2018-05-01 08:09:03
Astros 2, Yankees 1: Astros’ Charlie Morton Extends Yankees’ Futility in Houston

08:09, May 01 106 0

HOUSTON — Only a handful of games over the course of a six-month season carry significant meaning as a stand-alone contest. Maybe it is the context of a pennant race, the unfolding of a remarkable moment or the weight of history.

One of those arrived on Monday for the Yankees, when they traveled here for the first time since an agonizing defeat in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series.

Nothing this week would erase that memory, or the sting of watching the Houston Astros go on to win their first World Series. But the Yankees, who arrived with a nine-game winning streak, at least hoped to show that they had put that painful memory behind them against a team that, like the Yankees, bolstered its roster with an eye on winning a championship this fall.

Instead, Monday’s game looked like a reprise.

Houston starter Charlie Morton, who pitched five shutout innings in the decisive game last year, was only more dominant, carrying a no-hitter into the sixth inning of an eventual 2-1 Astros victory.

It was the seventh consecutive loss for the Yankees at Minute Maid Park, and they have followed a familiar pattern: The Yankees haven’t scored more than a single run in the last six of those games. It will not get any easier on Tuesday night — they face ace Justin Verlander, who dominated them twice in the playoffs last year.

The Yankees, who were also shut out in Game 7, a 4-0 loss, managed their only run on Monday in the eighth inning after Morton had departed. They looked nothing like the offense that leads baseball in runs, home runs, on-base percentage and extra-base hits.

“Everyone was amped up about this series,” said Astros closer Ken Giles, who struck out Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Hicks to clinch the game. “It’s a great team that we’re facing. It brings back a lot of memories. We wanted to prove a point. We want to make a statement out there that we’re the team to beat. You’ve got to come past us first.”

The statement maker of the night was Morton, a 34-year-old journeyman whose late-career renaissance came with a spike in velocity and a refinement of his pitch selection. He reached a peak last year in the playoffs, when he followed up his performance against the Yankees with two more dominant games in the World Series against the Dodgers, including closing out the clinching Game 7.

He has picked up where he left off this season. With Monday’s win, he improved to 4-0 and lowered his earned run average to 1.72.

“Charlie always had the ability,” said Yankees first baseman Neil Walker, a teammate of Morton’s for seven seasons in Pittsburgh. “I think he was always his own worst enemy when I played with him just because he tried to be too perfect. Obviously he’s found a comfort zone throwing strikes.”

Morton could not have looked more comfortable on Monday night.

He did not allow a hit until Austin Romine poked a 1-2 fastball past first baseman Yuli Gurriel with one out in the sixth. Morton, who struck out 10 and walked two, was so dominant that the Yankees did not even hit a ball to the outfield until Walker flew out to left for the second out in the eighth.

The only other hit Morton allowed was on his 102nd and final pitch of the night — a sinker that Gleyber Torres lined off the base of the left-field wall for a double.

Morton easily handled Stanton, an old nemesis, striking him out twice and retiring him on a grounder. Stanton entered the game 9 for 18 in his career against Morton, though they last faced each other in 2015, when Morton was largely a sinker-baller.

“He’s throwing five to eight miles an hour harder than when I saw him last,” Stanton said. “You do that and mix your pitches, it’s going to be a nice little battle.”

After Torres doubled, Astros Manager A.J. Hinch called on Brad Peacock to face pinch-hitter Aaron Judge, who took a 3-2 slider off the plate for a walk. Torres stole third without a throw on the play, which paid off for the Yankees when Brett Gardner followed with a line single to right off Chris Devenski to cut the Astros’ lead to 2-1.

But Devenski kept the Yankees at bay by striking out Didi Gregorius on three pitches. Gregorius, who was named the American League player of the week earlier in the day, is 0 for 11 since his game-winning home run against the Angels on Friday night.

The Yankees had a fine pitching performance of their own, as starter Sonny Gray, who entered Monday with a 7.71 E.R.A., kept them in the game with his best performance of the young season. Boone said the road map for Gray to get himself back on track was simple.

“It starts with strike one, getting ahead in the count, and then he can start to use all his weapons,” Boone said. “And when that’s the case, we feel like he’s a dynamic pitcher.”

Boone’s analysis turned out to be spot on.

In six innings, Gray’s night was defined almost entirely by whether or not he worked from ahead. When he got a first-pitch strike, Astros batters were 0 for 14. When he did not, Astros batters were 4 for 8 with three walks. And when Gray fell behind, he was reluctant to throw his fastball — something the Astros seemed to know.

“Try to force contact earlier in the count and challenge guys,” Gray said of his approach. “For me, it was a step in the right direction.”

The Astros took a 1-0 lead in the first after George Springer singled up the middle, took second on a balk and made his way home on two-strike groundouts by Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa.

Gray’s command seriously betrayed him only in the fourth when Altuve singled, Correa walked on a 3-2 slider and Gurriel hooked a 1-0 slider off the left-field wall for a double that scored Altuve.

But the Yankees held the Astros there. Walker threw out Correa at home on a grounder by Josh Reddick, and after a walk to Alex Bregman, Gray struck out Marwin Gonzalez and retired Brian McCann on a liner to right.

Still, with Morton in top form and the Astros in their own park, it was all they would need.