NEW YORK — It might be too little, too late.
But the New York Yankees had to beat Houston Astros righty Justin Verlander to avoid elimination. And on Friday night — in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series — they finally did.
The Yankees stunningly scored four first-inning runs against Verlander en route to a 4-1 victory at Yankee Stadium.
The Astros head back to Houston with a 3-2 series lead as Game 6 looms on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
Still, the Yankees managed to stay alive. And they did so against one of the best pitchers in baseball.
After going down 1-0, thanks to some shoddy defense, the sellout crowd was silent, wondering if this was just going to be a continuation of the Yankees’ meltdown in Game 4.
But it was quickly awoken by red-hot leadoff man DJ LeMahieu, who hit Verlander’s second pitch into the right-field seats to tie the score and send 48,483 fans into a frenzy.
Right fielder Aaron Judge followed with a bullet single to left. Second baseman Gleyber Torres then stroked a double to left. And after designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton struck out, Verlander hung a 3-2 slider that center fielder Aaron Hicks drilled off the right-field foul pole for a three-run shot to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead.
“We were feeding off the crowd,” Judge said. “They came out and did their part tonight — especially against one of the best pitchers in the game, one of the best pitchers to ever live.”
Verlander had allowed only three runs combined in his previous three ALCS starts against the Yankees as a member of the Astros, striking out 28 in 22 2/3 innings.
Game 5 marked the first time he’d ever surrendered two homers in a single inning in his postseason career.
“My fastball command wasn’t very good and my slider was just hanging,” Verlander said. “I just wasn’t able to execute really anything.”
The Yankees were able to take a 2-1 lead on Verlander in Game 2 on Judge’s two-run shot in the fourth. But they couldn’t hold it despite having the Astros right where they wanted them. It’s the one that got away, the one they’ll look back on with regret if they can’t pull off a miracle comeback.
Still, what they did on Friday night was impressive — all things considered.
“I knew were were going back to Houston when I woke up,” Judge said.
After going a combined 1-for-23 with runners in scoring position and stranding 29 runners on base in Games 2-4, the Yankees had a meeting on Friday afternoon. The message was that their hitters needed to get back to doing what they do best — controlling the zone, getting into favorable counts, and doing damage when they got pitches to hit.
“We’re always dangerous,” Judge said. “Win or loss. But especially coming off a loss [in Game 4] we wanted to come out there and show what this team is about.”
The Yankees did so in the opening frame, with Hicks delivering the decisive blow. And the craziest part of that is Hicks wasn’t even supposed to be on the roster. It appeared he was going to need Tommy John surgery. But his elbow kept improving, and he ultimately sent a video to the team’s training staff showing that he was healthy enough to rejoin the Yankees for the ALCS.
His at-bats since his return have been terrific. He’s shown his usual good eye at the plate, while working deep counts.
“It was kind of one of those random things for me,” Hicks said. “It got to a point where I got my second opinion and it was the worst thing to hear. I mean, to hear you’re going to have Tommy John and your season is going to end isn’t what you want.
“Good thing I was messing around in my backyard with my buddy and kind of started throwing. Because if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here and have this opportunity to play in the postseason and grind for my team.”
Hicks wasn’t fazed by Verlander’s plus heater or breaking stuff. He controlled the zone, worked the count in his favor, got his pitch, and didn’t miss it.
Then, of course, he pimped it.
“I felt like I hit it well,” Hicks said. “I stayed inside the ball well enough for it to be fair. And [watching the ball fly] is kind of like my thing. Kind of staying up on home runs like that — especially when I know I got it. It definitely had a lot more spin on it than I thought but it was able to stay fair.”
Verlander went on to retire 20 of the next 21 hitters he faced, saving the Astros’ bullpen heading into a bullpen day in Game 6.
And that could prove to be significant.
Even so, the Yankees finally beat Justin Verlander, allowing their season to survive.
At least for another day.
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