Astros beat lifeless Yankees in Game 3, one win away from World Series – USA TODAY

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NEW YORK — The matchup the New York Yankees – or at least their fans – pined for has turned into an overmatch.

A Yankees season defined by sublime numbers – 99 wins, 62 home runs, a record 18th trip to the American League Championship Series – is just nine innings from a quiet vanquishing at the hands of their tormenters.

And as the Houston Astros get further from a championship won in part by illicit means while continuing to dominate the AL, it is getting harder for even the angriest fan to deny them their due.

The Astros are perfect in this postseason, and in Game 3 of this ALCS Saturday, seized upon the foibles of their very imperfect opponent to churn out a 5-0 victory at Yankee Stadium that gave them a commanding 3-0 series lead.

They moved within one win of consecutive World Series appearances and their fourth in six seasons thanks to a familiar victory formula.

Precision pitching, this time from Cristian Javier, who the Astros largely stashed away for this very moment, kept quiet a Yankees lineup that’s batted .161 this postseason and scored just four runs in three ALCS games. Saturday, they managed just three hits.

Opportunistic hitting from a deep lineup, this time a two-run homer from No. 9 hitter Chas McCormick after a two-out dropped fly ball by Yankees center fielder Harrison Bader, staked Javier to more runs than he’d need. A two-run single from No. 8 hitter Christian Vazquez – a catcher making his first ALCS start – capped a three-run sixth inning rally.

And the attention to detail throughout – Vazquez’s perfect catch-and-release to nail Bader on a fifth-inning steal attempt, Yuli Gurriel tagging up from first on a fly to left, enabling him to score on Vazquez’s single – were all part of a nine-inning clinical dissection.

Now, the Astros are 6-0 in this postseason. Sunday, they will send seasoned playoff arm Lance McCullers Jr. to the mound to nail down another pennant and their first four-game playoff sweep in franchise history.

And in a way, it’s an appropriate choice. Five years ago, McCullers notched one of the most impressive postseason saves in baseball history, pitching four innings of one-hit relief to beat the Yankees 4-0 in Game 7 of the 2017 ALCS, kick-starting this run of pennants and propelling the Astros into a World Series they’d win in seven games.

But the illegal sign-stealing that occurred throughout that season and revealed in 2019 cast a pall over that title and stuck to the Astros throughout their dominance since. Yankee Stadium, in particular, has been particularly hard, the home folks feeling their boys were cheated out of the ’17 pennant, and the Astros have caught endless grief here the past two years.

Yet it’s been such an ugly postseason for the Yankees that, by the second inning, they’d forgotten to boo Jose Altuve.

Simply, they were too shocked.

Moments earlier, Bader called off 6-7 right fielder Aaron Judge on Vazquez’s easy two-out fly to right – and Bader dropped it. Ace Gerrit Cole would have to bull through another batter.

And McCormick would make the Yankees pay for the transgression, pasting a 98-mph fastball the opposite way and over the 314 sign in right field, the short porch that’s often the Yankees’ friend suddenly their downfall.

It was 2-0 Astros, and it kind of felt like 20-0.

“That home run helped us a lot,” says Javier. “I think what we just tried to do in that moment was just try to keep the game where it was at.”

They did much better than that.

Cole? He was as good as usual, which is to say he yielded a hurtful home run but also would have been working on a four-hit shutout in the sixth were it not for Bader’s botch. Instead, two hits and a walk to start the sixth finished him, and reliever Lou Trivino gave up all the inherited runners on Trey Mancini’s sacrifice fly and Vazquez’s single.

Meanwhile, Javier showed few signs of inaction. He’s pitched just six times since Sept. 7, a 46-day span that included a mere 1 ⅓ innings in the AL Division Series sweep of the Seattle Mariners. If the Astros were stashing him for this very spot, consider it a wise gambit.

Javier did not allow a ball out of the infield until Giancarlo Stanton’s double in the fourth – the Yankees’ lone hit until the ninth, as it turned out. Per usual, he relied heavily on his fastball, though after 62-home run man Judge fouled off three consecutive heaters in the fourth, Javier simply switched up to a slider and got Judge fanning meekly at the pitch.

Javier ran his streak of hitless innings at Yankee Stadium to 10, including the seven innings of a combined no-hitter on June 25. That matches the White Sox’s Melido Perez in 1990-91 for the longest hitless streak by an opposing pitcher at Yankee Stadium. 

By the time Javier exited in the sixth, the building was quiet. They’ll open it up one more time Sunday – perhaps if only for an enemy’s coronation.