HOUSTON — It is hard to tell which part will be more important for Justin Verlander, holding down the Yankees or building up the Astros. Given the way the American League Championship Series has turned, one will be as difficult as the other, and his team will need him to do both.
Several times in various ways, Verlander said Thursday that a situation like this is why he is here: Getting the ball Friday night in Game 6 with the Yankees rolling, the Astros’ confidence in tatters and the season on the line.
“It can happen in a hurry. It‘s crazy. And that’s why we love this,” Verlander said during a news conference at a mostly empty Minute Maid Park. “Obviously, I don’t necessarily love coming back down a game. I would have liked it to be the other way around, at least. Hey, that’s the game.”
Ebb and flow represent the game within the game. When the Astros left their ballpark last Saturday, they were exhilarated by Verlander’s 13-strikeout complete game and their 2-0 lead in the series. Then they were leveled by the buzzsaw of Yankee Stadium, losing all three games and appearing stunned and perhaps dispirited. Their hope is that the tide will change with the help of their fans and Verlander, not necessarily in that order.
“The expectations are there. My teammates, I’m sure, are expecting a lot of me. And I expect a lot of myself,” said Verlander, who was acquired from the Tigers on Aug. 31. “So this is why we play the game. And I love these opportunities to pitch in these atmospheres, these types of games. It should be a lot of fun.”
New York was no fun for the Astros. They were blown out in one game, let a lead slip away in another and saw the nearly sure-thing pitching of Dallas Keuchel fail them in yet another. On top of that, they got an earful from Yankees fans. “It was probably stuff I wouldn’t want to repeat in 20 years,” centerfielder George Springer said after Game 5.
Verlander, having taken it all in from his veteran’s perspective, said, “The stadium had some effect, yeah. And those big moments, when they’re cheering with every two-strike count, that has an effect on players, of course.”
Manager A.J. Hinch is optimistic that the Houston crowd can reclaim the momentum. “We earned that home field [advantage]. We had 101 wins for a reason,” he said. “We don’t automatically flush those down the toilet because we lost a couple games in New York.”
He sounded as if he is not planning to bench any of his many struggling batters, such as Josh Reddick, who is 0-for-16. When Hinch was asked about the lineup for Friday, he said, “I’ll take any suggestions. We’re playing our best guys.”
The bottom line is, in terms of big-game aptitude and experience, his best guy is the one who will start Game 6 on the mound. “There’s immediate belief when you have a Justin Verlander going,” Hinch said. “When we wake up, we know we have an incredible opportunity to win.”