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Who’s savage now? In this new rivalry, Astros own the Yankees

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The demise of the New York Yankees can be traced to a conference room at the old Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, where baseball’s barons met in 2011 to realign divisions, expand the postseason and approve the $615 million sale of the Houston Astros to Jim Crane, who was awarded the club, at a $65 million discount, on one condition:

That his team becomes a card-carrying member of the American League.

The Astros had spent more than a half century in the National League before moving in 2013, and they trudged off to the AL West lugging with them a most uninspiring past. The Astros had won three playoff series and no World Series titles since they were born, as the Colt .45s, in 1962. The Yankees had won 30 playoff series and eight of their 27 World Series titles in those same 51 years.

In other words, after back-to-back seasons of more than 105 losses, the Astros were nowhere to be found on the House of Steinbrenner’s list of top 105 concerns for the balance of the decade. And yet there the Yankees were in Houston on Saturday night, down and out after Jose Altuve‘s walk-off homer off Aroldis Chapman, eliminated from the MLB playoffs by the Astros for the third time in the last five years.

This six-game American League Championship Series verdict was framed by profound big-picture implications. The Yankees have failed to reach the World Series for the 10th consecutive season, a biblical drought by any Bronx measure. The last time the Yanks had completed a decade without making a single World Series appearance, a man born almost five years before the start of the Civil War, Woodrow Wilson, was sitting in the Oval Office. Meanwhile, the Astros are heading to the Fall Classic for the second time in three years, looking to make the case that they will soon reign as the sport’s latest dynasty.

The Process > The Pinstripes.

Here’s the thing about this ALCS: The Yankees weren’t just beaten by a better team; they were beaten by a better program. Years after making a $15,000 investment in a 5-foot-6 Venezuelan teenager named Jose Altuve, the Astros built their program around first-round draft picks — George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman — and their commitment to landing the two available starters, Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, who might have made the Yankees unstoppable.

Hal Steinbrenner didn’t want to take on Verlander’s money in the summer of 2017, and his general manager, Brian Cashman, didn’t want to trade Miguel Andujar and Clint Frazier for Cole, the former Yankees draft pick, in January of 2018. Those are two conspicuous reasons why today’s Yankees are looking a bit like yesterday’s Knicks, the consistent playoff participant that lost all five series it played against Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls between 1989 and 1996. (The Knicks beat the Jordan-less Bulls in 1994.) Jordan eliminated four different Knicks coaches in that period. His dominance of New York, of course, was easy to see coming.

The Astros’ dominance of New York? Not so much. They went 51-111 in 2013 to run their loss total to 324 games over three seasons, perfecting the art of tanking before Sam Hinkie could get his process-trusting hands on the Philadelphia 76ers. While torturing their fan base, the Astros drafted and developed enough talent to finally post a winning record in 2015, at 86-76, and to claim that extra wild-card spot added that same 2011 day the team was officially sold to Crane and booked for the AL.

Houston defeated the No. 1 wild card, the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium, with Dallas Keuchel and three relievers combining for the shutout that opened a one-way passion play that continued Saturday night. The Astros have now beaten the Yankees in a sudden-death wild-card game, in a Game 7 of the ALCS after being down 3-2 in the series, and in a Game 6 of the ALCS after being up 3-1 in the series. The Astros have now beaten the Yankees with Keuchel as their ace (2015), with Verlander as their ace (2017) and with Cole as their ace (2019).

The Astros have now beaten two Yankees teams managed by Joe Girardi and one managed by Aaron Boone.

“Damn Yankees” was a Broadway musical and movie. It doesn’t matter that “Damn Astros” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The end result in this latest series seemed inevitable a couple of nights ago. After Thursday’s Game 4 disaster, shaped by a series of Little League errors and CC Sabathia’s grim farewell, the Yankees appeared to be waiting for the local coroner to declare them dead. Inside a home clubhouse about as still as a church at midnight, Aaron Judge quietly addressed reporters under a big-screen TV that relayed a message to players to report the following day at 3:30 p.m. “TRAVEL ATTIRE: TRACK SUITS,” the rest of the bulletin read.

Truth is, the Yankees didn’t look like they were preparing to play baseball in Houston. They looked like they were preparing to play golf back home.

Out of left field, they smacked two first-inning homers off Verlander in Game 5, sparing themselves the indignity of losing all three ALCS games in the Bronx and breathing life into Boone’s post-Game 4 forecast that “stranger things have certainly happened. A lot stranger.” Like the 2004 Yankees making history — a year after Boone’s Game 7 dagger against Boston — by losing four straight ALCS games to the haunted Red Sox, who exorcised more than eight decades’ worth of demons and doubts.

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Jose Altuve grazed by pitch, Astros booed in first away game of spring

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Jose Altuve insisted he tuned out the hecklers. He couldn’t avoid a pitch that grazed him.

“He was hit in the foot. That ain’t nothing, you know what I mean?” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said Monday after an 11-1 win over the Detroit Tigers at half-empty Joker Marchant Stadium. “It wasn’t intentional.”

Altuve was loudly booed when he was introduced for his spring training debut, cheered when he struck out and called a cheater by several fans. Quite a difference from past years, when the diminutive All-Star second baseman was among the most popular players in the majors.

But that was before Altuve and his Houston teammates were implicated in the sign-stealing scandal that has rocked baseball.

“We just heard a lot of noise, and that’s it,” Altuve said.

Altuve and fellow starters Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel all played for the first time in the exhibition season. After Houston opened the Grapefruit League in the stadium it shares with the World Series champion Washington Nationals, this was the first time the Astros were away from their complex — providing a taste of the reaction they might receive on the road this year.

“We were focused on playing baseball. We know that we need to go on the field and get ready and prepared for the coming season,” Altuve said. “That’s what we’re thinking about right now.”

Actually, the reception during the visit to Tigertown USA was fairly tame compared to what it figures to be during the regular season.

“What reaction?” Correa said.

Early arrivals in the announced crowd of 4,891 were discouraged by ushers from gathering near the Astros dugout unless they had box seats along the third-base line.

Hecklers aired their voices after batting practice, booing during lineup introductions and each time Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel stepped to the plate. Altuve got some cheers, too, when he was charged with an error for dropping a throw by Bregman from third base on a force play.

The quartet was treated to one more round of boos when they left the game and made the long walk up the first-base line to the visiting clubhouse.

“There’s frustration in the fan base and they have a right to voice their opinion. … The Astros are going to have to wear it for a while, and eventually it’ll move on. But fans are going to voice their opinions and they have a right to,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Those guys understand it over there, and they’re going about their business of getting ready for the season.”

Altuve took a called third strike to a round of cheers in his first at-bat, then lined a crowd-quieting RBI double into the left-field corner his next time up.

Altuve showed no signs of being upset when he was grazed with a pitch by Tigers reliever Nick Ramirez after the batter before him, Myles Straw, homered in the fifth inning. The 2017 AL MVP was replaced by a pinch runner.

Baker planned to play Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel no more than five innings in Houston’s first true road exhibition since a Major League Baseball investigation found the Astros broke rules by illegally stealing signs during their championship season in 2017.

While most of the team made the three-hour trip from West Palm Beach by bus early Monday, Baker said the team’s starting infield traveled the previous day and spent the night in Orlando. Established players rarely make such long road trips in spring training camp.

“That made it easier for them to show up here, and it makes it easier for me to say: ‘Hey, man, do you want to come,'” Baker said before the game, adding he had not tried to prepare Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel about what to expect Monday.

“No, I don’t tell ’em anything. There might not be any noise,” Baker said. “Everybody keeps anticipating noise, and there might not be noise. It’s hard to warn somebody that something’s coming and it never comes because you’ll be looking out for it instead of playing the game. If it comes, you deal with it. If not, you go ahead and live your life.”

Two other Astros were hit by pitches in the late innings, though Gardenhire stressed it wasn’t on purpose.

Earlier, Detroit starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, who fanned Altuve in the first inning, said it wasn’t difficult to block out the booing and heckling and remained focused on playing the game.

“It’s spring training. Honestly, let’s let it die. What’s done is done. I know how everybody feels, but no one is going to change anything now,” Boyd said. “The punishment’s been handed out, the line’s been drawn in the sand. Hopefully that shuts it down, and it’s just best for everyone to move forward. They’ve got to live with it. That’s more than enough punishment.”

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Jose Altuve grazed by pitch, Astros booed as they visit Tigers

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LAKELAND, Fla. — Jose Altuve insisted he tuned out the hecklers. He couldn’t avoid a pitch that grazed him.

“He was hit in the foot. That ain’t nothing, you know what I mean?” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said Monday after an 11-1 win over Detroit at half-empty Joker Marchant Stadium. “It wasn’t intentional.”

Altuve was loudly booed when he was introduced for his spring training debut, cheered when he struck out and called a cheater by several fans. Quite a difference from past years, when the diminutive All-Star second baseman was among the most popular players in the majors.

But that was before Altuve and his Houston teammates were implicated in the sign-stealing scandal that’s rocked baseball.

“We just heard a lot of noise, and that’s it,” Altuve said.

Altuve and fellow starters Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa and Yuli Gurriel all played for the first time in the exhibition season. After Houston opened the Grapefruit League in the stadium it shares with the World Series champion Washington Nationals, this was the first time the Astros were away from their complex — providing a taste of the reaction they might receive on the road this year.

“We were focused on playing baseball. We know that we need to go on the field and get ready and prepared for the coming season,” Altuve said. “That’s what we’re thinking about right now.”

Actually, the reception during the visit to Tigertown USA was fairly tame compared to what it figures to be during the regular season.

“What reaction?” Correa said.

Early arrivals in the announced crowd of 4,891 were discouraged by ushers from gathering near the Astros dugout unless they had box seats along the third base line.

Hecklers aired their voices after batting practice, booing during introduction of lineups and each time Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel stepped up to the plate. Altuve got some cheers, too, when he was charged with an error for dropping a throw by Bregman from third base on a force play.

The quartet was treated to one more round of boos when they left the game and made the long walk up the first base line to the visiting clubhouse.

“There’s frustration in the fan base and they have a right to voice their opinion. … The Astros are going to have to wear it for a while, and eventually it’ll move on. But fans are going to voice their opinions and they have a right to,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Those guys understand it over there, and they’re going about their business of getting ready for the season.”

Altuve took a third called strike to a round of cheers in his first at-bat, then lined a crowd-quieting RBI double into the left-field corner his next time up.

Altuve showed no signs of being upset when he was grazed with a pitch by Tigers reliever Nick Ramirez after the batter before him, Myles Straw, homered in the fifth inning. The 2017 AL MVP was replaced by a pinch runner.

Baker planned to play Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel no more than five innings anyway in Houston’s first true road exhibition since a Major League Baseball investigation found the Astros broke rules by illegally stealing signs during their championship season in 2017.

While most of the team made the three-hour trip from West Palm Beach by bus early Monday, Baker said the team’s starting infield traveled the previous day and spent the night in Orlando. Established players rarely make such long road trips in spring training camp.

“That made it easier for them to show up here, and it makes easier for me to say: ‘Hey, man, do you want to come,'” Baker said before the game, adding he had not tried to prepare Altuve, Bregman, Correa and Gurriel about what to expect Monday.

“No, I don’t tell ’em anything. There might not be any noise,” Baker said. “Everybody keeps anticipating noise, and there might not be noise. It’s hard to warn somebody that something’s coming and it never comes because you’ll be looking out for it instead of playing the game. If it comes, you deal with it. If not, you go ahead and live your life.”

Two other Astros were hit by pitches in the late innings, though Gardenhire stressed it wasn’t on purpose.

Earlier, Detroit’s starting pitcher Matthew Boyd, who fanned Altuve in the first inning, said it wasn’t difficult to block out the booing and heckling and remained focused on playing the game.

“It’s spring training. Honestly, let’s let it die. What’s done is done. I know how everybody feels, but no one is going to change anything now,” Boyd said. “The punishment’s been handed out, the line’s been drawn in the sand. Hopefully that shuts it down, and it’s just best for everyone to move forward. They’ve got to live with it. That’s more than enough punishment.”

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Yankees’ Gerrit Cole strikes out 2 in hitless inning of spring debut

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TAMPA, Fla. — Gerrit Cole struck out two and walked one over a hitless inning in his spring training debut for the New York Yankees against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Monday night.

Cole’s first pitch to Adam Frazier was a 97 mph fastball. After Frazier popped out and Bryan Reynolds struck out, Cole Tucker drew a walk. The right-hander then fanned Josh Bell to finish his outing.

Cole signed a $324 million, nine-year contract as a free agent after going 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 326 strikeouts last season for the AL champion Houston Astros. He has an overall career record of 94-52.

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