MLB.com Columnist

Marty Noble

Astros beat Yankees at their own game

Astros beat Yankees at their own game

NEW YORK -- This baseball season, the one that resumed Tuesday night and -- in the Bronx, at least -- ended Tuesday night, has been a return to normalcy to these weary eyes. The big leagues gave us nine sluggers with at least 40 home runs, 13 guys with at least 100 RBIs, three guys who batted .330 or higher, two 20-game winners, one 300-strikeout pitcher, two starters with ERAs lower than 2.00 and a couple of guys who stole bases at a Luis Aparicio rate.

If memory serves, that sort of offense-pitching balance was commonplace in the decades that formed my appreciation for the game. The good hitters and the quality pitchers prospered, and the guys in between emphasized the premise that baseball is a game based on failure. A 12-8 score was uncommon, and this past season gave us enough 3-2 and 2-1 scores to satisfy my fetish for taut, low-scoring affairs.

So it seemed quite natural that the laws of the game should be in effect in the first postseason foray of 2015. The team that scores first usually wins. Check. Good pitching stops good hitting. Check -- sort of. More to the point: Good pitching, Cy Young Award-level pitching, beats mediocre hitting. All of which explains why football may take a back seat to baseball in Houston for a while. (Not in Dallas, though, no matter what Cole Hamels does and Tony Romo doesn't do.)

Date Result
Oct. 6 HOU 3, NYY 0

A second entity identified as Dallas has become quite conspicuous on the horizon and on the airwaves of the Lone Star State, the Dallas whose left arm delivered Yankee Stadium to weeks of autumnal solitude. Amid all the pomp that routinely accompanies any postseason appearance by the Yankees, Dallas Keuchel put more than a few crimps in the pinstripes -- only three hits allowed and seven strikeouts in six scoreless innings -- and led the team attired in a fall color -- the 'Stros wore orange tops -- into the American League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser.

A lot of folks sensed that a Yankees victory was in the offing. Derek Jeter's ghosts would see to that, they assumed. But this older man had taken a contrary view before and after watching the Yankees fall to the Astros, 3-0. I sat back and watched what I had anticipated unfold. Keuchel unplugged the Yankees' batting order, and the team that led the AL in home runs hit two.

Houston clearly was the better of the two teams in this best-of-one scenario, but the score doesn't capture how lopsided it was.

The Astros took over the Stadium as few postseason opponents have during the Torre-Girardi years. Keuchel's precise, though hardly perfect pitching in the early innings denied the gathered masses the adrenaline they needed to be a factor. And the first-pitch home run Colby Rasmus hit to lead off the second inning essentially closed the door on the Yankees.

The homer Carlos Gomez hit on the first pitch of the fourth inning sealed the loss for Masahiro Tanaka, who lasted five innings and 83 pitches. He was the Yankees' best weapon going in, but the crispness of pitches that has been his greatest strength was missing. Yet he competed. The Yankees can't complain. They had few alternatives.

The issue of short rest for Keuchel -- he pitched after three days off for the first time in his career -- was no issue at all. Rest, schmest. It's the postseason. His ankle didn't bleed. His elbow didn't throb. His shoulder didn't balk. His knee didn't protest. Seemed like old times, normal. He pitched until the ball was taken from him -- after six innings and 87 pitches in this case. That's the way it used to be in October whether the pitcher was named Morris, Gibson, Ford or Spahn.

So this one was rather methodical for the team that nearly lost its way and did lose its hold on first place and had to win the AL Wild Card Game. Once six innings were complete, the game clearly leaned in Houston's favor. After Keuchel was removed, manager A.J. Hinch had left-handed reliever Tony Sipp in place to face left-handed-swinging Brian McCann, switch-hitter Chase Headley and lefty-hitting Greg Bird. McCann flied out, and Headley drew a walk -- he was the Yankees' lone baserunner in the last three innings. Sipp then struck out Bird and retired Rob Refsnyder.

Luke Gregerson pitched the ninth and put the Yankees' strikeout total at 10 -- in 32 plate appearances.

Relief pitching and home runs; that was supposed to be the Yankees' formula for success, but this time they were beaten soundly at their own game.

"You know, you saw a lot of what's right about Astros baseball," Hinch said in the afterglow of the franchise's first postseason appearance since 2005. "We homered, we stole a few bases that came up key [one led to the third run, in the seventh against Dellin Betances]. We got gutsy pitching out of Keuchel and our bullpen. And we made some big plays on defense."

Pretty comprehensive performance by the young 'Stros. Good teams execute in all phases of the game when the stakes are high. That, too, used to be standard operating procedure. Now the Astros can hope that their performance against the Yankees constitutes normal. As the winners used to say after handsome victories, "Let's not forget how to do this."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.