NEW YORK – DJ LeMahieu drove Justin Verlander’s second pitch over the wall, then Aaron Hicks sent the fans at Yankee Stadium into a frenzy with a three-run homer off the foul pole later in the first inning.
And just like that, the Bronx Bombers were back – in the game, and in this matchup of powerhouses.
A day after a brutal loss, and with little margin for more errors, the New York Yankees played like a 103-win team. James Paxton chilled Houston’s bats and the bullpen followed with shutdown relief to beat the Astros 4-1 on Friday night, cutting their AL Championship Series deficit to 3-2.
“I wasn’t ready to go home yet,” Paxton said, “so I wanted to go out and give my team everything I had and just battle away.”
Now the teams rush to Texas, where the series resumes Saturday night without a day off. With pitching plans disrupted by a rainout earlier this week, both teams are expected to go all-bullpen in Game 6. But Gerrit Cole, 19-0 since May, looms as the Astros’ starter on Sunday if New York manages to extend the matchup to the seven-game limit.
Paxton, a fishing aficionado born outside Vancouver in Ladner, British Columbia, wore three-quarter-length sleeves on a night with a gametime temperature of 52 degrees, the coldest for a Verlander start since last year’s ALCS opener at Boston. He had on long sleeves and half of Houston’s fielders had hoodies or balaclavas.
After lasting just 2 1/3 innings in Game 2, Paxton struck out nine in six innings, allowing four hits and four walks. Punching his pitching hand into his glove after big strikeouts, he saved his biggest emotion for his 112th and final pitch. Manager Aaron Boone had just made a trip to the mound, unsure whether he would make a change.
“He just said, ‘Are you ready? Do you have anything more left in the tank?’ ” Paxton said.
“And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. I want this.”
Robinson Chirinos hit a first-pitch fastball that Brett Gardner caught in front of the left-field scoreboard with a runner on.
“When it first left the bat: ‘Oh, no!’ ” Boone remembered thinking to himself.
After Tommy Kahnle allowed George Springer’s one-out single in seventh and walked Jose Altuve, Zack Britton retired Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman. Britton struck out two in a perfect eighth, and Aroldis Chapman finished with a 1-2-3 ninth for the save.
Paxton outpitched Verlander, an eight-time All-Star and former AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. Verlander allowed a pair of first-inning homers for the first time in 28 postseason starts and gave up four runs in an inning for the first time since Houston acquired him from Detroit in August 2017.
“Fastball command wasn’t very good, and the slider was just hanging,” Verlander said.
Verlander retired 10 in a row after Hicks’ homer and wound up allowing five hits in seven innings with nine strikeouts and no walks.
A night after the Yankees made four errors in one of their messier games of the season during an 8-3 loss, Paxton fell behind after 14 pitches. Springer reached on an infield hit, took second on Gary Sanchez’s passed ball, advanced on a groundout and scored when Paxton bounced a breaking ball off Sanchez’s glove for a wild pitch.
“A lot of nerves,” Paxton said. “I was just overthrowing a little bit early.”
New York came out swinging against Verlander, who had been 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA against the Yankees in seven postseason starts.
LeMahieu fouled off a pitch, then drove a fastball 355 feet to right-center for New York’s first leadoff homer since Derek Jeter in 2009 ALCS against the Angels.
“LeMahieu took a couple big swings, hits the homer and woke up the building,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said.
Aaron Judge singled and Gleyber Torres doubled. Verlander struck out Giancarlo Stanton, who went 0 for 3 without two strikeouts after missing three games with a strained right quadriceps.
Hicks, sidelined for more than two months by a right elbow injury that made his wonder whether he would need Tommy John surgery, made a surprise return for the ALCS and re-entered the starting lineup for Game 3. He fell behind 0-2, took three straight balls and sent a chest-high slider down the right-field line. He dropped his bat, turned and watched the ball, took a half-dozen slow steps toward first and started jogging after it clanked off the pole for his first home run since July 24.
“It curved a lot more than I thought it would,” he said.
New York had never hit a pair of first-inning homers in 404 previous postseason games. Verlander could only crouch on the infield grass as Hicks circled the bases.
Hicks ended a stretch of 15 straight hitless at-bats for the Yankees with runners in scoring position. New York has relied on the long ball, scoring 12 of its 17 runs against the Astros on seven homers.
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