HOUSTON — Jose Altuve, the 5-foot-6 star second baseman for the Houston Astros, long ago proved that height doesn’t matter that much. He is a six-time All-Star, three-time batting champion and one-time Most Valuable Player Award winner. This week, he added “thorn in the Yankees’ side” to his résumé.
With his team leading by just one run in the fifth inning on Wednesday, Altuve clobbered a jaw-dropping blast off the light tower in left field at Minute Maid Park. It was his second home run of an 8-6 Houston victory and his fourth of the three-game series, which yielded the first sweep of the Yankees in Astros history.
The Yankees mounted a rally in the top of the eighth inning. Luke Voit hit a two-run home run, D.J. LeMahieu contributed an R.B.I. double and Clint Frazier brought in a run with a sacrifice fly, trimming the deficit to one run. But more mistakes in the field, an underlying theme this season, came back to haunt the Yankees: A throwing error by shortstop Gleyber Torres in the bottom of the frame contributed to a key Astros insurance run.
Before the season, the Astros and Yankees both fancied themselves World Series contenders. Two weeks into a six-month regular season, the Yankees (5-7) have lost three of their four series. Only one of their opponents posted a winning record last season: the Astros.
“We’ve got to tighten it up a little and play obviously a little bit better, but I believe we’re really close to turning the corner,” Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said, adding later: “The intent, the focus, the game plan — I feel like is all there. It’s just a matter of putting it all together. And when we start clicking, we’ll get this baby rolling.”
James Paxton, the Yankees’ biggest off-season acquisition for their rotation, faltered through four innings and surrendered five runs on eight hits to the Astros (8-5). He fell behind hitters but also struggled to put them away when given the chance.
Of Paxton’s 95 pitches, 26 were fouled off, including 14 with two strikes, and just eight were swings and misses.
Although Paxton sputtered, the Yankees trailed by only 3-2 after four innings. In the first inning, Altuve homered and Yuli Gurriel tripled in a run — on a ball that center fielder Brett Gardner slid for and missed.
A first-inning home run by Gardner and a sacrifice fly by LeMahieu in the fourth trimmed the Yankees’ deficit to one run. Then with his team trailing by a run, Boone leaned on Paxton to avoid putting more strain on a taxed bullpen. The decision backfired.
Boone sent his starter, with a pitch count of 91, back out for the fifth inning against the middle of the Astros’ order. The first pitch: a low 94-mile-per-hour fastball that Altuve sent into orbit. Three pitches later, Michael Brantley singled and chased Paxton from the game.
“He was seeing it tonight,” Paxton said of Altuve. “I made some bad pitches to him. Pitches in the middle of the plate. I need to be better with my location. All night, I wasn’t really locating really well.”
Relief pitcher Tommy Kahnle entered and prompted coughed up a two-run blast to Carlos Correa. At the end of the inning, the Yankees trailed by 7-2.
Some help is on the way for the wounded and inconsistent Yankees. C.C. Sabathia, who was several weeks behind his teammates because of off-season surgeries on his heart and one of his knees, is slated to return from the injured list on Saturday against the Chicago White Sox.
Although not returning as soon as Sabathia, other injured Yankees have made some modest progress: Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton (out since April 1 with a left biceps strain) began light swinging on Tuesday, and third baseman Miguel Andujar (out since April 1 with a torn right labrum) began throwing on Wednesday.
Andujar made 25 throws from 60 feet and said he expected to throw again on Friday, as well as swing for the first time since his injury. “It was better than I thought it would be,” he said.
Catcher Gary Sanchez, the Yankees’ best power hitter so far this season, is not on the I.L., but he was out of Wednesday’s starting lineup with what he described as some tightness in his lower legs. Sanchez first felt it during Monday’s game, and he served as the designated hitter on Tuesday.
Sanchez pinch-hit during the eighth-inning rally on Wednesday and struck out. Before the loss, he said hoped to return to the starting lineup on Friday, for the Yankees’ next game.