Yankees turn to Gerrit Cole as HR-heavy offense falters

HOUSTON (AP) — The Yankees’ season keeps coming down to Gerrit Cole.

New York’s $324 million man will take the mound at Yankee Stadium on Saturday with New York trailing the Houston Astros 2-0 in the AL Championship Series.

He beat the Guardians in the Division Series opener and, with the Yankees trailing 2-1 in the best-of-five series, won Game 4 at Cleveland to force the series back to the Bronx. Cole was warming up in the bullpen at Yankee Stadium when New York finished off Cleveland and looked ahead to pitching at home.

“I got showered with beer and hit in the head with french fries as we got the last out,” he said. “So there’s a part of every baseball player that I think just really enjoys making the fan base happy, just enjoys making the people in the ballpark happy.”

New York’s streak of 23 postseason games with a home run ended with Thursday night’s 3-2 loss, a defeat that forced the Yankees to win at least twice at home just to extend the series to Houston. They look to Cole and Nestor Cortes on Sunday to get back to even.

“We just got to go home and get one. It starts with that,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Certainly feel no one better than Gerrit to hand the ball to get us right back in this.”

New York’s offense has been reliant on home runs throughout the postseason, scoring 18 of 24 runs on 11 long balls. It’s no change from the season, when the Yankees drove in a major league-high 50.8% of their runs on homers — the big league average was 39.8%.

“You hate to live and die by the home run, but you’ll take ‘em when you get ‘em,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.

Contact has been lacking: The Yankees are hitting .138 (9 for 65) in the two games against the Astros and have struck out 30 times to Houston’s eight, dropping New York’s batting average to .169 in seven postseason games. The Yankees have had six hits or fewer in nine straight games dating to the last two games of the regular season at Texas.

“We got to score. Swing and miss or — the idea ain’t just to touch it. You got to touch it in situations,” Boone said, “They’re about as tough as there is to score against.”

New York has thrown just 13 pitches all year when leading the Astros — all by Jameson Taillon in the second inning of Game 2. While the Astros went 5-2 against New York during the regular season, the Yankees’ only leads were on walk-off hits by Aaron Judge.

Cristian Javier or Lance McCullers Jr. is likely to start Game 3 for the Astros, seeking their fourth AL pennant in six seasons — and their third ALCS win over the Yankees in that span.

Cole, in the third season of his nine-year deal, earned his fifth All-Star selection but struggled with home runs in the second half and wound up allowing an AL-high 33. Counting the two outings against Cleveland, he has given up at least one long ball in 10 consecutive starts.

Both Guardians homers, by Steven Kwan and Josh Naylor, were solo shots — during the season Cole gave up eight two-run homers and seven three-run drives. He dominated other than the long balls, with a 2.03 ERA, 16 strikeouts and three walks.

Houston put up a crooked number against Luis Severino when Alex Bregman hit a three-run homer on a third-inning fastball he didn’t elevate enough.

“It wasn’t a terrible pitch at all,” Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka said. “I guess in a perfect world it could be higher.”

Severino oddly cited how the exit velocity on Bregman’s homer (91.8 mph) was exceeded by Aaron Judge on an eighth-inning flyout caught by Kyle Tucker at the top of the right-field wall (106.3 mph).

“I threw a good pitch,” he said. “They hit a 91 and Judge hit a 106, and it didn’t go out.”

Judge never expected his drive to cut through the wind, not with the Minute Maid Park roof open.

“I hit it to the wrong part of the park, that’s for sure,” he said. “I was pout there for seven, eight innings on defense and so I kind of felt that wind kind of howling, so the minute I hit it, I knew kind of what the result would be.”

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