An embarrassing Game 3 loss laid the Yankees' faults bare

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NEW YORK -- The empty blue seats started to grow in numbers during the sixth inning, by which time it had become abundantly clear that the first two games of the American League Championship Series were no accident or anomaly. The Houston Astros are a better baseball team than the New York Yankees -- better at pitching and hitting, better at things big and little, better to the point that those who had arrived at Yankee Stadium for Game 3 looking for a sliver of hope were leaving mid-inning convinced it would not arrive.

They were right. The Astros overwhelmed the Yankees in a 5-0 victory on Saturday night to take a 3-0 series lead, and it's only a matter of time before Houston razes the remainder of New York's 2022 season. The game itself served as a microcosm of the American League. The Astros own the league -- and no team owns the American League without owning the Yankees too.

However superior the Astros might have looked entering this series, they've picked apart the Yankees with such thoroughness, such clinical precision, that those at the stadium no longer knew who exactly to blame. They booed everyone, including Aaron Judge, who this season hit 62 home runs and is going to win AL Most Valuable Player but hasn't performed near that level this postseason. In the 400 level, they chanted "Fire Cashman," targeting general manager Brian Cashman, who in the past four full seasons has constructed teams that won 100, 103, 92 and 99 games. These frustrations reinforce the reality that the blessing of 27 championships is likewise a curse that renders itself every year the Yankees don't win another.

And unless New York does what only one team ever has and comes back from a 3-0 championship series deficit, the Yankees' drought will reach 13 seasons, the second longest in their history, and they'll lose their fifth consecutive ALCS, a record for any team.

Most troubling, perhaps, is the conundrum in which the Yankees find themselves. Five years ago, when they met the Astros in the ALCS for the first time, it was supposed to be the start of a new rivalry. And it is -- the teams and fan bases share plenty of vitriol -- but only because the Astros cheated in 2017. Not because the two teams are competitive -- and certainly not evenly matched. They aren't. Houston won in seven games in 2017 and in six in 2019. New York didn't even make it far enough to play them in 2018, 2020 or 2021. And this year, now, the Astros are on the cusp of the soundest dismantling yet.

Look at Game 3. The Astros started Cristian Javier, who had thrown all of 1⅓ innings this postseason. That's not a knock on Javier but a reminder that Houston is so good at developing quality major league pitching, so deep in its rotation and bullpen, that the Astros simply didn't need to use him yet. Javier carved the Yankees' lineup. They didn't hit a ball out of the infield until the fourth inning. New York's one-two punch was weak contact and strikeouts.

In the meantime, the Astros stared down Gerrit Cole -- the ace whom the Yankees poached from Houston with a mega-contract following the 2019 season -- and capitalized on the limited opportunities they were given. A two-out error in center field that kept the second inning alive was followed by a Chas McCormick home run. In the sixth, Yankees manager Aaron Boone pulled Cole after he allowed a double, a walk and a ducksnort single -- and reliever Lou Trivino allowed all three inherited runners to score.

After Anthony Rizzo walked with one out in the bottom of the inning, Astros manager Dusty Baker pulled his starter too -- and Hector Neris wiggled out of it, followed by more scoreless ball from Ryne Stanek, Hunter Brown, Rafael Montero and Bryan Abreu, none of whom played a significant role the previous time these two met in the ALCS. And that, perhaps more than anything, is the most frustrating part to those who left early, who chanted, whose great joy as the Yankees thrived early in this season has melted into a concoction of disappointment, disillusionment and straight-up anger: The Astros, even as they weathered the losses of Cole and George Springer and Carlos Correa and others, have managed to get better; and the Yankees are perpetually stagnant, a simulacrum of the late-1990s dynasty to which every Yankees team is bound to be compared.

This year, the team seemed to rely almost entirely on Judge, which is even scarier when you remember that Game 4 could be his final game as a Yankee. He will hit free agency after the World Series ends. If the Yankees re-sign him, it will cost perhaps $40 million a year well into his 30s, the sort of contract that could limit the other areas in which they need to improve so long as the team doesn't extend its budget. And if they don't, gone is their greatest source of offense, which this series suggests might be a problem even with him.

In three ALCS games, the Yankees have scored four runs. They are batting .128. Their on-base plus slugging (.435) is lower than the Astros' slugging percentage by itself (.446). The Yankees have struck out 41 times as compared to 19 by Houston. They've homered twice, while the Astros have hit five home runs. It's three games, yes, and drawing large conclusions from small samples is folly, sure. But what is playoff baseball if not a small sample? And if the only number that truly matters to the Yankees is 28 -- their next championship -- then nobody in the organization can look at this series as anything less than a failure.

After Game 3, as much as the Yankees players gritted their teeth and vowed to fight and promised to hunt for whatever it took to turn this series around, to do to Houston what the Boston Red Sox did to them in 2004, they recognize the herculean nature of the task. The Yankees' offense is flawed, yes, but even more than that, the Astros' pitching is a juggernaut. As easy as it is for those who left early -- and those who stayed to the end and grumbled all the way -- to blame the Yankees' hitting, crediting the Astros' pitching is only fair.

It's not satisfying, though. Unless the Yankees take Games 4 and 5 and force a trip back to Houston to put at least a little pressure on the Astros, this is the sort of series that sticks with an organization. Minus the injuries that whittled the Yankees' bullpen down to a shell of itself -- and that can't be ignored -- this is mostly the roster the team envisioned using as it went for title No. 28. The Astros are telling New York, unequivocally, it's not enough.

Which leaves the Yankees in an uncomfortable place: Not only are they perpetually chasing the Astros, their road to face Houston seems only to get harder. They're contending with a Tampa Bay Rays team that is excellent annually and a Toronto Blue Jays team hungry for more and a Red Sox team certain to rebound and a Baltimore Orioles team that's on the come up -- and that's just in their own division. Nobody is going to cry for the Yankees, but nobody should suggest their path is easy, either.

Easier, because of the money, the resources, the desire for many of the best to play in pinstripes? Sure. That's fair. And it's why so much schadenfreude accompanies every early exit from the Yankees. Losing doesn't change who they've been. It just reinforces what they are. Now, today, that's a lesser team than the Houston Astros.