HOUSTON -- The tenuous situations the Astros found themselves in on Wednesday night were exactly why general manager Jeff Luhnow made it the top priority to improve the bullpen last winter by signing veterans Chad Qualls, Matt Albers and Jesse Crain.
The Astros watched too many late leads slip away in 2013 -- they tied the Majors with 29 blown saves -- and watched too much confidence erode when their young relievers couldn't close the door after the team had battled for eight innings.
Meet the Astros' new-and-improved bullpen.
Albers struck out four of the five batters he faced late in the game, and second-year reliever Josh Fields worked a 1-2-3 ninth to secure the save and lock down the 3-1 win over the Yankees at Minute Maid Park.
By winning their first series over the Yankees, the Astros are 2-0 for the first time since 2003 and can sweep New York with a win on Thursday. They're two games over .500 for the first time since they were 3-1 in 2012.
"It's a lot of fun, we're having a good time, and it's real loose down there," Fields said. "I felt like last year it kind of got a little bit tight in the 'pen, especially toward the end of the season, and we knew we were kind of struggling. This year feels loose, and those veteran guys are taking over, and it's nice to see."
Dexter Fowler proved to be a catalyst once again at the top of the lineup, going 2-for-4 with a pair of extra-base hits for the second game in a row. He led off the game with a homer, and tripled and scored in the third to give the Astros a two-run lead.
That was good enough for starter Jarred Cosart, who threw five scoreless innings in his first career appearance against the Yankees. Combined with Scott Feldman's Opening Day performance, Astros starters have started the season with 11 2/3 scoreless frames.
"No one expected us to come in here and win a series against the Yankees, and no one expected much from us period, so it's just staying motivated," Cosart said. "We know what we can do as a team, and if we can keep playing together like this and keep finding ways to win games, who knows what could happen?"
Four relievers combined to hold the Yankees to three hits and one run in four innings, but no one was more impressive than Albers.
The Astros were leading, 2-1, in the seventh when manager Bo Porter called upon Albers with a runner at first base and two outs. Albers struck out Derek Jeter swinging to escape the inning, then gave up a leadoff double to Carlos Beltran in the eighth before coming back with three consecutive strikeouts -- fanning Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira and Alfonso Soriano.
"Albers was absolutely outstanding tonight," Porter said. "To come in and get those big outs there in the seventh and then go back out and shut it down in the eighth the way he did, he was able to kill the momentum they were starting to gain. Those were two break points that were swung into our favor."
The key in the eighth, Albers said, was the breathing room provided when Matt Dominguez blasted a two-out, opposite-field homer to right in the seventh, pushing the lead back to two runs.
"I knew I could be aggressive," Albers said. "With that guy on second, I'm thinking if I can keep it to one run, I can be all right. I was able to get some swings and misses right there and was able to get out of that without any runs."
Fields, the only pitcher to stay in the Astros' bullpen all of last season, can already notice a difference in the vibe among the relief corps.
"They're doing a great job of taking the younger guys under their wings and doing a great job of leading," Fields said. "Having Qualls and Albers down there, it's a lot of fun. They're keeping it loose, and we're laughing and having a good time, and in the clubhouse, too. It's fun to be a part of that and fun to be a part of a bullpen that's loose and having a good time. It makes it easier to go out there and get the job done."
Cosart has been leaning on some veterans, too. He spent about three hours with Feldman two days prior to this start going over the Yankees' hitters. He relied a lot on his curveball on Wednesday and didn't walk a batter, which is a huge positive after he had more walks than strikeouts in last year's 1-1, 1.95 ERA, 10-start debut.
"My biggest goal coming into this year was to cut down on the walks," Cosart said. "When I got behind tonight, I told myself, 'I'm not going to walk them. Let's get back in the zone and work on what we've worked on all Spring Training and all offseason.' That's kind of what happened."
The only run the Yankees scored came in the seventh, when pinch-hitter Yangervis Solarte hit into a 4-6-3 double play with runners at first and third and no outs, scoring Brett Gardner. New York went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
"We had some opportunities late in the game, and we didn't come through," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Solarte hits the ball really hard, and it ends up being a double play. We get a runner on second with nobody out, and we're not able to get him in. That'll change."