Yankees drop doubleheader to Astros

Pinch hitter J.J. Matijevic singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 9th. (Bob Levey/Getty Images)

HOUSTON — The dragon is still alive, strong and still living here at Minute Maid Park. The Yankees brought the best record in baseball here to start the second half of the season and got a rude reminder that the Astros are still their biggest obstacle in their way to even have a chance to win their first World Series since 2009. The Astros swept the Yankees in a doubleheader to start the second half Thursday.

“October is a different ballgame. Things are completely different, teams are different. So this is just kind of a practice test,” Aaron Judge said.  “Every time we play, it’s a little practice test. See how we stack up and take your notes and then we’ll get ready for the real thing.”

The Astros used the Yankees’ own formula for success in the first half to beast them Thursday: versatility. They scratched out a walkoff 3-2 win on JJ Matijevic’s single in the first game. Houston hammered home runs and piled on early to withstand a late three-run bomb by Judge to win 7-5 in the night cap.

With the sweep of the doubleheader, the Astros (61-32) are three wins behind the Yankees (64-29) in the American League race for the best record. The Astros went 5-3 against the Yankees this season, a poignant reminder of what Houston has down to them in the past.

The Astros have been the Yankees playoff Kryptonite, with the Bombers losing the AL Championship Series to them in both 2017 and 2019 and the Wild Card Game in 2015.

“Ultimately we may have to slay the dragon. Right?” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said when asked if the Astros have a mental edge. “It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if you ask the question, it doesn’t matter what my  answer is right. If it comes down to October the proof will be in the pudding.”

What the Yankees can take away from Thursday, with less than two weeks until the trade deadline, is they have room to improve.

Luis Severino went down with a strained lat muscle right before the All-Star break.  Domingo German was their insurance plan coming into the season, but he did not look sharp Thursday night. In his first start since July 31, 2021, German allowed five earned runs on six hits in three innings. He walked one and struck out two. German gave up back-to-back homers to Alvarez and Bregman in the first. JP Sears, who allowed a two-run homer to McCormick in the sixth, did not walk a batter and struck out one in three innings of work.

Judge’s 410-foot bomb in the top of the ninth, his major-league leading 34th of the season, cut the Astros lead to two and the Yankees had the tying run at the plate when Matt Carpenter grounded into a game-ending double-play.

In the first game, Alex Bregman led off the 9th with a first-pitch single and Aledmy Diaz doubled off Michael King to put runners in scoring position for  Matijevic. The Yankees had to rally in the top of the ninth just to get it to that point.

DJ LeMahieu lined his ninth home run of the season off Cristian Javier in the fifth inning. That snapped 11 innings that the Bombers had been held scoreless by the Astros’ right hander. It was one of just two hits the Yankees got off Javier in five innings of work.

Jordan Montgomery held the Astros to two runs on seven hits. He walked one and struck out eight. It was his 17th  start allowing three earned runs or less, tied for the most this season.

He gave up an RBI-single to Bregman in the first and a run-scoring double in the second to catcher Korey Lee.

The Yankees can take away lessons from this series. They were already looking for pitching on the trade market before Thursday, this makes it more of a priority. Another bat to face good pitching might be what’s needed to get them over this hurdle.

Judge and Boone weren’t panicking about having to face the Astros again just yet.

“I’m kind of focused on one the last thing you said; that we have the best record in baseball,” Judge said when asked about the Astros hanging over the Yankees’ heads. “Like I said, they’re great, they’re a great team and I’m not gonna sit here and dwell on things that happened in the past, no matter what good or bad. So we’ll see what comes up, what happens down the stretch, but I’m focused on this year and this team. We have a good ball club here, we have to stay within ourselves and focus on ourselves.”