Bullpen breakdowns, basepath mishaps add to Yankees’ woes

HOUSTON — The New York Yankees’ season is only 11 games old, and already two troubling trends are forming.

Firstly, the bullpen — long deemed the strength of the team — has struggled. A pair of blown late leads in the past two games have highlighted that issue now more than at even the earliest stages of this still-young season. Evidence of the bullpen woes so far? Three blown saves and 19 runs allowed.

Secondly, sloppy play has become the team’s calling card. Since the start of the season, the Yankees have had trouble stringing together a series of completely clean games, both offensively and defensively.

Baserunning miscues remain a concern, and mental lapses in the field have been a problem. Still, the manager of the team that entered the season with the easiest April strength of schedule believes both bullpen strength and cleaned-up play are at hand.

“We’re prepared, the guys are focused, I love the way the guys are competing, but when you’re not clicking on all cylinders, you’ve got to do the little things. Because every little thing matters,” Aaron Boone said. “It’s important that we learn from every time there is a bump in the road, every time there is a mistake that we learn from it and grow from it. We’re confident we will.

“The bottom line is, we’re really close to playing a good brand and a complete game.”

That complete game didn’t come in a loss Monday night. And it certainly didn’t in Tuesday’s 6-3 defeat.

But the thing is, the Yankees very much needed it both nights. In the middle of arguably their biggest series to this point, it was important they used these games at Minute Maid Park to send an early message. Although much of their first-month schedule is against teams that were sub-.500 last season, the Houston Astros likely will be in the playoff picture once the season ends.

The games on Monday and Tuesday were prime opportunities to put all of baseball on notice: Even with 11 players on the injured list, these Yankees can compete with the best. That message might have turned some heads this week.

And the Bronx Bombers know it.

“When you’re playing a team as good as the Astros, you can’t afford to give up extra outs and make mistakes,” veteran outfielder Brett Gardner said. “They’ll come back to haunt you.”

Indeed, a sequence of puzzling plays Tuesday did come back to bite his squad. Even with 23-year-old starter Jonathan Loaisiga having trouble commanding his fastball and lasting only three innings, the Yankees still took a lead into the late innings.

It was a lead that could have been dramatically larger had it not been for some silly miscues. It was a lead that also got spoiled by another night of ineffective relief pitching.

Not even a week removed from Gary Sanchez being picked off second and third base with a pair of snap throws from opposing catchers, Gardner was at the center of a baserunning mystery in the third inning Tuesday.

With runners at first and second with one out and attempting to make something happen, Gardner laid down a bunt that bounced near the batter’s box and began moving up the first-base line. After taking two quick steps out of the box, Gardner stopped.

Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, meanwhile, reached down and grabbed the ball before it crossed into foul territory, and threw up to second base to nab baserunner Austin Romine in a force out. With Gardner unmoved from where he stopped near home, the Astros completed a double play by throwing to first to get him out.

“Obviously thought it was foul. … But it didn’t go foul,” Gardner said. “Obviously should’ve run to first base, and basically gave them two outs right there. That was a big turning point in the game, and a big mistake on my part.

“[It’s] a perfect example of: You’ve got to finish the play, run to first base. If it’s foul, go back and hit it or whatever. Just a big mistake on my part.”

Perhaps if Gardner beats that bunt attempt out at first base, the Yankees have runners on the corners with one out for Aaron Judge. Already in a game tied 1-1, they may have been able to retake the lead and add more runs that would have proven valuable by the end of the night.

“It’s one of those very uncharacteristic plays for a guy that’s usually very good at the intangible things,” Boone said.

It wasn’t the only uncharacteristic play of New York’s night.

A pair of balls ticked off Clint Frazier’s glove — like he said, “that never happens” — as he dove for them in left field. Additionally, he had a communication issue with Gardner going for a separate ball in the gap that led to a double.

Loaisiga and Gleyber Torres had a moment of temporary confusion, too, as both rushed to third base at the end of a wacky play that resulted in all Astros baserunners being safe. With the Yankees in a heavy defensive shift to the right side with a runner on first, there was no one to cover third when the ball was hit to left field. By the time both Loaisiga and Torres arrived to cover third to nab a sliding Alex Bregman, they were too late to make a solid tag.

Torres was part of another bizarre moment, when he hesitated on an eighth-inning throw home that might have nailed the speedy Tony Kemp. Instead, with the hesitation, Kemp was able to retreat back to third, and eventually score the final run of the 6-3 Houston win.

As out-of-sync and generally shoddy as the Yankees’ play was Tuesday, they didn’t get much help from their men on the mound once the seventh inning arrived.

Jonathan Holder, who at one point last season went 23-straight relief appearances without giving up an earned run, lost the Yankees’ lead that inning when he gave up back-to-back doubles. The first came on one of Frazier’s catch-less dives. Had the two-out liner stuck in Frazier’s glove, Holder would have made it out of the inning unscathed and with the lead intact.

This marked the second straight night that a Yankees lead was lost in the seventh inning. On Monday, New York took a 3-1 lead into the seventh when starter Masahiro Tanaka was replaced after a masterful one-run, three-hit, 78-pitch, six-inning performance.

His initial replacement, lefty Zack Britton, got a quick out before bobbling a grounder hit right back to him that almost certainly would have resulted in an inning-ending double play. Instead, he could get only one out. Two batters later, Chirinos clubbed a double off the right-center wall that drove in two to tie the game.

The Astros won that game an inning later, when a broken-bat grounder into what the Yankees later termed “no man’s land,” slowly dribbled into a spot neither reliever Adam Ottavino nor first baseman Greg Bird could field it and make a play. That scored what proved to be the game-winning run.

Ottavino, who has been used six times already this season, couldn’t keep his season-starting scoreless streak alive. He didn’t think fatigue played a role in his six-batter inning.

“It’s no big deal. I like to pitch a lot. I’ve pitched a lot of games,” Ottavino said. “I’m kind of used to it. I know how to handle it. Certainly not a factor in the game. It’s just some of those things that happen sometimes.”

While base hits to the exactly wrong spots may happen, walks don’t often hit Chad Green’s stat line. They did Tuesday. Normally quite reliable in late-game situations, as his six straight scoreless appearances last April showed, Green could not get out of Tuesday’s eighth inning because of a sudden penchant for issuing free passes.

Two Green walks preceded a bases-loaded double from Houston’s George Springer that gave the Astros all the breathing room they’d need to seal the win.

“I feel good physically. Arm feels good. I was in a good spot when I went out there,” Green said. “[But] whether it’s my mechanics not being in sync, I’m just not attacking guys the right way. I just lost the feel for the baseball right there, and that just can’t happen in that situation.”

Losses like the ones this week — via poor bullpen work and shoddy play in the field and on the bases — have occurred more often than expected at even this point in the season. And as the Yankees keep trying to live up to the lofty expectations before them, they must know these types of losses just can’t happen much more moving forward.

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