Astros Give Yankees a Tough Series, and a Measuring Stick

The best two teams in the American League played a ballgame in the sunshine, bookended by home runs. Jose Altuve drove the first pitch over the left-field wall, and Aaron Judge did the same to the last pitch. More than 44,000 fans packed into Yankee Stadium for the fourth day in a row. Some even stayed for a postgame promotion, playing catch on their field of dreams.

This was baseball like it oughta be, as the Mets used to say in the ’80s, and maybe we really will get a Subway Series in late October. But the route to the A.L. pennant always runs through Houston, and the Astros plan to keep it that way. The Yankees came back to beat them on Sunday, 6-3 in 10 innings, but it was probably their toughest test of the season.

“The fans just know, these two teams, we’re going to be seeing each other a lot probably down the road,” said Judge, who connected off the right-handed reliever Seth Martinez for his game-winning three-run homer.

“We’ve seen each other a lot in years past in the postseason. Anytime we play, it’s going to be a good ballgame, and the fans just anticipate that. They bring their energy from the first pitch on, and that’s what you love. You look forward to these weekends, playing good teams and kind of seeing where you stack up in the A.L.”

The Yankees are 53-20, seven and a half games better than the Astros, but they really had to work for a four-game-series split. They went 16 innings without a hit — from the eighth on Friday until the seventh on Sunday — and needed big hits from Judge to take the first and fourth games.

“It was Judge 2, Us 2,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said.

It made for compelling theater, marred only by the fans’ tired act of booing Altuve for the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in 2017. Another member of that team, Marwin Gonzalez, now plays for the Yankees, and two more — Carlos Beltrán and Cameron Maybin — call games on YES Network. But only Altuve beat out Judge that season for the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award.

Judge is the runaway favorite this season; he now leads the majors with 28 homers, on a pace for 62, one more than Roger Maris hit in 1961. He ended Thursday’s game with a long single into the left-field corner, and homered to finish a game with Toronto last month.

“Unreal,” Giancarlo Stanton said. “He’s come up big for us anytime we’ve needed him to.”

The last Yankee with three walk-off hits in a season was Melky Cabrera in 2009, the year they won their last World Series title. The Yankees have not returned to that stage, bounced most often by the Astros, who ousted them in the playoffs in 2015, 2017 and 2019 — and caused at least a mild scare this weekend.

“I don’t believe in having anybody’s number,” Baker said on Sunday, in the dugout before batting practice. “It depends on how you’re playing at that time and also how many of your frontline guys are out, how your guys are pitching; there’s a lot of factors in there, especially in a short series. I don’t believe in having guys’ numbers — and I don’t believe in nobody having our number.”

While the Astros stay in town to play the Mets this week, the Yankees welcome the Oakland Athletics on Monday for a three-game series. The A’s have the majors’ worst record, at 25-49, and through Saturday they were hitting .211 overall. That would be the worst batting average by an A.L. team in more than a century.

The A’s staged a clearance sale as soon as the lockout ended in March, dumping a few pricey veterans and holding one top-level starter, the right-hander Frankie Montas, to peddle at the trading deadline. Several other teams — Cincinnati, Detroit, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Washington, the Chicago Cubs — have been similarly hopeless this season.

When those teams face the contenders, it’s a mismatch and everybody knows it — the opposite of the taut, engrossing weekend the Yankees and the Astros just had. This was not what the players envisioned during the lockout, when they sought ways to promote a more competitive landscape in the league.

The collective bargaining agreement the players reached with the team owners includes a lottery for the top six spots in the draft, an extra wild-card berth in each league and incentives for promoting top prospects for opening day, instead of stashing them in the minors to manipulate service time. But change takes time.

“Hopefully next year and the year after, you’ll see more teams compete,” said the Yankees’ Zack Britton, a relief pitcher who served on the union’s executive subcommittee. “But I think it is very much the teams that are competing and then there’s, like, the bottom. There’s really not much in the middle right now, even though more teams have access to the playoffs and things like that.

“The hope was that it would be better as we go forward, that by year five of this C.B.A. we’d see some changes. I’m not sure we were expecting it to be right away, just because of how teams were structured last year and the year before that.”

The goal, Britton said, was to limit the rewards of sustained losing and disincentivize those interminable rebuilding phases. Not every team can do that and turn into the Astros, a powerhouse who showed the Yankees that sprinting to the World Series — even in a charmed Bronx season — will be no sure thing.

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