NEW YORK — The Yankees may not win this year’s American League Championship Series. They may not become the 14th team to rally from a three-games-to-one deficit in a best-of seven, or the eighth to do so by finishing the job on the road — particularly against an Astros team with the majors’ best record and an historically powerful offense. But in the wake of a demoralizing Game 4 loss full of missed opportunities, sloppy defense, and the sudden end of CC Sabathia’s career, they met manager Aaron Boone’s immediate goal of sending the series back to Minute Maid Park with a 4-1 victory that featured strong work by starter James Paxton and a four-run first inning against Justin Verlander, featuring a pair of homers by DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks.
“He’s got to go out and pitch well and set the tone for us,” Boone said of Paxton prior to the game, “because we’ve got to get on that plane and go back to Houston.”
The tone early on Friday evening was all too reminiscent of Thursday’s late-inning sloppiness. Second baseman Gleyber Torres, who made errors in each of the final two innings of Game 4, mishandled leadoff hitter George Springer‘s grounder, which had slipped under Paxton’s glove, though the ball was scored a single. Springer then took second on a passed ball by Gary Sánchez, advanced to third on Jose Altuve’s grounder, and scored on a wild pitch. It was an all-too-familiar story for Paxton, whose 29 first-inning runs allowed in 29 starts tied for the major league lead.
That was all the Astros would get from him, however. Both Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel scorched line drives to the outfield — 98.4 mph for the former to left, with Brett Gardner chasing it down, and 96.8 for the latter to center, but right at Hicks — and so Paxton escaped by allowing just one run. He’d failed to get ahead of any of the five batters he faced, gotten just one swinging strike on a total of 23 pitches, and his defense looked anything but sharp. With the Yankees desperately needing length given their plans for an all-bullpen Game 6, it was not an encouraging beginning.
“It was a lot of nerves,” said Paxton of his first frame. “I was fired up, and I think I was just overthrowing a little bit early. They put some good swings on the ball and I was missing my spots a little bit, walking a couple of guys. Just had to battle through it.”
After scoring just four runs in their previous 25 innings stretching back to Game 2, the Yankees quickly broke through when LeMahieu crushed Verlander’s second pitch, a 94.4 mph fastball, to right center field:
Aaron Judge followed with a single to left field, and then Torres roped a double into the left field corner. Verlander struck out Giancarlo Stanton, who hadn’t played since Game 1 due to a right quad strain and who entered the lineup as the DH in place of the slumping Edwin Encarnacíon. Up came Hicks, playing in just his fourth game since missing over two months due to a right flexor strain the team believed to be season-ending. Though he had gone just 1-for-6 in the first three games of the series, he had taken some tenacious at-bats and drawn four walks, including a 10-pitch free pass against Gerrit Cole in Game 3. Here he fell behind 0-2, first looking at a curveball and then whiffing on a slider. He waited out three pitches above the strike zone, and when Verlander hung a slider, he hooked a 105.5 mph drive down the line and off the right field foul pole as the crowd of 48,483 erupted in a frenzy:
According to ESPN Stats and Info, it was the first time in the Yankees’ 405 postseason games that they hit two first-inning home runs. It was just the second three-run homer Verlander allowed all season; the first was hit by LeMahieu at Yankee Stadium on June 23. And it was the first time Verlander allowed four or more first inning runs since August 11, 2014 against the Pirates.
Verlander escaped the inning by striking out Gary Sanchez and inducing Didi Gregorius to fly out, but he’d expended 29 pitches. Perhaps he was overthrowing. His average fastball velocity in the first inning of 95.7 mph was his highest all season according to Baseball Savant, but he got just one called strike on the 17 he threw, allowed three drives of 103 mph or harder via the pitch, and produced one of the worst innings of his entire career.
“I think he was missing up, up with his fastball, and the slider was backing up,” said Chirinos afterwards. “I feel like the game was fast in the first inning. I should have called [for a] timeout and talked to him. That was my fault.”
Despite those inauspicious beginnings, both starters settled down. Paxton was genuinely impressive over five additional innings despite never setting down the side in order. Only in a 29-pitch second inning did he allow a runner to get to second base or put two men on; there he worked around a leadoff walk to Carlos Correa by striking out both Yordan Alvarez and Robinson Chirinos, and recovering from a two-out single by Jake Marisnick to punch out George Springer as well. He would ring up each of those batters again in the middle innings.
Having run up a pitch count of 52 by the end of the second — one more than he’d thrown in his two and a third-inning Game 2 start — Paxton kept himself in the game, and kept Boone from needing to burn through his bullpen, with a 13-pitch third and an 11-pitch fourth. He labored somewhat in the fifth, working around a one-out walk of Altuve but throwing 21 pitches to run his count to 97. With Tommy Kahnle looming in the bullpen, Paxton issued a one-out walk to Correa in the sixth, but struck out Alvarez. His pitch count was at 111, one past his season high. Boone headed to the mound.
“I saw him walking out and he didn’t point to the dugout — or to the bullpen,” said Paxton. “So usually when he does that, he’s going to have a conversation with me. And he gave me the chance to compete and keep on going. I wanted it. And I did everything I could.”
“Frankly, I was up in the air walking out there,” said Boone. “I liked the matchup and how he was attacking Chirinos… I felt like I just wanted to get a look at Gary and at Pax to see — have a feel that he had a little bit left because obviously we were pushing him pretty far right there. But I felt like if he could execute, we liked the matchup there.”
Boone left him in. Paxton did what his manager specifically didn’t want (“The last thing I wanted him to do was throw a down-and-in heater”), as his 95.9 mph fastball missed its spot. Chirinos barreled a 100.4 mph drive to left field that Gardner hauled in, one step in front of the wall.
Another example of the de-juiced ball? The 11 drives hit to similar specifications (29 to 31 degrees of launch angle, with a launch direction between -24 and -19 degrees) during the regular season averaged 391 feet, whereas Chirinos’ drive was estimated at 371, shorter than all but two of them; for the five-year Statcast era, the 29 similar drives averaged 393 feet, with all but four of them longe than 371. That said, the chilly temperatures (52 degrees at first pitch, and well into the 40s by game’s end) certainly cut into the distance, and the wind (11 mph left to right at first pitch, but who knows by then) could have played a part as well.
“When that ball went up I was begging to stay in and it did, and just got fired up,” laughed Paxton. “It was awesome.”
Kahnle finally came on in the seventh inning, but after retiring pinch-hitter Josh Reddick on a fly ball, he put two on via a Springer single and an Altuve walk. Zack Britton extricated the Yankees by inducing Brantley to hit into a forceout and Bregman to fly out, then stuck around for another inning in which he struck out both Correa and Alvarez. He passed the baton to Aroldis Chapman, who set the side down in order in the ninth.
Thus a lineup that seared lefties for a major league-high 131 wRC+ this year was held to a 4-for-30 showing against southpaws. While the Yankees entered having gone just 1-for-16 with runners in scoring position over their previous three games, and 4-for-27 with six walks in that context in the series, the Astros are now 4-for-39 with four walks when it comes to RISPy business; two of those hits were three-run homers, of course, powering the Astros to victory in Game 4.
While the Astros couldn’t recover from Verlander’s ugly first inning, the 36-year-old righty did recapture his dominant form, and in doing so kept Houston’s bullpen in near-pristine shape for Saturday, a point of pride for the future Hall of Famer; Brad Peacock’s scoreless eighth inning was the only outside effort required. Following Hicks’ home run, Verlander retired 20 out of 21 batters he faced, yielding only a two-out bloop single to Gregorius in the fourth. Despite the 29-pitch first inning, he stuck around to throw 105 pitches, generating 25 swings and misses, including 10 with his slider, nine with his fastball (which averaged 94.9 mph) and five with his changeup. On most nights, that would have been more than sufficient, but matched up against Paxton on this night, it was not. A Yankees team that needed to break service against either Verlander or Cole at least once (and now twice) to advance to the World Series has checked one item off its to-do list.
And so as I file this, the Yankees are boarding that plane, hoping to win Saturday’s battle of the bullpens at Minute Maid Park. Both Boone and A.J Hinch said they would figure out their actual blueprints for the game during the flight. You might say it’s all up in the air.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.