Aaron Boone leaned back in a cushioned chair outside his Yankee Stadium office a few hours before first pitch Friday night.
He calmly and breezily, and with an occasional dash of humor, answered questions from a small group of reporters.
Naturally, his club’s seemingly Herculean task of overcoming a three-games-to-one deficit to the Astros in the American League Championship Series was among the topics.
“Just when you think you know what’s going to happen, the script can flip,” Boone said. “The one thing I know is they will come ready to go today. I know our guys will be excited to play and excited at the challenge of playing a great opponent, and obviously a great pitcher on the mound, with the idea that we’re getting on a plane tonight.”
The Yankees indeed got on that plane to Houston, still with a tall order ahead but one that suddenly doesn’t seem quite as improbable.
After rocking Justin Verlander in the first inning with two home runs — a leadoff blast by DJ LeMahieu and a tiebreaking three-run shot by Aaron Hicks — and with James Paxton pitching like the top-of-the-rotation difference-maker general manager Brian Cashman envisioned last winter, the Yankees beat the Astros, 4-1, in front of an electric crowd of 48,483 on a crisp night at the Stadium.
“I knew we were going to Houston when I woke up [this morning],” said Aaron Judge, who singled after LeMahieu’s blast, went to third on Gleyber Torres’ double and scored on Hicks’ shot off the rightfield foul pole made it 4-1. “I just knew this team was going to come out swinging, come out strong, and we took care of business tonight.”
Game 6 will be played Saturday night at Minute Maid Park and both managers said they’ll be going the bullpen route. Astros ace Gerrit Cole looms in Game 7 on Sunday night, if necessary, but given that MLB teams that have fallen behind 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have gone 13-73 in terms of advancing, the Yankees will be more than happy to take their chances in a winner-take-all game.
“That’s what this team’s about. We’ve never been defined by wins and losses, we’ve been defined by how we get up after we get knocked down,” Judge said of the Yankees’ response to the sloppy 8-3 loss in Game 4. “We just always fight back. We’re going to keep fighting until they take the ball from us.”
Paxton, pulled after 2 1⁄3 innings in Game 2, allowed one run, four hits and four walks in six innings, striking out nine.
With the Yankees’ bullpen fried and Boone facing the challenge of needing to win three straight days to advance to the World Series, Paxton threw a season-high 112 pitches. He was allowed to face the Astros’ order a third time, something almost anathema in today’s game.
“I wasn’t ready to go home yet,” Paxton said.
Tommy Kahnle allowed two baserunners in the seventh, but Zack Britton retired two straight to get out of it, then retired the side in the eighth. Aroldis Chapman finished up with a perfect ninth.
Paxton, who had a 9.00 first-inning ERA this season, again had trouble in the opening frame. Leadoff man George Springer, a thorn in the Yankees’ side all series, started with a comebacker that skittered under Paxton’s glove. Torres’ barehand attempt failed and Springer reached on an infield single.
With the count 2-and-0 on Jose Altuve, a passed ball charged to Gary Sanchez allowed Springer to advance to second, and he reached third on Jose Altuve’s grounder to short. With the infield in, Michael Brantley walked on five pitches. Then the first pitch to Alex Bregman went to the backstop for a run-scoring wild pitch and a 1-0 Houston lead.
The Yankees got a significant psychological boost in the bottom of the first when LeMahieu drove the second pitch he saw over the auxiliary scoreboard in rightfield, tying it at 1-1. Hicks then fell behind 0-and-2 before stunning Verlander with his full-count drive off the foul pole.
“We needed a good start,” LeMahieu said. “We had a tough top of the first inning. Like always, just trying to get things going. But we really needed to get it going today.”
And going on, season still alive, back to Houston.