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Yankees’ tone-setting sweep against Astros ‘just the start’�

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Yankees’ tone-setting sweep against Astros ‘just the start’�

Jon Heyman

Jon Heyman

HOUSTON — If this was the series from hell for the Astros (hat tip for the phrase to the great Richard Lewis, RIP), the Yankees, who overcame both injuries and illness in the season-opening set, left here for Arizona in heaven, and in first place, having swept hated Houston in four tough, tense games.

Sure, it’s just the beginning, but this was the kind of magical weekend that can set the tone for the 162 games. The Yankees’ task was monumental, their opponent daunting and their health so-so (at best). And yet, they aced the test.

New Yankees star Juan Soto (yes, him again) lined the winning hit with two outs in the ninth inning off former teammate Josh Hader, who just happens to be the hardest pitcher to hit in major league history. Soto threatens to secure the honor tag of “true Yankee” faster than any other in their storied history, as he finished his first series in pinstripes hitting .529 following his hit to left on Hader’s 3-2 fastball that scored Gleyber Torres for yet another close win — 4-3 — that had to gall the Astros.

Gleyber Torres celebrates with Aaron Boone after scoring the go-ahead run in the ninth inning. Getty Images
The Yankees’ outfielders celebrate after their win against the Astros on Sunday. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

“It just put a bow on the series,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.

That was a nice metaphor, as the weekend was a gift from the baseball gods. Following three comeback victories against the team that’s tormented them (and the rest of the league), the Yankees won yet another late battle of the bullpens, with some superior glovework and a little bit of luck.

Astros star Yordan Alvarez’s bid to win the game on a liner toward left with two on in the ninth was either one or two inches foul (“let’s go with one,” said Yankees left fielder Alex Verdugo.) Then Alvarez followed by flying out to the wall and Kyle Tucker hit a sinking liner that Verdugo managed to corral to secure the Yankees’ perfect 4-0 record.

If the Yankees seem like a one- or two-man band (super sub Oswaldo Cabrera had the series of a lifetime to go with Soto’s heroics), that really isn’t fair. They played without reigning Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole (and seven others on the injured list) but they outplayed the Astros every way imaginable. The Soto-Cabrera combo carried them at bat with Aaron Judge and others just warming up, the pitching against a star-studded lineup was excellent, and the defense mostly airtight.

Newcomer Jon Berti made a nice diving stop in that fateful ninth to turn Jose Altuve’s bid for a winning hit into an out before Alvarez made his own try. And Soto — of course Soto — made another nice running catch earlier.

Josh Hader allowed a single to Juan Soto in the ninth inning that gave the Yankees the lead. Getty Images

They’re enjoying it, but not getting carried away — another positive sign.

“There’s an energy. There’s an excitement. … This clubhouse has a really good vibe right now,” Yankees starter Clarke Schmidt said.

Verdugo celebrated after the final catch, to be expected after the way the fortunate sweep was secured. But considering the accomplishment, the overall reaction seemed slightly muted. That could be because multiple members of the traveling party were feeling some ill effects from the stopover in Mexico City.

Anthony Volpe played through pain the first three games but had to sit out the finalel, and Boone is still recovering. “It hasn’t been the greatest five days, but shaking hands at the end sure helps,” Boone said.

This was among the sweetest sweeps in recent memory, no matter the imbalance in the contributions. Let’s face it, Soto (and Cabrera) did most of the heavy lifting. And it was their good fortune that Soto stepped to the plate again with the game on the line, and no surprise he delivered his second game-winning hit in two days.

“I always want to be up in that situation. That’s what you play for,” Soto said.

Juan Soto reacts after hitting an RBI single in the ninth inning of the Yankees’ win Sunday. Getty Images

The Astros crowd finally understood four days in that Soto was the man they couldn’t beat. When the series started, Judge received by far the loudest boos, but by the end it was basically a dead heat with Soto, who will gladly take the mantle of Astros killer.

Soto annually leads the league in walks but he may lead in hits with the great Judge behind him. There was a base open after Torres singled and stole second with two outs, but no manager would possibly have the guts to intentionally walk the hitter in front of Judge, even if that hitter was Soto and he was hitting .500 at the time, and Judge was off to a slow start (he’s at .111 now.) But Soto is unstoppable now.

“I don’t see why you would ever pitch to that guy,” Judge said of Soto. “But that’s why we got the guys behind him — to make sure they have to pitch to him.”

This lineup is going to be a nightmare for opposing pitchers.

“This is just the start for us,” Verdugo said.

It sure feels that way.

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