NEW YORK — Gerrit Cole is making his pitch to own this October.
A gritty Cole held the New York Yankees scoreless without his sharpest stuff, Jose Altuve sparked Houston at the plate and the Astros locked down a 4-1 victory Tuesday to take a 2-1 lead in the AL Championship Series.
Altuve and Josh Reddick homered early off Luis Severino, who laboured into the fifth while keeping the Yankees close. But they never broke through against Cole, who grinded through seven innings to win his 19th straight decision despite walking five batters for the second time in his career.
"Just boiled down to making some good pitches under pressure," he said.
Cole escaped a bases-loaded jam in the first and stranded nine runners through five, improving to 3-0 with a 0.40 ERA in three playoff outings this year. Poised to become a prized free agent who could command more than $200 million, he's putting together a dominant run that's beginning to rival some of baseball's greatest post-season pitching performances.
The 29-year-old right-hander, unbeaten in 25 starts since late May, allowed four hits and struck out seven. That ended a streak of 11 consecutive games with double-digit strikeouts — the previous big league record was eight. Cole led the majors with 326 Ks this season.
"I think he's the best pitcher in baseball right now," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "Gerrit is locked in. And to see him do it on the big stage in a playoff game with the magnitude of this game, it was pretty awesome."
Game 4 in the best-of-seven playoff is scheduled for Wednesday night — but that could change. The gloomy weather forecast calls for a substantial rainstorm, potentially forcing a postponement that would likely alter pitching plans for both teams.
Gleyber Torres homered in the eighth off Houston reliever Joe Smith, one batter after replay umpires reversed a call and ruled Edwin Encarnación out at first base. That led to a little trash and a ball being thrown onto the field before public address announcer Paul Olden reminded fans not to toss any objects out of the stands.
Roberto Osuna got three quick outs in the ninth for a save.
"Two more to go," Osuna said. "I'm excited."
The bushy-haired Cole grew up in California rooting for the Yankees and was drafted by them 28th overall in 2008. He didn't sign, choosing instead to attend UCLA before the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him with the top pick in 2011.
Making his second career start at Yankee Stadium, he got away with several pitches in key situations. Other times, Cole flashed the filthy breaking balls and 98-100 mph heat that have made him so unhittable in October — and unbeatable since May.
His winning streak is the longest by a pitcher in one year since Rube Marquard began 19-0 for the 1912 New York Giants.
"He's exceptional. And he gets better and better and better," Hinch said. "Once he found his curveball, it was pretty lights out. I think he finished his outing as strong as ever."
After rolling to a 7-0 victory in the series opener, the Yankees — the highest-scoring team in the majors this season — have totalled three runs on two homers in the last 20 innings.
"It's obviously a little frustrating we weren't able to break through with him," manager Aaron Boone said. "But I think up and down we gave ourselves a chance. And anytime you're facing a guy like that, you want that kind of traffic. And we had that in several innings. He made big pitches when he had to."
With two on in the fifth and the Astros clinging to a 2-0 lead, Didi Gregorius lofted a high fly that Reddick caught at the right field fence.
"The emotions kind of followed the flyball, right?" Cole explained. "So it was kind of like low, to freaking out, to not so worried anymore."
The three-time All-Star finally found his rhythm after that, retiring his last seven batters with three strikeouts.
He called his early fastball command "spotty," but his ability to pitch out of trouble prevented a lively sellout crowd of 48,998 from really ever letting loose.
"I mean, we just had to work it," Cole said.
Gregorius also grounded out with the bases loaded to end the first.
"Most of the game was on me," he said. "I didn't come through, so I was the one that failed, not the whole team."
Houston got a rally going in the seventh against scuffling reliever Adam Ottavino. George Springer walked and went to third when Altuve executed a perfect run-and-hit single through the right side.
After savvy baserunning by Springer to stay in a rundown long enough to get runners to second and third, Altuve scored on Zack Britton's wild pitch. Yuli Gurriel made it 4-0 with a sacrifice fly.
LET'S GET IT STARTED
The 5-foot-6 Altuve connected on Severino's third pitch for his fourth homer of these playoffs, extending his post-season hitting streak to 12 games dating to last year.
"I think everybody knows I like swinging the bat," he said. "I don't like wasting too much time on home plate."
Cole has 32 strikeouts in the playoffs while allowing just one run. He joined Astros teammate Justin Verlander (2013 with Detroit) and Kevin Brown (1998 for San Diego) as the only pitchers to whiff at least 30 and permit no more than one run in a three-game post-season span, according to STATS.
Yankees LF Giancarlo Stanton sat out for the second consecutive game because of a strained right quadriceps. He was replaced in the lineup by CF Aaron Hicks, who batted ninth in his first start since Aug. 3 due to a strained flexor near his right elbow. Brett Gardner shifted from centre to left. Hicks went 0 for 2 with two walks.
OUT AT HOME
Plate umpire Jeff Nelson exited with a concussion after taking two foul balls off his mask, causing a 16-minute delay before the fifth inning. Kerwin Danley, who was at second base, went inside and changed into gear to work the plate. Mark Carlson switched from third to second and Marvin Hudson from left field to third. Severino was given additional time to warm up again, and the game proceeded with a five-man crew and no left field ump.
Both teams were planning bullpen games Wednesday night, but a rainout would allow them to bring back the Game 1 starters on full rest in Game 4 if it gets pushed to Thursday.
Yankees right-hander Masahiro Tanaka beat Zack Greinke in the opener last Saturday at Houston, improving to 5-2 with a 1.32 ERA in seven career post-season outings. Tanaka has permitted only one run and four hits over 11 innings in winning both his playoff games this year, while Greinke is 0-2 with an 8.38 ERA in two starts.
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