For about 10 minutes Friday night, Justin Verlander’s pitching performance matched his nickname: JV.
Despite his more typical dominance for the more than two hours that followed, that blip was enough to ruin his and the Astros’ night in a 4-1 loss to the Yankees in ALCS Game 5.
As the series shifts back to Houston for Game 6 on Saturday night, Verlander was left lamenting what went wrong during a game-changing five-batter sequence.
After four of the Yankees’ first five hitters scored, he set down 20 of 21 to finish his night.
“I wasn’t able to execute, really, anything,” said Verlander, who allowed four runs, struck out nine and walked none in seven innings. “It was a combination of things. Fastball command wasn’t very good, slider was just hanging.”
The Yankees got to him immediately. On the second pitch in the bottom of the first, DJ LeMahieu hit a Jeter-esque homer to rightfield, tying the score at 1-1. The 94-mph fastball that caught too much of the plate went over the auxiliary scoreboard and landed an estimated 355 feet from home.
“LeMahieu took a couple big swings, hits the homer and woke up the building,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said.
Then Aaron Judge lined a single to right and Gleyber Torres doubled down the leftfield line. One out later, Aaron Hicks sent the ballpark into a frenzy with a curling line drive off the rightfield foul pole for a three-run homer. That left Verlander looking stunned as he crouched on the grass next to the mound.
“I had Hicks in the [0-and-2] hole and just wasn’t able to execute,” Verlander said. “Got ahead of him early and had opportunities to get a strikeout or a weak fly ball. I let him right back in the count and hung him a slider 3-and-2.”
Did Verlander think the rocket might go foul? “No,” he said. “He didn’t, either.”
Hicks dropped his bat, took a few steps toward first and began jogging only after the ball ricocheted off the pole.
It was the only time in his 29 postseason games (176 2⁄3 innings) that Verlander has given up two homers in one inning.
Suddenly, he snapped back into it, looking much more like the top-tier Cy Young Award option (alongside teammate Gerrit Cole) who had a 2.58 ERA and led the majors with a 0.80 WHIP.
The only Yankees batter to reach base after Hicks’ homer was Didi Gregorius, who blooped a two-out single to left in the fourth inning.
Verlander threw 29 pitches in the first inning and 76 in the next six innings, fewer than 13 per inning.
The silver lining, in Verlander’s eyes: He gave nearly the entire Houston relief corps a day off ahead of the Astros’ bullpen game Saturday. Brad Peacock pitched the eighth and everybody else rested. “Hopefully,” Verlander said, “that helps us win another ballgame.”