Are suddenly vulnerable Astros headed for another playoff collapse?


NEW YORK – The 2015 Houston Astros stunned baseball followers by getting into the playoffs, then had the postseason-tested Kansas City Royals on the ropes before letting them escape in a five-game defeat in the division series.

Players from that club believe this year will be different, pointing to the addition of key veterans as stabilizing forces.

But another difference from two years ago looms over the Astros now, and it will become an even bigger factor if they fail to win Wednesday after blowing a four-run lead in two late innings during Tuesday’s 6-4 loss to the New York Yankees, which tied the American League Championship Series 2-2.

Having squandered a two-game lead in the series and gotten outscored 14-5 in the last two days, the Astros may start feeling increased pressure in a postseason in which they’ve never trailed in a series.

This is no longer the plucky underdog that was coming off six consecutive losing seasons, but rather a powerhouse that won 100 games for only the second time in franchise history. Yet the club is suddenly looking quite vulnerable, its bullpen a source of great consternation.

No wonder manager A.J. Hinch felt compelled to remind anyone who would listen that, “The series wasn’t over after two games. It’s certainly not over after four.’’

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True, but it underwent a dramatic momentum shift in a couple of innings, just when Houston appeared ready to take a 3-1 series lead, with Yankee killer Dallas Keuchel ready to finish off the job in Game 5.

Ahead 4-0 in the seventh and riding a one-hit gem by starter Lance McCullers, the Astros came apart due to a spectacularly ineffective bullpen – also a bugaboo in 2015 – and a critical play that extended the Yankees’ four-run eighth. When it was all over, New York had battered relievers Chris Devenski, Joe Musgrove and Ken Giles for six hits and five runs in a mere 1 1/3 innings.

That’s how championship dreams are squelched.

To their credit, the Astros did not point fingers and instead made an effort to put this ugly loss behind them as soon as possible.

“If you start looking back and analyzing this game and you don’t clear out your mind and look toward tomorrow’s game, it could affect you,’’ said first baseman Yuli Gurriel, whose bases-clearing double put Houston ahead 3-0 in the sixth. “We just need to come out determined to win tomorrow and erase this one, take it as if we lost 8-0, not like they came back on us.’’

Oh, but the Yankees did, and one play in particular could have prevented such a huge eighth inning. With the Astros ahead 4-2, pinch-hitter Chase Headley followed Todd Frazier’s leadoff single with a line shot to the left-center gap. Headley stumbled and fell making a wide turn off first and seemed like a dead duck, but when shortstop Carlos Correa threw to first, Headley scampered to second and barely beat Gurriel’s throw to Jose Altuve.

Had Correa run toward Headley, he would have frozen the runner and surely gotten the out. But he didn’t realize where Headley was right away.

“I had my back to the play and I hear, ‘One, one,’ so I throw to Yuli and obviously he threw to second and he beat it out,’’ Correa said. “Good baserunning on his part.’’

Not entirely. The play was close enough to get reviewed on video, which confirmed the safe call. But the outcome likely would have been different had Altuve come meet the throw instead of backing off.

Altuve explained why he did: “He made a really good throw, but I’m 5-5 and Headley is like 6-something (6-2). He kind of blocked me, so I decided to take a step back to make sure I catch that ball, because if I don’t do it I don’t think I would have caught that ball.’’

Instead of a runner on third with one out, the Yankees had runners at second and third with no outs. Enter closer Giles, who got Brett Gardner on an RBI groundout but then gave up a tying double to Aaron Judge, a hard single to Didi Gregorius and a ringing two-RBI double to Gary Sanchez that put New York ahead 6-4.

Ballgame.

A crushing loss? It doesn’t have to be, Altuve said.

“Maybe a team like the 2015 one would fall apart in a situation like this,’’ said Altuve, one of the stars of that club. “But because we have players like Carlos Correa and Brian McCann, we know they’re going to be there tomorrow supporting us and boosting our spirits.’’

And that has some value, but not as much as having Houston’s key players start to produce in clutch situations. The Astros are 4-for-19 with runners in scoring position in the series, 2-for-13 at Yankee Stadium.

Correa, who delivered the game-winning double off a 99-mph fastball from Aroldis Chapman in Game 2, left the bases loaded each of the last two nights, popping up once and striking out the other time. Of the 16 pitches he saw Tuesday, only four were in the strike zone. He went 0-for-4.

“I’ve noticed it,’’ Correa said. “I’ll have to come in tomorrow and make the necessary adjustments to stay within the zone. It’s part of the game. Some games you see the ball better and others not as well. I’ll just have to focus tomorrow.’’

They’ll all have to.

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