Yankees will be haunted by failure to knock out Astros ace Gerrit Cole in ALCS Game 3

NEW YORK — The Houston Astros clubhouse was nearly empty and the music silenced, when Gerrit Cole, dressed in front of his locker, threw his hair back, tied it with a rubber band, closed his eyes, and exhaled.

“That was hairy,’’ he told USA TODAY Sports. “That was real hairy.’’

The New York Yankees were bidding to not only become the first team in five months to beat Cole, but perhaps even knock him out in the first inning at Yankee Stadium.

By the end of the night, they were the ones screaming in sheer anguish, letting Cole escape danger time and time again, losing the pivotal game 4-1.

The Yankees know that the only way they can win this best-of-seven American League Championship Series is by beating co-aces Justin Verlander and Cole at least once.

Well, they’re now 0-for-2 against the Cy Young favorites, and may spend the winter haunted by the game they could have won.

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Cole, who has not lost a game since May 22, barely resembled the guy who has annihilated opposing lineups.

He walked a career-high five batters.

It took him 11 batters to notch his first strikeout, and wound up with only seven strikeouts , his fewest since Aug. 1, ending a record streak of 11 consecutive starts with 10 more strikeouts.

“That was the most impressive thing of all,’’ right fielder Josh Reddick, who homered in the second inning, “that he didn’t have this best stuff, and he put up zeroes.

“It shows you how good and gifted he is as a pitcher.’’

The Yankees had a chance to end Cole’s mystique in the first inning, only for Cole to survive, and be able to laugh it off hours later.

Gerrit Cole talks with Carlos Correa and Martin Maldonado during the first inning. (Photo: Noah K. Murray, USA TODAY Sports)

The Yankees, trailing in the first inning after Jose Altuve’s solo homer, led off with a D.J. LeMahieu single that went through Cole’s legs.

It was no big deal until Aaron Judge followed by hitting a soft grounder to second base. Cole thought he had a double play ball but he spun around and was horrified. The Astros were in a shift, and there was no one between first and second base. The ball lazily rolled into the outfield for a hit.

“I was like, 'Come on, man, give me a break!' ’’ Cole said. “You kidding me?’’

The sellout crowd stood on its feet. They tried to break him right there.

“That was a 10-pound bowling ball from Aaron Judge,’’ Verlander said, “that gets through the infield with nobody out. It could have been a double-play ball.

“Those are the things that if you let it get to you, it snowballs quickly, especially in this environment.’’

Cole, taking a deep breath, quickly settled down. He got Brett Gardner to hit a fly ball to center field. Edwin Encarnacion popped up to second base. But then he walked Gleyber Torres on four pitches, loading the bases for Didi Gregorius.

“I’m there just thinking, 'Don’t throw him a first-pitch heater,' " Reddick said. “ “Please, don’t throw the first-pitch heater. He lives for that.’’’

Cole, believing that Gregorius was ready to come out of his shoes if he threw a first-pitch fastball, pulled out an 82-mph curveball.

“It was the first one I threw all game,’’ Cole said, shaking his head. “I bounced like 15 of them in the bullpen [before the game]. But I said, “Let’s just throw that because if I bounce it, it will look like a fastball, and he swings at those.’’

Instead, the curveball ran inside and jammed Gregorius,, resulting in a lazy ground ball to second base for the final out.

Crisis averted.

“I’m not going to tell you why we threw the pitch,’’ catcher Martin Maldonado said, “but it was the biggest pitch of the game.

“Really, it was the pitch.’’

But the Yankees kept at it.

They had two runners on and two outs in the second inning, only for Cole to strike out Judge on a 90-mph slider.

In the fourth, Cole lost his control and walked back-to-back batters on nine pitchers , only for LeMahieu to line out to center field.

In the fifth inning, he had to wait for nearly 35 minutes before he even took the mound.

Home-plate umpire Jeff Nelson left the game with a concussion after being hit in the fourth inning, and there was a 17-minute delay for Kerwin Danley to put on his home-plate equipment. Then, Cole had to wait even longer as the Astros got a couple of runners on and the Yankees made a pitching change.

“That was the most impressive thing to me,’’ Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said, “dealing with that long layoff and still being able to go deep (into the game).’’

Sure enough, the Yankees would threaten in the fifth, putting two runners on base when Gregorius again stepped to the plate with the chance to make a difference. He jumped on Cole’s first-pitch, 99-mph fastball and sent it deep to right, only for the ball to die just before the fence into Reddick's waiting glove.

It was the last time the Yankees would threaten, with Cole retiring the final seven batters he faced, departing after seven innings and 112 pitches, leaving the bullpen to finish the job.

“That first inning, with everything going on, and to be able to shut it down,’’ Verlander said, “that was the most impressive thing to me. Only the second time pitching at Yankee Stadium. The whole environment. Everything. Just to be able to fight that noise and get out of the first.’’

And, yes, to walk five batters and live to tell about it.

“It's obviously a little frustrating we weren't able to break through with him,’’ Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Any time 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."

The Yankees certainly made Cole work all night, but when all they needed a big hit, they couldn’t get it.

“It seems like those guys are all locked in,’’ Verlander said. “You’ve got to make really good pitches to get them out.’’

But how do you explain those five walks when he hadn’t walked more than three in a game all season?

“That’s postseason baseball,’’ Verlander said. “You never want to give in. In the regular season, I’m sure you go, 'OK, hit it.’ But in the playoffs, you’re not afforded that luxury, especially in a 0-0, 1-1, 2-0 game. Those runs are huge.

“I think when you start stretching [the lead] to three or four runs, you’re able to be more effective in the strike zone.’’

Now, Cole won’t be needed again until Game 7.

Or Game 1 of the World Series.

“Any time you can target another day for him to pitch,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “it feels pretty good. There’s a lot of baseball left to play before that factors in.

“But he’s the best pitcher in baseball right now.

“To see him do it on the big stage with the magnitude of this game was pretty awesome.’’

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