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The Long Ball Sinks Justin Verlander, Astros in 6-2 Loss to Yankees

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

So much for those Friday night fireworks.

Fresh off sweeping the Red Sox in Boston earlier this week, the Astros enter September finding themselves amid a three-way battle for the AL West lead. The Yankees with a wave of prospects now on the roster are trying to avoid the cellar in the uber-competitive AL East. With Justin Verlander on the mound, you had to at least feel decent about Houston’s chances in the series opener.

Alas, Verlander’s performance on Friday left much to be desired, as he surrendered six runs — five in the first three innings — across six innings of work. Home runs were the main culprit as DJ LeMahieu, Jasson Dominguez, Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Judge all went yard against last season’s AL Cy Young winner. I mean, it isn’t likely a great night for a pitcher when you see the hard-hit indicator on Statcast look like the one below.

Or this kind of pitch chart.

Considering the struggles elsewhere in the rotation, it is imperative that Verlander and Framber Valdez pitch like, well, Verlander and Framber Valdez. It is one thing for the occasional clunker — it happens in baseball — but the Astros can’t afford many suboptimal starts from their two best starters in a tight division race. An inopportune slump could even put a postseason berth as a potential Wild Card in jeopardy. Am I overreacting to one poor start? Probably. But it is worth pointing out considering how light the club is right now in dependable arms.

Remember that blistering lineup? Well, it also disappeared against Carlos Rodón and the Yankees’ bullpen. It didn’t help matters that Jose Altuve left the game following one plate appearance with a left leg contusion. I’m still wincing after watching that one. It also didn’t help not playing Chas McCormick, who has 197 wRC+ this season against left-handed pitchers. A 169 wRC+ in his career, for the record. In a game following an off day. That was certainly a choice.

Regardless, the rest of the bats didn’t pick up the slack, with only four hits and an xBA of .161. Two runs felt generous considering how New York pitched, with no runs coming across to score following the third inning. If there was a hitting highlight to include in this recap, I guess José Abreu’s solo shot in the bottom of the second is worth sharing.

Ultimately, the Astros let a prime opportunity with Verlander starting to slip away to jump into sole possession of first place in the AL West as both the Mariners and Rangers also lost on Friday. At least they didn’t lose any ground, so there’s that. Houston’s fortunes hopefully improve Saturday with Hunter Brown on the mound opposite of Luis Severino.