The Houston Astros figured they were in good hands with Justin Verlander going into Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
Five batters later, everything changed.
With their back against the wall, the New York Yankees slumping offense came to life against the AL Cy Young award candidate, scoring four runs within the first five batters of the game.
The early outburst quickly changed the mood in Yankee Stadium and ultimately changed the outlook for the entire series after New York held on for a 4-1 victory. It was the same story as ALDS Game 4, when Verlander stumbled out of the gate with a chance to close out the Tampa Bay Rays.
The Astros ultimately won the ALDS. They also still lead this series 3-2, but missed a huge opportunity to end it without having to dig deeper into their pitching corps. A well-rested Washington Nationals squad will face the winners in World Series Game 1 on Tuesday. The ALCS will shift back to Houston for Game 6 on Saturday with the possibility of a Game 7 on Sunday still looming.
Justin Verlander’s disaster first inning
In four big swings, the Yankees went from a team that looked defeated 24 hours earlier, to a team with new life.
DJ LeMahieu energized an eerily quiet Yankee Stadium by taking Verlander’s second pitch of the game out over the right-field fence.
That was followed by a hard-hit single from Aaron Judge and a ringing double by Gleyber Torres. After Verlander rebounded to strike out the returning Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks put a stamp on the rally by lining a three-run home run off the right-field foul pole.
Said Verlander of his outing, courtesy of Fox 26 Houston’s Mark Berman:
I wasn't very good. My slider was just hanging. I wasn't able to execute really anything.
I thought I could have made some better pitches. Had some big opportunities. Was able to get the strikeout [on Stanton]. Then I had Hicks in the hole and then I wasn't really able to execute anything. Let him back in the count and hung a slider.
Verlander has been vulnerable to the long ball even when pitching well this season. He’s now allowed 41 home runs combined in the regular season and postseason. That number leads MLB.
Verlander would bounce back to retire 20 of the final 21 batters he faced in Friday’s game, but the damage had been done. One can only wonder how different Game 5 might have looked had Verlander put the clamps down right away.
The Astros offense didn’t offer much support, either. They were mostly silenced by James Paxton after jumping out to a 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning. When they did have chances, they were squandered by going 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position.
Faltered in ALDS elimination game
As noted, this isn’t the first time Verlander has started a potential closeout game for Houston with a flat first inning.
In Game 4 of the ALDS, Verlander was tagged for three first-inning runs in eventual 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
On that day, Verlander was pitching on three days rest for the first time in his legendary career. That undoubtedly played a role in him being ineffective and his lasting only 3.2 innings. He allowed seven hits, walked three and was charged with four earned runs. He was all full rest though coming in ALCS Game 5,
This was the seventh time in 29 postseason starts overall that Verlander allowed four or more runs. Two of those outings have now come among his four starts this October. He hasn’t been the sure thing we’re used to seeing, but Verlander did at least regain his composure to keep his outing from having a lingering impact on the series.
How Verlander helped the Astros in Game 6
Though the Astros never recovered after falling behind in Game 5, Verlander’s performance will help them in Game 6.
The veteran right-hander held the Yankees scoreless over his final six innings. That meant Houston’s bullpen only had to cover one inning. Brad Peacock threw a scoreless, eight-pitch eighth inning. That’s key with both teams going with bullpen games in Game 6. We don’t know yet who will start for either team, but we do know it will be a parade of relievers. Houston’s will be just a little bit fresher after Aaron Boone needed nine outs from three of his key relievers to secure Game 5.
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