NEW YORK -- Gerrit Cole was bruised but certainly not battered Tuesday night. In a game of missed chances for the New York Yankees, with their biggest strengths turning into so many Achilles' heels, Cole and the Houston Astros took a 2-1 lead in the American League Championship Series with a 4-1 victory in Game 3.
The Yankees' powerful offense went missing in action when it mattered most, and the bullpen failed to do what it has done all season: strand baserunners far from home plate.
The Yankees might forever lament not delivering the knockout punch on a night when Cole did not have his elite stuff. Hitters could not capitalize on the many chances they had against the 2019 Cy Young candidate, who gave up more bases on balls (five walks) than hits (four) over seven innings pitched.
"It's obviously a little frustrating we weren't able to break through, but I think up and down we gave ourselves a chance," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after the loss. "Any time you're facing a guy like that, you want that kind of traffic, and we had that in several innings. He made big pitches when he had to.
"I think we ended up with probably about nine baserunners against him," Boone added. "You kind of sign up for that. We weren't able to break through. We weren't able to get that hit tonight to really allow us to be in that game or even grab a lead at some point."
The Yankees' offense failed to be efficient in its efforts, stranding those nine men on base and going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position. They put two runners or more on base in four of the first five innings, but Cole was able to wiggle out of trouble time after time.
"I feel like anytime you get a couple guys on base it just takes that one swing to get us rolling and kind of break through. But we just weren't able to get that big hit," said outfielder Aaron Judge, who went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts. "[I] had the situation (in the second inning with two out) where I had two guys on and wasn't able to come through. This is the postseason. You got to be able to come through in those situations."
Thinking back on his opportunities, Judge shouldered his share of the blame. "Cole did this thing out there, especially to me," he said. "I don't think I got one pitch over the heart of the plate. When that happens, you kind of get frustrated and chase a little bit."
In their past two losses against the Astros, with aces Justin Verlander and Cole on the mound, the Yankees have left 16 runners on base, and scored just two runs as a result. In their American League Division Series sweep of the Minnesota Twins, the Yankees seemed to capitalize on every opportunity with runners in scoring position, with 17 RBIs and a .324 batting average (11-for-34). That average has dropped to .200 in the ALCS.
"Any time things aren't going your way you get a little frustrated," outfielder Brett Gardner said. "We did a good job of getting some guys on base on him early in the game, making him throw a good bit of pitches. He was on the ropes a couple times, and he was able to get out of it. That's what the best pitchers do. Unfortunately, we weren't able to come through with that big hit tonight."
Shortstop Didi Gregorius, who had the most opportunities with runners in scoring position Tuesday night and went 0-for-4 while leaving five men on base, claimed full responsibility for the loss.
"I didn't come through for the team when I had the opportunity, so I think that's what most of the game was on me," Gregorius said. "I didn't come through, so I was the one that failed, not the whole team."
But it wasn't a one-man show, nor was it all the lineup's fault.
Starting pitcher Luis Severino put his team in hot water from the get-go, allowing a home run to the second Astro he faced, All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve. Severino got out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning, but the damage had already been done, bringing up his pitch count to 36 pitches, the fourth-most he has thrown in a single inning in his career.
Severino eventually settled down, allowing one more run on another solo shot, by outfielder Josh Reddick, but was able to get through only 4⅓ innings, which meant the Yankees' bullpen had to once again come to the rescue.
While Chad Green and Tommy Kahnle continued their elite performance this postseason, keeping Houston off the scoreboard in the fifth and sixth innings, right-hander Adam Ottavino failed to do his part in the seventh. He put runners on the corners with nobody out. The Astros turned that into a crooked number, eventually doubling their lead to 4-0 against Zack Britton after a wild pitch and a sac fly.
"Obviously, it's frustrating and these are the types of games I want to be in. This is the reason I came to this team and everything I wanted my whole life," said Ottavino, who was at a loss for words in explaining his failures this postseason -- he has given up three earned runs on five hits (including a homer) in 1⅓ innings pitched over his past four appearances, with one blown save.
"I don't have a good reason for today. Last game, I threw one bad pitch, that's a mistake that happens. Today it was only a couple pitches. I just didn't get it done," he said. "It's a game based on results. You have to get them. I think everybody [in the bullpen] is throwing the ball well except for me. So, I know they are going to do their jobs, I have confidence if I get another opportunity, I'll do my job."
Britton, who was unable to come out with the hold, said the relief corps' confidence has not been shaken by the recent results.
"Bullpen's been outstanding the whole year, so as a part of that bullpen, it's about going out there and making good pitches, and when you don't, they capitalize," Britton said. "This is a really good hitting team, but we've had some stretches too where maybe we've struggled and we've bounced back fine. But I think we just got to go out there as a pitching staff and continue to put up zeros. I think the offense is going to come alive. We faced two really good guys the last two days; hopefully tomorrow we will get back on track."
The Yankees can't afford not to. After seeing both their lineup and bullpen not capitalize on opportunities, they're in a 2-1 hole only they can dig themselves out of.