The Astros had no worries entering American League Championship Series Game Five. Other than winning. And maybe the prospect of yet another tiny but noisy pack of Yankee Stadium creatures discovering that maybe Justin Verlander did something naughty before he became one of his generation’s greatest pitchers.
If the Yankees’ least civilised fans could hammer Game Four starter Zack Greinke over his too-real anxiety and clinical depression issues, never mind Greinke saying no, he didn’t hear it, God and His servant Lou Gehrig only knew what they’d try if they discovered Verlander turned up with so much as an unpaid parking ticket in his past.
Playing the Yankees with a trip to the World Series on the line is one thing. To a man the Astros consider that a high honour. “We don’t want to take anything for granted,” said second baseman Jose Altuve after they helped themselves to a heaping Yankee implosion in Game Four. “We want to make sure we win tomorrow. We’re playing against a great team.”
A great team that entered Game Five after a night on which they looked like they couldn’t decide between being the 1962 Mets and the Washington Generals. Not even during the lowest days of their 1965-75 low or the most insane days of George Steinbrenner’s King of Hearts act of the 1980s did the Yankees look that inept.
The Astros are too kind to say the Game Four Yankees looked like they had Abbott catching Costello, the four Marx Brothers in the infield, the Three Stooges in the outfield, Charlie Chaplin coaching first base, Buster Keaton coaching third, and the cast of legendary radio dumb fest It Pays to Be Ignorant in the bullpen. With Allen Funt (Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!) managing them.
Whom would the Yankees resemble in Game Five? Would it be sock-it-to-me time in the south Bronx with the Yankees throwing their own buckets of water over each other? Maybe they’d pratfall to the mound, the bases, the outfield, hollering “Live from New York—it’s Friday night!!”
It’s not that the Astros were entirely without concerns of their own. Verlander may be a Hall of Famer in waiting but even he’s only human. The Rays proved that when Verlander started Game Four of their division series on a mere three days’ rest for the first such short-rest start of his life. And, was had.
Normally, Verlander only human is still better than many if not most. With a trip to the World Series on the line, the last thing the Astros needed for Friday Night Live was a merely human Verlander.
They needed a reasonable facsimile of the Hall of Famer in waiting who entered Game Five with a lifetime 2.89 ERA when he faces the same team twice in a postseason contest. They needed a reasonable facsimile of the Verlander who had a lifetime 1.05 ERA in three previous lifetime shots at closing out a postseason series.
The Astros got that reasonable facsimile Friday night. The trouble was that they had to wait until after the first inning to get it. And that was after the top of the first looked as though it was going to be another round of Yankee slapstick handing the Astros their World Series trip.
When George Springer shot a leadoff grounder under Yankee starter James Paxton’s glove that second baseman Gleyber Torres couldn’t barehand, and Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez allowed him to second on a passed ball, the fun looked like it was beginning for the Astros again. And, like it would continue after Springer reached third on a Jose Altuve ground out and scored on a wild pitch off Sanchez’s knee.
You’d have forgiven the Yankee Stadium public address people for sounding opening bars of “Dance of the Cuckoos,” right?
Even allowing the chilly Yankee Stadium night nobody, maybe even the Yankees, expected D.J. LeMahieu to lead off the bottom of the first by sending an 0-1 Verlander fastball into the right center field seats. Or, Aaron Judge to send a base hit into left and Torres to dump a quail down the left field line for first and third. Or, Aaron Hicks wringing a full count before ripping one off the right field foul pole.
And that’s the way the scoring remained in Game Five, the Yankees winning 4-1.
That pole ringer was only the third time any Yankee center fielder hit an elimination-game bomb to put the Yankees ahead. Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle did it to break a two-all tie off National League Rookie of the Year Joe Black in Game Seven of the 1952 World Series. And Roger Maris—usually a right fielder but playing center this time out—nailed one off the Cardinals’ Curt Simmons to bust a one-all tie in Game Six of the 1964 Series.
And never before in their long history of postseason presence and triumph had the Yankees ever hit a pair of first-inning bombs. That, folks, covers (count ’em) 404 baseball games. And all it took was an all-fields-hitting first baseman and a center fielder who missed over two months with an injured right elbow before he came back for the ALCS.
“We wanted to get ahead early,” Hicks told ESPN’s Buster Olney in a postgame field interview. “To take the first punch.”
Verlander never surrendered two first-inning home runs in any postseason game in his life until Friday night. And it was just the second time in 29 postseason starts that he surrendered four runs or more. “It was a combination of things,” he said after the game in front of his locker. “Fastball command wasn’t very good, and the slider was just hanging. I just wasn’t able to execute really anything.”
But from there he and Paxton, plus three Yankee relievers and Brad Peacock in his first postseason gig out of the Astro pen, hung nothing but zeroes up while putting on a pitching clinic so profound you were tempted to wonder whether pitching in the cold was their real secret weapon after that testy enough first.
Each pitcher kept each batter from much more than soft contact the rest of the way, each pushed periodic threats to one side, thank you, if you didn’t count Tommy Kahnle surrendering a base hit and a four-pitch walk following a seventh inning-opening out.
Verlander after the first resembled as close to his Hall of Fame self as he could on such a frigid night, and Paxton resembled the guy who pitched up big enough down the stretch as opposed to the guy who couldn’t get out of the third inning in Game Two. And Paxton looked like a reasonable facsimile striking out nine in six to Verlander’s nine in seven.
And there wasn’t a pratfall, tumble, stumble, rumble, trip, bad hand, or butter finger to be found from the first inning forward until Yankee closer Aroldis Chapman shot through the top of the ninth with strikeout, fly out to left, and ground out to third faster than you could say see you back in Houston.
“Getting those runs were big,” Paxton said in an on-field interview. “I was grinding the whole time, that’s a great team over there, they really battle, so I had to grind all the time. Making one pitch at a time.”
Never before, too, in 1,608 previous postseason games, too, had any pair of contestants scored in the first inning together without scoring a single run further the rest of the way.
Both sides turned in some defensive acrobatics, from LeMahieu tumbling to the foul track and falling toward the sidewall to catch Yuli Gurriel’s third-inning pop foul to late Astros right field insertion Josh Reddick running Gio Urshela’s long fly to right down deep in the corner and making a basket catch before he might have hit the wall to end the Yankee seventh.
The Yankees hope they don’t hit the wall in Game Six; the Astros would love nothing better than to make them hit it hard enough to send the ‘Stros back to the World Series. And considering the likelihood that it may be a bullpen game for both sides, with neither manager seeming to want to short-rest their Game Three starters Gerrit Cole and Luis Severino, Game Six should be a very intriguing running of the bulls.
At this writing the arms that begin Game Six may be anyone’s guess. Nobody’s said anything yet out of either team’s camp, but speculations runs that it could be Jose Urquidy for the Astros to open and, maybe, Chad Greene or J.A. Happ (who has starting experience) for the Yankees.
Not that either team’s necessarily worried. “If we find out in the morning,” said Yankee right fielder Aaron Judge, “we’ll do our homework and get ready.”
“Everybody’s ready,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman.
Not everybody. One Twitter twit lamented, “Such a sad day for baseball.” Please. You’re trying to win, you need to not send a pair of prime starters out on short rest because it’s liable to mean disaster, for them and for your team. You do what you must to win. The game won’t be any worse and probably be a little more of a good old fashioned hair raiser.
Such a sad day for baseball is actually an idea as old as the year Rhapsody in Blue and Mercedes-Benz were born, Woodrow Wilson died, and Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson perfected the starter-as-reliever technique that this year’s National League pennant winner applied mostly successfully.
And on Saturday evening, 7:08 Central standard time, the best two teams in the American League this year will play to win in Minute Maid Park. One of them will win the pennant or host a Game Seven. One will force a Game Seven or lose the pennant. Let’s play ball!