a Game 4 date with Sonny Gray on Tuesday in the Bronx. Three games and 89 at-bats into the series, the Houston batting order is still waiting for a wake-up call.