HOUSTON -- One man's heaven can be another man's hell, as the New York Yankees might have learned in falling short once again in the American League Championship Series by losing to the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park.
The Yankees' 2019 playoff run ended abruptly Saturday night with a 6-4 loss to the Astros in Game 6 of the ALCS, the same stage at which they were eliminated two years ago. Counting Houston's wild-card win over New York in 2015, the Astros have eliminated the Yankees from the postseason in three of the past five seasons.
"I feel like we are on equal footing with them. Unfortunately, sports can be a little bit cruel for the team that goes home, and such can happen in the series," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. "But the work never ends. And we'll continue to try and I guess close that gap or put ourselves in a position to get over the hump. I know everyone in our room believes we will, and we'll have a lot of battle scars when we do finally get to the top of that mountain."
A 103-win season, claiming the AL East for the first time since 2012, prevailing over an unprecedented rash of injuries and opening postseason play with a remarkable sweep of the Minnesota Twins all meant nothing to the Yankees as they bowed out of the playoffs with a single swing from Jose Altuve off closer Aroldis Chapman.
"It's a failure," a dejected Aaron Judge said. "In spring training, we talked about winning the division and putting ourselves in a good spot in the postseason to win a World Series. We came up short. No matter how many games we won in the regular season or what else we did, this season is a failure."
The Astros return to the World Series, and the Yankees are left to rue the many missed opportunities they had in the ALCS, from failing multiple times with runners in scoring position -- their big bats disappearing when it mattered most -- to seeing their main strength, the bullpen, held responsible for two walk-off losses.
For the first time since the 1910s, the 27-time world champions will finish a calendar decade without an appearance in the Fall Classic. This was the fourth time that the Yankees lost a League Championship Series since they last won the World Series in 2009.
"This was very difficult. I never expected to have a series like that," said designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion, who batted .056 (1-for-18) with 11 strikeouts. "That loss really hurt us -- and hurt a lot more for me -- because we know we have a team that can win the World Series, and to lose the way we lost and me underperforming the way I did, it's going to hurt me a lot for a long time."
The Astros took a first-inning lead on Yuli Gurriel's three-run home run off season-long bullpen stalwart Chad Green. The Yankees' offense left eight men on base and had only one hit with runners in scoring position, mounting a last-gasp rally in the ninth inning with a game-tying, two-run homer from DJ LeMahieu before Altuve responded with a two-run home run of his own.
Brett Gardner -- the last reminder of the Yankees' past glories, having earned a ring as part of the championship team in 2009 -- gave credit to the Astros for outperforming the Yankees in the series.
"It's baseball. Obviously, DJ with a huge swing of the bat to tie the game back up. And then, just a roller coaster right back down to the bottom in the bottom of the inning," said the 36-year-old outfielder, who might have worn pinstripes for the last time. "It's tough. It's a tough year. We fought as hard as we could all year long. This definitely isn't how we thought this would end. Even yesterday, going into the game down 3-1, still felt good about our chances. It just didn't end up the way we wanted. We came up short."
It was an abrupt end for the Yankees, whose championship expectations were at an all-time high after their "next man up" mantra got them through an injury-riddled season. They firmly believed they had a better team than the 2017 edition that lost to the Astros and the one that was eliminated in the ALDS by the Red Sox last year.
The mighty Yankees bullpen also got "out-bullpenned" in Houston. The Yankees were 12-5 this season when they used an "opener," the best such record in MLB, but they were beaten at their own game in Game 6, with Green giving up three runs and Chapman not able to exorcise his postseason demons at Minute Maid Park in what was his second walk-off loss of the ALCS.
"When [Altuve] hit that, I couldn't believe it," Chapman said. "I didn't think he could get a hit like that at that time and walk us off in such a manner. But that's baseball. He's a great hitter, and I didn't do my job. That's why we lost."
Now there will be no more talk of "savages in the box" or "next man up" -- just an offseason to think about all the missed chances, including going 6-for-35 (.171) with runners in scoring position, and to ponder where it all went wrong.
"We just weren't able to capitalize on offense. Me especially. All series long," Judge said. "It's the biggest thing I look back on -- that we left eight or nine in this game on base. Even throughout the whole series, we left a lot of guys on base and had a lot of missed opportunities. Houston capitalized on theirs. They got guys on base. They capitalized with a big homer or a big hit. That was the difference in the series."