Astros return home in unfamiliar position: playing from behind

NEW YORK -- Carlos Beltran expected his teammates to be disappointed by the outcome here Wednesday night. But as he walked into the clubhouse and sat down at his locker, he surveyed the room and didn't like the vibe he was feeling.

And so, the oldest member of the Houston Astros decided it was time for a speech.

"Sometimes," Beltran explained later, "you see people acting different than the way they act in the regular season. I just don't want people to feel down. I don't want people to feel sorry about themselves."

A measure of self-pity is understandable after the past three nights. The Astros came to Yankee Stadium in possession of a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series and got flattened like a pancake, steamrollered like a driveway. They lost three games in a row for the first time since Sept. 8-10, including Wednesday night's 5-0 drubbing by the New York Yankees that leaves their season teetering on the brink of extinction.

How bad was it for the Astros? Their powerful offense, which scored more runs than any team in the past eight seasons and crushed the Boston Red Sox in the division series, went 11-for-92 (.120) with five extra-base hits, no home runs and 25 strikeouts in the three games. With runners in scoring position, they went 2-for-21, including 0-for-8 in Game 5.

George Springer is 2-for-18 in the series. Josh Reddick is 0-for-17. Alex Bregman (2-for-17) and Marwin Gonzalez (2-for-15) are struggling, too. Even Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, the dynamic duo in the middle of the Astros' order, were muted in New York. They went a combined 2-for-22 in Games 3-5. It all prompted manager A.J. Hinch to declare that the Astros "lost a little bit of our offensive mojo."

And Dallas Keuchel, the Yankees-crushing left-hander who was supposed to be Houston's Game 5 firewall, gave up four runs and seven hits in only 4⅔ innings to put the offense in a hole that was far too deep considering the way things have been going.

"[The Yankees] played better than us in all phases," catcher Brian McCann said.

It was all so foreign to the Astros. During the regular season, they spent 178 of 183 days -- and every day since April 12 -- in first place. They held a lead at the end of 25 of 36 innings in the division series. And although they didn't muster much offense in the first two games of the ALCS, they still were leading or tied through the series' first 19 innings.

For six months, the Astros have been classic front-runners. Now, all of a sudden, they're trailing.

It was no wonder, then, that they walked off the field and into the clubhouse after Game 5 with their heads hanging so low they could've dragged the infield. Beltran, a veteran of 12 postseason series during a 20-year career, could sense their sagging confidence. He could feel the tension in the quiet room. With a day off in the series Thursday, Beltran didn't want those emotions to linger.

"My job, and our job as a team, is to encourage each other," Beltran said. "It's easy to feel down about yourself when you don't have a good game or when you give it up as a pitcher. Sometimes people get a tendency of getting down, and our job is to encourage everyone to turn the page and move on and take the challenge.

"At the end of the day, like it's not a big deal. It's not a big deal. Even though you would love to leave this place [leading] 3-2 [in the series], now it's our time to try to do the same thing the Yankees did to us here."

The Astros will take confidence from the fact that ace Justin Verlander will be on the mound Friday night. They also will be back in the comforts of Minute Maid Park. The Yankees had the best home record in the American League this season but a sub-.500 record (40-41) on the road.

But it's also unclear how the Astros will respond to not playing from in front. They began the season with three consecutive victories, went 16-9 in April and won 38 of their first 54 games. By Memorial Day, they had an 11-game lead in the AL West. By the Fourth of July, the cushion had swelled to 16 games.

It isn't as though the Astros didn't face adversity. On the field, they dealt with long-term injuries to Keuchel, Correa and right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., although they were far enough ahead to withstand their absences. And nobody will forget the off-field ordeal of Hurricane Harvey and the Astros' role in helping to lift up their devastated city.

But the Astros have set the pace all season long. Now, they need to catch back up.

"Our backs are against the wall," McCann said. "We'll be ready. This team, we've played extremely well all season long, and nothing's going to change. We'll be ready for Game 6. We've responded all year long."

Said Springer: "We understand what has to happen. We understand what's at stake here. You have to win or you go home. During the regular season, you don't really play any of those games."

During the regular season, the Astros barely had to break a sweat. This is no time to start feeling the heat, so Beltran tried to turn down the temperature.

On Friday night, everyone will find out if it worked.