Two pitches into Game 5, James Paxton couldn’t field his position and George Springer was on first base. Two pitches later, Gary Sanchez produced a passed ball and Springer moved to second. One pitch later, Paxton fell behind Jose Altuve 3-0 and with Springer in scoring position I began to wonder why I was even watching this game. After an Altuve groundout, a Michael Brantley walk and a Paxton wild pitch to score Springer, it felt like the Yankees’ season was going to end with another dismal performance, a day after they turned in their most dismal performance of 2019.
But then things changed. Alex Bregman rocketed a 3-2 pitch line drive that Brett Gardner ran down and Yuli Gurriel followed with a high exit-velocity line drive of his own right at Aaron Hicks. The Astros had a 1-0 lead, but it could have been much more, and it felt like maybe this game would be the game things would go the Yankees’ way.
Things were only going to go the Yankees’ way if the offense allowed them to. With six runs over the last three games and 29 innings, including just four runs scored in 18 home innings, either the Yankees’ offense was going to wake up and save the season and extend it at least one more game, or the season was going to end with yet another ALCS offensive letdown, the fourth since the Yankees’ last World Series appearance a decade ago.
DJ LeMahieu opened the bottom of the first with a leadoff home run, proving once again why he’s this team’s MVP even if he won’t be the league MVP. The Yankees’ first baseman/second baseman/third baseman provided a rare single-hit game, but his one hit tied the game, got the Stadium going and ignited a first-inning rally. LeMahieu is now hitting an absurd .343/.410/.600 in the postseason and it’s unbelievable that six months ago, not only was he not batting leadoff, but he wasn’t expected to be an everyday player on this team without injuries.
Aaron Judge stroked a line drive to left field and Gleyber Torres — the rightful 3-hitter — banged a double to left. After going 4-for-10 with a double, home run and 5 RBIs in the first two games of this series batting third, Torres was inexplicably moved down to fifth in the lineup for Game 3 and fourth for Game 4. Aaron Boone cited the desire to break up the right-handed bats, which for some reason didn’t need breaking up in the first two games of the series and didn’t need breaking up in an elimination Game 5. The reasoning never made any sense and proved to only be more ridiculous than ever with the first inning the Yankees put together on Friday night.
Giancarlo Stanton, who was magically healthy for an elimination game, struck out, leaving both runners at their respective bases. Stanton reportedly went in Boone’s office after the crushing Game 4 loss and said “Let’s go” to the manager, which is puzzling since he wasn’t able to play in Game 4, but immediately after the game, he was suddenly healed and ready to play. Stanton finished the game 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, which is understandable, considering he hadn’t played in six days and was facing Justin Verlander.
Verlander had thrown 15 pitches and recorded only one out, but he had made it through the first four batters of the lineup, and coming up he had Hicks, with 13 plate appearances to his name since August 3, and then four slumping hitters, each with an OPS that looked like it was missing the slugging percentage part of the stat. After Stanton struck out it wasn’t unreasonable to think the Yankees would strand both Judge and Torres, fail to take the lead and miss possibly the only opportunity they would get against Verlander for the rest of the game.
Twelve days ago, Hicks watched the Yankees clinch the ALDS from a restaurant in St. Petersburg. His season had been deemed over weeks before and with Tommy John surgery in the plans, he would miss at least one-third of next season as well. But Hicks was able to rehab his way back into the postseason conversation and show enough to earn a roster spot for the ALCS. After the offense disappeared following Game 1, Hicks became a middle-of-the-order bat, putting together lengthy at-bats and working impressive walks in the series. He quickly fell behind Verlander 0-2 and the percentage of the Yankees getting in even one of the two runs drastically declined. Hicks worked the count back to even and then full, and then Verlander made a rare mistake, hanging a breaking ball, a textbook cement mixer thrown middle-middle. Hicks crushed the pitch, and if it was fair, it was gone as it approached the right-field seats and began hooking toward foul territory. Just before it could finish its turn to the right of the foul pole to deflate the Stadium and Tri-state area, it clanged off the pole to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead.
Thankfully, the ball stayed fair, and thankfully, the Yankees were able to get four first-inning runs because that’s all they would get the for the rest of the game. Verlander would go on to retire 20 of the next 21 hitters, finishing with seven innings to give every Astros reliever except for Brad Peacock the night off with a bullpen vs. bullpen game scheduled for Game 6.
Despite his latest first-inning struggles, Paxton put together his best start as a Yankee, rising to the occasion and making up for his 2 1/3-innings start in Game 2. The left-hander who the Yankees acquired solely for starts like Game 5, and who, before the season spoke about wanting to be a Yankee and wanting to pitch in the postseason with the expectations of winning a championship delivered with elimination on the line. With nine strikeouts against a team that doesn’t strike out and a Yankees season-high 112 pitches, Paxton protected the first-inning, three-run lead through his final five innings of work.
For the first time since Judge’s Game 2 home run off Verlander, the Yankees got a timely, game-changing hit. After leaving the bases loaded in the first inning of both Games 3 and 4, the Yankees didn’t leave anyone on in the first inning of Game 5. It wasn’t just the LeMahieu/Judge/Torres show as Hicks had the big hit, but it was still the top-half-of-the-order show in Game 5 as the Yankees’ 1 through 5 hitters went 4-for-14 with a double, two home runs and 4 RBIs, while the 6 through 9 hitters went 1-for-12 with five strikeouts. At some point you would think at least one of Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, Gio Urshela or Gardner would snap out of it and begin to contribute. I’m not asking for all four to hit, I’m only asking for one, maybe even two? With Game 6 also an elimination game for the Yankees, and a potential winner-take-all Game 7 if the Yankees can win Game 6, there’s not much time for the bottom four hitters to prove they’re not the near-automatic outs they have been for the first five games of the ALCS.
The Yankees were able to beat Verlander in a postseason game for the first time in franchise history to send the series back to Houston, where they won Game 1 and had plenty of chances to also win Game 2. They won’t face Verlander or Gerrit Cole in Game 6, and they won’t face a starting pitcher at all. It will be a bullpen game for both teams, and while the Yankees have the stronger bullpen, theirs has been used and overworked in the series. I’m not sure how the Yankees plan to navigate through an elimination game with Chad Green running on close to empty, Adam Ottavino being completely untrustworthy, Tommy Kahnle showing signs of fatigue, Zack Britton having thrown 18 pitches in Game 5 and knowing the potential disaster of asking Aroldis Chapman to pitch more than one inning. There’s a good chance Green will open Game 6 and then turn the ball over to J.A. Happ, which should make any Yankees feel about as comfortable as they would riding the 4 train from Midtown to the Stadium during rush hour before a postseason game. Not only can you expect to see multiple innings from Happ, but you can probably expect Luis Cessa and/or Tyler Lyons to make an appearance in Saturday’s must-win game as well.
The Game 5 win extended the Yankees’ season at least one more game and gave us Yankees baseball for at least one more night. It was always going to be an uphill battle to win the pennant against this Astros team, and once the Yankees lost Game 4 to go down 3-1 in the series, needing to win three games in three days against a 107-win team and needing to beat both Verlander and Cole to win the series was going to be nearly impossible. Winning Game 5 against Verlander and sending the series back to Houston has made it a little more possible.
Five down, six to go.
My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is now available as an ebook!