HOUSTON — With a chance to win the season series against the Yankees, Astros manager Dusty Baker managed the first game of Thursday afternoon’s doubleheader at Minute Maid Park like it was a winner-take-all Game 7 in October.
Baker, not worrying about availability of his pitchers in Game 2, ran out his four best relief pitchers after starter Cristian Javier’s five innings and all but emptied his bench in the ninth inning. The urgency paid off when JJ Matijevic scored Alex Bregman from third base with an infield single in the bottom of the ninth for a 3-2 walk-off win over the Yankees.
“We were trying to chase a team and wanted to really win this first game, and that put us in a position that if we end up tied, we won the tiebreaker,” Baker said. “We really didn’t want to take that into the second game. We went through our bullpen in the first game and that’s why it was important for us to win it, because I don’t know if these guys are available or not for the second game, the back end of our bullpen.”
The Astros clinched the regular-season series over the Yankees, going 4-2 against the Bronx Bombers heading into Game 2 of the twin bill. The Reds, who took two of three in New York earlier in July, are the only other team so far to have won the season series over the Yankees. Houston pulled to within 3 1/2 games of New York for the best record in the American League with its 60th win of the season.
If the teams finish the regular season tied, the Astros would get home-field advantage for a possible showdown in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series. In the 2017 ALCS, the home team won all seven games between the clubs, with the Astros advancing, and Houston got a walk-off homer from Jose Altuve in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS to win the pennant.
“I’m aware of that, but it doesn’t change the fact that we’re going to try to win this game and win the night game,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We’re in the business of being the best team we can be right now and trying to win every time we are out there.”
The Astros and Yankees split four games in June in a terrific series at Yankee Stadium, with the Yankees securing bookend walk-off wins. Houston threw a combined no-hitter on June 25, in which Javier started and struck out 13 in seven innings. The Astros beat the Yankees, 2-1, in a makeup game at Minute Maid Park on June 30.
“Home-field advantage is a great thing for the playoffs, and playing here in the playoffs and in front of the amazing fans goes a long way,” Matijevic said.
That point isn’t lost on Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely important,” he said. “It’s definitely news to watch us play each other, but at the end of the day, we got to stay ahead of them on our home field and every game is important.”
After Javier struck out three and allowed one run on two hits and four walks over five innings, Houston had a 2-1 lead entering the ninth inning before Isiah Kiner-Falefa tied the game on a two-out RBI single off reliever Héctor Neris, who was trying to close out the game in place of Ryan Pressly (paternity leave).
The Astros loaded the bases with one out, which became two outs when Chas McCormick struck out. Matijevic came off the bench and stroked a 1-1 changeup towards the left side of the infield. The pitch broke his bat and wasn’t hit hard, so the Yankees had no chance to get Matijevic or anyone else.
Bregman scored easily from third base for the Astros’ first walk-off win since Yordan Alvarez hit a homer to beat the Royals on July 4. It’s the 11th last at-bat win of the year for the Astros — the most recent came a week ago on July 14, when Jeremy Peña’s go-ahead RBI single in the 10th helped defeat the Angels, 3-2.
“That was great, especially after we had opportunities,” Baker said. “The bullpen did a great job. That was an exciting win for us and the fans and for JJ I was happy for JJ Like I said, we had a couple of opportunities before that. We’ll take it.”