Richard Justice: Tense, tortured, beautiful baseball as the Astros inch closer to another World Series.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by John Angelillo/UPI/Shutterstock (13482090e) Houston Astros starting pitcher Framber Valdez is congratulated as he returns to the dugout after striking out the side in the seventh inning against the New York Yankees in game two of their American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park in Houston on Thursday, October 20, 2022. Alcs Yankees Astros, Houston, Texas, United States – 20 Oct 2022

Richard Justice: Tense, tortured, beautiful baseball as the Astros inch closer to another World Series.

   This has been tense, tortured, beautiful baseball played by the Astros. Historic, too. No team in history had ever played five consecutive postseason games decided by one or two runs. These are contests that test a team’s poise and confidence and who knows what else.

   That your Astros won all five of them, that they’re at their best when the stakes are highest and lights brightest, that they’re once more two victories from a fourth World Series in six seasons, is all that matters, right?

   To let it slip away now, the Astros would have to lose four of five against a team they’ve dominated this season, winning seven of nine. (All nine of those games were decided by three runs or fewer. But in 82 innings, the Yankees only led twice, both times after walk-off hits by Aaron Judge.)

   The Yankees get their chance to change the best-of-seven American League Championship Series when they hand the baseball to Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortes in Games 3 and 4 at Yankee Stadium on Saturday and Sunday. The Yankees were a MLB-best 57-24 at home during the regular season, but the Astros had the American League’s best road record at 51-30.

   So far, the Astros have done what they had to do in winning Games 1 and 2 at home. For this, they can thank the best pitching staff on the planet, one that has so far neutralized the Yankees and baseball’s second-highest scoring offense.

   The Astros won Game 2 by the score of 3-2 on Thursday night at Minute Maid Park because Framber Valdez allowed only two unearned runs in seven innings, because Alex Bregman hammered a three-run home run in the third and because an Aaron Judge shot in the eighth inning landed in Kyle Tucker’s glove at the base of the right-field wall.

   Had that ball cleared the fence, this series might look dramatically different. The Astros would be headed to Yankee Stadium for three games with the series tied at a game apiece. Only that’s not how it played out.

The Astros did just enough to win again. Even with Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez not hitting. Even with Valdez committing two errors that accounted for both New York runs. Anyway, here we are. The Astros have struck out the Yankees 30 times in the first two games and held Judge to a single in eight at-bats.

   Like Justin Verlander in Game 1, Valdez struggled in the early innings before finding his curveball in the third inning and taking control of the game (other than his two errors that allowed the Yankees to score twice in the fourth inning).

   He walked none and struck out nine in seven innings. The Yankees swung and missed at his curveball 16 times, the most against the curveball in a postseason game in baseball’s pitch-tracking era (2008), according to‘s Sarah Langs.

   This isn’t how it started. He couldn’t get his curve in the strike zone and fell behind 2-0 or 2-1 against six of the first eight Yankees. Four of them hit balls 98 mph or harder, all outs.

   Astros pitching coach Josh Miller urged Valdez to keep throwing his curve. Afterwards, Martín Maldonado said Valdez was “babying” his best pitch.

   And then in the third inning, something clicked. Game. Set. Match. Seven of his nine strikeouts came after the third, five on curveballs. He struck out the side in his final inning, the seventh, using his curve on 13 of 16 pitches.

   “The first two innings I felt I was a little bit cold,” Valdez said. “I wasn’t fully warmed up. The roof was open. It’s something that we’re not used to playing with…”

    Manager Dusty Baker summoned right-hander Bryan Abreu to pitch the eighth, an indication of two things: One is that Abreu has pitched well enough to gain Baker’s trust in the highest-leverage situations. Also, Baker has to manage his bullpen differently from previous postseasons because the Yankees and Astros could play five straight days beginning Saturday. Games 6 and 7 would be back at Minute Maid Park.

   Abreu’s close call came with a runner on first and one out when Judge hammered a slider 106.3 mph and sent Tucker to the wall to catch it. Pitch tracking estimated the ball would have been out of only one park: Yankee Stadium.

   Yankees manager Aaron Boone said the roof being open (an MLB decision) probably kept the ball in the park. Regardless, Abreu got through the eighth, and Pressly picked up his second save in as many nights.

  The Astros have scored 16 of their 20 postseason runs on home runs, which probably is a tribute to the quality of pitching and how difficult it is to string hits together to sustain a rally. Before Bregman’s homer in the third inning, the Astros had been 0 for 19 with runners in scoring position.

   “We want to create runs in many different ways, but sometimes it’s the home run,” Bregman said. “They’ve got a really tough pitching staff over there. They’re really good. So we’re just trying to scratch and claw and battle and try and fight.”

   This postseason, 46.2% of all runs have been scored via the home run, and teams that out-homer their opponents are 16-5. The Astros have gotten three of their five postseason wins by one run and two by two runs. That slim margin of victory is unprecedented.

   According to Langs, here are the five smallest margins of victory in a five-game postseason stretch:

   2022 Astros: +7

   1999 Braves: +8

   2021 Braves: +9

   2011 Rangers: +9

   2005 White Sox: +9

   Teams with a 2-0 lead in a best-of-7 postseason series have gone on to win 74 of 88 times in MLB history.

      Before Game 1, Cole discussed the traits that make his former team special. In three games against them, he’s 1-1 with a 1.17 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 23 innings.

   “It’s tough to narrow it down to one thing,” he said. “But probably one characteristic that connects all the dots is the way that they play together. So whatever it is in any given game, they’re going to try to gang tackle you, really. And they play until the whistle blows, like they say in the NFL or something like that. It’s just a very team-oriented mentality. And I find that that’s really a commonality amongst any good teams or any teams that are getting this deep in the postseason.

   “But certainly it’s just at another level of familiarity with them, with the type of veterans and the type of players that they have had in all these big situations over all the years. So that’s what got them to the level that they are at and it’s what sustains them probably.”

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