As Gary Sanchez steadied himself at the plate in the fifth inning Wednesday, it was not a tailing sinker that arrived from Houston Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel. It was an invitation.
A gaping hole on right side of the infield beckoned. So with his hitless streak at 19 at-bats and his continual pulling of the ball yielding only frustration, Sanchez did not unleash another violent swing.
Instead, he extended his arms as if he were a water skier hanging onto a rope.
Sanchez made just enough contact with the two-strike pitch to ground it slowly through the hole created by a shift and into right field for a two-run single that propelled the Yankees to a 5-3 victory.
It was the final regular-season meeting between the teams that played a riveting American League Championship Series last year, and it would surprise few if they met again this October.
The Yankees won five of this season’s seven meetings, but many of the games were back and forth, just as Wednesday’s was before Aroldis Chapman struck out George Springer, the Astros’ leading home run hitter, with a man on base to end the game. Four weeks ago in Houston, the Yankees survived eight shutout innings by Justin Verlander and then scored three times in the ninth for another victory. They won Tuesday after Brett Gardner hit a tying home run in the ninth.
While the Astros have put forth the best starting rotation in baseball over the first two months of the season, the Yankees could at least turn to Luis Severino, who continued to burnish his status as one of the American League’s best pitchers — and one who continues to shine against the best.
He had not beaten the Astros in four career starts — including two in the playoffs — until he fired a four-hit shutout in Houston on May 2. He followed that up with another gem Wednesday, allowing only four hits and one walk, while striking out 11.
The only blemish came in the fifth when Marwin Gonzalez laid off a 3-2 slider to draw a one-out walk, and after Evan Gattis grounded out, Max Stassi clubbed a letter-high, 99-mile-per-hour fastball far over the center-field wall. The two-run homer put the Astros ahead, 2-1.
That set the stage for Sanchez — and some good fortune for the Yankees.
With two out and Austin Romine at first, Aaron Judge was jammed by Keuchel and hit a harmless-looking pop-up to shallow right field. But right fielder Tony Kemp was stationed far off the line and had no chance to reach the ball, which plopped into the grass as Romine raced to third.
Keuchel got ahead of Giancarlo Stanton with two quick strikes, but perhaps he was spooked by the two home runs Stanton hit off him in Houston in their last meeting. Or the line drive in the first inning that center fielder Jake Marisnick dove to steal a hit, or the single Stanton lined to center in the third.
Eventually, Stanton drew a walk to load the bases.
Keuchel quickly jumped ahead of Sanchez, 0-2, but could not get him to fish for a sinker just off the plate. Keuchel then came inside with a fastball that Sanchez lined foul down the third-base line, seemingly setting him up to go away again.
But with second baseman Jose Altuve playing on the left side of second base, the chasm on the right side of the infield was too enticing for Sanchez to ignore. He hit the ball just off the end of his bat, and it rolled slowly onto the outfield grass to put the Yankees ahead, 3-2.
“I just threw the bat at it,” Sanchez said through an interpreter. “I got lucky there. To me, it was just putting the ball in play.”
Astros Manager A.J. Hinch, whose team clinched the World Series with a grounder hit into the teeth of a shift, had watched Sanchez strike out three times and fail to hit the ball out of the infield on Tuesday while repeatedly pulling off changeups and curveballs.
“That’s why we play where we play — he doesn’t hit the ball over there, ever, until he does,” Hinch said.
When it was suggested that Keuchel’s sinker off the plate was the only pitch Sanchez might have been able to hit through that gap, Hinch said: “He also swings and misses at that pitch. He also flies out to center on the pitch. He also flies out to right on that pitch. The result wasn’t what we wanted, but we like where we were, we liked that Dallas was one pitch away from getting out of that inning unscathed.”
The Yankees extended their lead with two runs — and some more fortuitously placed hits — in the sixth. Didi Gregorius, who struck out in his first two at-bats against Keuchel, drove in a run with a liner that just eluded a diving Altuve. Another scored on a two-out, bloop double to left by Aaron Hicks.
The Astros got within 5-3 on Stassi’s ringing double against Chapman in the ninth, but on this night it was not the hardest hits that got the job done — just the well-placed ones.
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