Aaron Hicks wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t supposed to be ready this soon. He certainly wasn’t supposed to be standing at home plate watching a season-saving home run clank off the right-field foul pole in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. And he wasn’t supposed to be breathing hope into a Yankee Stadium crowd that was dreading the end.
A month ago, Hicks was sitting on the couch at his home in Arizona after receiving a second opinion about his injured right elbow. The doctor prescribed more rest in hopes of averting a major operation for the center fielder — Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow. But Hicks’s elbow felt good one day, so he decided to toss a ball around with a friend.
His arm responded well. So Hicks did it again, then sent a video of himself throwing to a surprised Michael Schuk, the Yankees’ assistant athletic trainer. This started a chain of events that ultimately saw Hicks return from what was supposed to be a season-ending injury, make the A.L.C.S. roster, then smash a three-run homer off Justin Verlander on Friday to help extend the Yankees’ season with a 4-1 win over the Houston Astros in the Bronx.
“Good thing I was messing around in the backyard with my buddy and kind of started throwing,” Hicks said after the win, “because if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be here.”
Hicks’s blast and James Paxton’s powerful left arm helped the Yankees gain ground on the Astros, who lead the best-of-seven series by three games to two. The Astros are still in control: The series shifts to Minute Maid Park in Houston on Saturday, where the teams will play less than 24 hours after the end of Game 5, and where the Astros produced the best home record in baseball during the regular season.
How the Astros and Yankees will handle Game 6 was not clear on Friday night. Their remaining starters — the Astros ace Gerrit Cole and the Yankees’ Luis Severino — have been lined up to pitch Game 7 on regular rest. Game 6 could be a bullpen day for both teams, or feature starters on short rest.
That possibility exists because of Paxton and Hicks. In his first season with the Yankees, Paxton emerged as the team’s best starter in the second half of the year. But his first career playoff start, in the previous round against the Minnesota Twins, was unspectacular. His second, in Game 2 of the A.L.C.S., was shaky.
Paxton quickly erased those memories on Friday, using his full arsenal of pitches to carve through the Astros’ potent lineup.
The Yankees started Game 5 the way they ended Game 4 — with sloppy play. The Astros’ George Springer hit a ground ball up the middle that neither Paxton nor second baseman Gleyber Torres could corral. Paxton walked Michael Brantley, and catcher Gary Sanchez was charged with a passed ball and then couldn’t stop a wild pitch, leading to a 1-0 Astros lead when Springer trotted home.
But Paxton quickly brushed off the inauspicious start, holding steady after Hicks helped provide a 4-1 lead in the bottom half of the first inning.
With two outs and one runner on base in the top of the sixth inning — and Paxton’s pitch count at a season-high 111, and Tommy Kahnle warming up in the bullpen — Yankees Manager Aaron Boone visited the mound, looking ready to remove his starter. Paxton voiced his opinion immediately.
“I’m good,” he mouthed to Boone on the mound, then added with more colorful language: “Let’s go.”
Fans roared as Boone walked back to the dugout alone. They held their breath when Robinson Chirinos sent a ball to deep left field and exhaled when Brett Gardner caught it with his back to the wall. In all, Paxton completed the biggest start of his career with one run allowed and nine strikeouts in six innings.
“I was yelling with our crowd, ‘Keep him in,’” reliever Zack Britton said of Boone’s visit to the mound. “And he did.”
After Kahnle sputtered to start the seventh inning, allowing a single and a walk, Boone used the Yankees’ best two relievers of this postseason — Britton and Aroldis Chapman — to get the game’s final eight outs.
Luckily for the Yankees, who had struggled to produce a key hit with runners on base in the previous three games of this series, they pounced on Verlander before he settled into a groove.
The second pitch Verlander threw was a fastball right down the middle of the plate to D.J. LeMahieu, who sent it over the right-field wall for a 1-1 tie. Then came more well-struck balls against Verlander: an Aaron Judge single and a Torres double. After a strikeout by Giancarlo Stanton, who made his return to the lineup after missing three games with a strained right quadriceps, Verlander faced Hicks.
Even though Hicks had not started a major league game since Aug. 2, the Yankees put him on the A.L.C.S. roster, and that proved fortuitous when Stanton sustained his injury last weekend. Hicks went 1 for 5 in Games 3 and 4 but drew four walks, deploying one of his best skills — a sharp eye at the plate — even after so much time away.
So after falling behind Verlander 0-2, Hicks worked a full count. Verlander then threw a slider high and over the plate. Hicks had struggled with breaking balls during the regular season, but he rocketed this mistake 314 feet down the right field line for his first homer since July 24.
“I knew I hit it well,” Hicks said. “I felt like I stayed inside the ball well enough for it to be fair.”
The blast sent Yankee Stadium into a frenzy. Hicks dropped his bat in a manner reminiscent of the Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr.: straight to the ground after the follow through. It took Hicks nine seconds to get to first base as he admired his work, which gave his team just a bit more time, at least, in this season.
David Waldstein provided live updates and analysis throughout Game 5:
Nasty, nasty nasty stuff from Zack Britton, who got a weak ground ball from Yuli Gurriel — he can’t buy or borrow a hit in this series — and then struck out Carlos Correa and Yordan Alvarez on breaking balls that had them flailing.
The Yankees can also be encouraged by their defensive play. Gio Urshela made a nice charge, scoop and throw on to nab Gurriel by a step at first base. Stark contrast to last night, when they booted the ball all over the park. Before the game, Boone predicted it, saying: “I’m confident that these guys will flush it and go out and play like they’re capable of tonight.”
Justin Verlander was lifted for Brad Peacock, who got the Yankees in order, so we head to the ninth.
What a memorable performance by James Paxton, who allowed one run and four hits in six innings and struck out nine. It was the first time in almost a month that Paxton went past the fifth inning. That dates back to his second-to-last start, a win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 21. In his final start of the season he had nerve irritation in his left glute, and then went 1-1 in his first two postseason starts. This one was particularly good, and it could not have come in a more meaningful moment for the desperate Yankees.
Then in the seventh the Yankees’ bullpen got in and out of trouble with runners on first and second with only one out for Tommy Kahnle. Boone lifted him and went to Zack Britton, who got Michael Brantley to hit into a fielder’s choice. Then, with runners at first and third and two outs, Alex Bregman lined out to Aaron Hicks in center. The Yankees only need six more outs to send this series back to Houston.
And how about Josh Reddick in right field, making a basket catch at the wall for the final out of the inning (after Verlander notched two more strikeouts). This is actually a really impressive performance by Verlander, who has retired 10 in a row and has allowed only one base runner since the four-run first.
Aaron Boone just made the biggest tactical decision of the game, and it paid off — but just barely. James Paxton made it through two outs in the sixth and had the right-handed Robinson Chirinos coming to the plate with Tommy Kahnle warming in the bullpen. Boone came out of the dugout, and with Paxton over 100 pitches, it was assumed by many that he was taking Paxton out. But Boone left him in the game and Chirinos hit a long fly ball to left field. The crowd went quiet for a moment as Brett Gardner ranged back to the wall. But Gardner caught it with about a foot to spare — maybe less — for the final out and the crowd erupted. It was a brave decision, but Paxton was pitching well, and he had struck out Chirinos twice already.
And Verlander has another 1-2-3 inning, striking out Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Hicks to give him seven on the night. He is doing his job of lasting long enough to preserve the Astros bullpen for what could be a busy Game 6 tomorrow night.
Very interesting stuff from Ken Rosenthal on the FS1 broadcast during the fifth inning. He said A.J. Hinch and Aaron Boone met before the game to talk about the sign-stealing issue, and reported that an unnamed person with the Yankees said they thought the Astros were whistling from the dugout to signal which pitch was coming. Hinch called that “a joke,” and Rosenthal said Hinch and Boone put the matter “to bed” in their discussion.
But he added that all the paranoia has distracted Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez behind the plate, perhaps accounting for all the balls he has let get by the last couple of games. But FS1 just showed a replay of some of them, and on at least one, Sanchez was turning his head away.
Meanwhile, no one seems to know what pitches are coming from Paxton and Verlander, who continue to deal. Verlander has allowed one base runner since the Yankees’ four-run first.
Here’s a couple of numbers to show what the Yankees are up against in trying to come back from a 1-3 deficit in a best-of-seven-game series. There have been 86 such postseason series in which a team took a three-games-to-none advantage, and 73 of those teams went on to win the series, or 85 percent. Forty-four of those teams (51 percent) won the series in five games. The last team to do it was the Boston Red Sox — no, not in 2004. In 2007 they came back from 1-3 to beat the Cleveland Indians in the A.L.C.S.
Meanwhile, Paxton strikes out two more Astros for another scoreless inning. He has six K’s and has thrown 76 pitches. Verlander had a third straight scoreless inning and struck out Gary Sanchez, who is now 2 for 19 in the series. Sanchez hears a few boos as he returns to the dugout. A note on Hicks: He was 1 for 17 with 6 strikeouts against in the regular season against Verlander before that home run.
Suddenly, this game is a pitcher’s duel. Paxton’s pitch count is up to 63 after three innings, but he just tossed a second straight scoreless inning, and benefited from a good defensive play by D.J. LeMahieu, who tracked down a high foul pop-up by Yuli Gurriel for the final out, and fell over while making the tricky catch.
Interesting in-game interview with Astros Manager A.J. Hinch during that frame. He acknowledged that Verlander was indeed over-throwing a bit or, as he called it, “jumping off the rubber a little bit.” Verlander is still pumping in high fastballs above the Yankees’ swing paths — and a few very high ones to bring Robinson Chirinos out of his stance — but he got the Yankees in order again and has now retired eight straight. Stanton made contact for the final out, but hit a harmless ground ball to short. He jogged fairly hard down the line.
Yankee Stadium is alive and this game has an entirely different feel compared to Game 4 on Thursday. But Verlander was able to stabilize himself and get a 1-2-3 inning. One has to assume he went directly into the video room to see what he was doing wrong in that first inning. It appeared to be over-throwing, for the most part.
James Paxton also settled down in the top half of the second inning, and did not allow any balls in play. He gave up a leadoff walk and a base hit to Jake Marisnick, but struck out Yordan Alvarez, Robinson Chirinos and George Springer.
The home plate umpire, Mark Carlson, was also behind the plate in Game 7 of the 2017 A.L.C.S., when the Astros beat the Yankees, 4-0, behind a combined three-hit, 11-strikeout shutout from Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers, Jr. He seems to have a pretty big strike zone tonight.
It was a dramatic first inning for the Yankees, who scored four times on a pair of home runs. D. J. LeMahieu hit a leadoff shot (the seventh in Yankees postseason history) to even the score at 1-1. That helped erase the bad feelings from the top of the first, which did not go well for the Yankees because of more sloppy play.
But the Yankees poured it on against Justin Verlander, who also gave up a three-run home run to Aaron Hicks on a hanging slider. Hicks ripped it down the line and it hit the foul pole as Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres scored ahead of him.
The first three Yankees reached base as Verlander did not record an out until he struck out Giancarlo Stanton.
Verlander threw 29 pitches, which is key because Astros Manager A.J. Hinch does not want to have to empty his bullpen tonight.
In the top of the inning James Paxton and Torres failed to field a ground ball off the bat of George Springer, who advanced a base on a passed ball by Gary Sanchez and then scored on a wild pitch. It was not what the Yankees wanted to see after their sloppy showing in Game 4 on Thursday when they committed four errors.
1. George Springer RF
2. Jose Altuve 2B
3. Michael Brantley LF
4. Alex Bregman 3B
5. Yuli Gurriel 1B
6. Carlos Correa SS
7. Yordan Alvarez DH
8. Robinson Chirinos C
9. Jake Marisnick CF
Justin Verlander P
1. D.J. LeMahieu 1B
2. Aaron Judge RF
3. Gleyber Torres 2B
4. Giancarlo Stanton DH
5. Aaron Hicks CF
6. Gary Sanchez C
7. Didi Gregorius SS
8. Gio Urshela 3B
9. Brett Gardner LF
James Paxton P
Giancarlo Stanton is back in the lineup as the designated hitter after he missed the last three games with a strained quadriceps. Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said Stanton stopped by his office Thursday night after the Yankees lost Game 4, 8-3, and they both agreed he was ready to play as D.H. He will start and bat fourth in place of Edwin Encarnacion, who has struggled in all four games of the series.
“Clearly not a hundred percent running,” Boone said of Stanton. “I don’t feel like hitting will be an issue for him. And just have to kind of govern himself out on the bases.”
Encarnacion went 4 for 9 in the first two games of the postseason against the Twins, but is 1 for 19 in five games since then.
Stanton is only 1 for 8 against Justin Verlander, the Astros starter, but the hit was a home run.
“I don’t anticipate he’s going to be able to move all that well, necessarily, on the running on the bases and stuff like that,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “Thanks to all you guys who put the video out there of his early work yesterday, I got a chance to see it. I think he’s a threat from the minute he walks into the batter’s box, whether he’s got fully healthy legs or not.”
Friday’s pitching matchup is a rematch of Game 2, in which Verlander held the Yankees to five hits and two earned runs over six and two-thirds innings, while James Paxton was pulled in the third inning after having given up four hits. The Yankees went on to use eight relievers in that game — an eventual 3-2 Astros win in 11 innings — and taxing their bullpen.
The Yankees made one roster change Friday morning — though it’s one they would have rather not made. After C.C. Sabathia left the mound with an injury in Game 4, he was replaced on the roster in the morning by Ben Heller, a right-hander who appeared in six games for the Yankees this year.