James Paxton got the win and the deserved applause after allowing one run in six innings in the Yankees’ 4-1 victory over the Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium on Friday night.
But the elimination game started poorly for the Yankees in the top of the first. It seemed to be a continuation of their poor play in the late innings of Thursday night’s 8-3 loss in Game 4.
Leadoff man George Springer hit a grounder that scooted past Paxton on his glove side. Gleyber Torres, who made two errors on Thursday, tried to barehand the ball on the shortstop side of second base. It hit off his fingers and was scored a single.
Springer moved to second on a passed ball by Gary Sanchez and to third on a grounder to short. Michael Brantley walked. Paxton then made it worse, throwing a wild pitch that allowed Springer to score and Brantley to move to second.
“It was a lot of nerves,” Paxton said. “I was fired up and I think I was just overthrowing a little bit. They put some good swings on the ball and I was missing my spots a little bit. We just had to battle through it.”
Paxton recovered to get Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel to fly out to end the inning.
By the time he stepped back on the mound for the second inning, the Yankees had taken a 4-1 lead against Justin Verlander on DJ LeMahieu’s leadoff homer and Aaron Hicks’ three-run shot off the rightfield foul pole.
Now it was time for Paxton to protect a lead. He walked Carlos Correa to start the second before striking out Yordan Alvarez and Chirinos. Jake Marisnick singled, but Paxton struck out Springer on a 96-mph fastball.
He had found his groove. He allowed a baserunner in each of his innings, but never more than one per inning after the second.
Hoping to play Games 6 and 7 on Saturday and Sunday, manager Aaron Boone needed length from Paxton, and he got it.
Paxton threw 112 pitches. After the 111th produced his ninth strikeout and the second out of the sixth inning, Boone visited the mound. He rarely does that unless he is planning to take a pitcher back to the dugout with him. But Boone chatted with Paxton and then went back from whence he came all by himself.
Robinson Chirinos sent Paxton’s next pitch deep to leftfield. With a runner on first, a home run would bring Houston to within a run in a game the Yankees had to have to keep their season alive.
Fortunately for the Yankees, Brett Gardner caught the drive up against the wall. Paxton was done. Three innings later, the Yankees were headed to Houston for Game 6.
“My goal was to go out there and give it everything I had for my team,” Paxton said. “I wasn’t ready to go home yet, so I wanted to go out and give my team everything I had and just battle away. That’s what I did out there, and it worked out.”
A day before his third postseason start, Paxton was asked what he had learned that could help him on Friday. “There’s a higher intensity,” he said. “But overall it’s the same game. You have to treat it the same way. It’s just being able to mentally treat it the same way even though there is that extra intensity and what we’re playing for. But ultimately, if you can play the game the same way you did in the regular season, you’re going to have the most success.”