The moment you knew that maybe Friday’s Game 5 was golden for the Yankees, that this ALCS wasn’t over, that everyone was headed back to Houston, came with two outs in the sixth inning.
James Paxton, the forgotten ace in what was supposed to be Justin Verlander’s masterpiece Friday night, had nearly emptied the tank to keep the Yankees alive this October. But after he made Yordan Alvarez strikeout victim No. 9, out popped Aaron Boone, the pinstriped party crasher.
A restless crowd of 48,483 watched Paxton and Boone converse on the mound. Then a strange thing happened — the manager didn’t take the baseball.
Boone turned back, Paxton remained on the rubber and the Stadium roared.
Score one for desire over data.
And when Paxton’s next pitch resulted in a long fly ball by Robinson Chirinos that was caught on the warning track in leftfield — leaving Boone’s heart in his throat — the Yankees got the life preserver they needed for a 4-1 statement victory over the Astros.
“He gave me the chance to compete and keep on going,” said Paxton, who threw a season-high 112 pitches, striking out nine in six innings. “I wanted it, and I did everything I could. When that ball went up, I was begging it to stay in and it did. It just got me fired up. It was awesome.”
The Yankees still trail this ALCS three games to two, with Game 6 on tap Saturday night at Minute Maid Park. But after Thursday’s debacle put them on the brink of elimination, the Yankees proved they would not let that terrible Game 4 loss define them.
“What they’ve been good at all year is coming in the next day with an energy and a focus and an edge and a hunger,” Boone said. “It showed up again today. I’m not surprised, but it was really good to see after last night.”
So Paxton got to unleash his inner ace and DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks became the first Yankees duo to homer in the first inning of a postseason game in franchise history. Other than a sturdy bullpen effort, that’s all the Yankees needed to wash off the stain of Thursday’s ugly Game 4, as they insisted they would.
“It’s a good feeling,” LeMahieu said. “[Thursday] night was a tough night all around . . . So for us to respond and keep it alive and get some momentum going was huge.”
Early on, it felt as if Game 4 had never ended for the Yankees, their futility from that night lingering into Friday’s first inning like a stubborn flu.
The Stadium looked almost half-empty when Paxton delivered his opening pitch at 7:09 p.m. and there was a hangover feel to the building.
That vibe also extended to the Yankees, with Paxton and Gleyber Torres misplaying George Springer’s leadoff roller into an infield single. The Astros then turned a passed ball, a groundout, a walk and a wild pitch into a 1-0 lead.
The first inning was a microcosm of the entire Game 4 catastrophe, and with Verlander opposing them, the Yankees couldn’t afford a much bigger hole.
Instead, they immediately dumped the Astros in one.
LeMahieu ripped Verlander’s second pitch into the rightfield stands, just as another DJ used to do in October. He became the fifth Yankee to lead off a postseason game with a home run and the first since that DJ — Derek Jeter — did it in 2009.
But this was no lucky punch off Verlander. The Yankees kept hammering away with a single by Aaron Judge and a double by Torres. Verlander caught his breath by whiffing Giancarlo Stanton — back as the DH and hitting cleanup — but after falling behind 0-and-2, Hicks rocked him anew by smacking a full-count pitch off the rightfield foul pole.
Hicks spun to watch, stood tall, then coolly dropped his bat as the crowd held its collective breath. As soon as the ball caromed off the yellow pole, the Stadium exploded.
Verlander, stunned, crouched down in front of the mound.
“I knew I hit it well,” Hicks said. “I felt like I stayed inside the ball well enough for it to be fair. It definitely had a lot more spin on it than I thought. But it was able to stay fair and put us up right there.”
Before Hicks' home run, the Yankees had been 1-for-17 with runners in scoring position since Game 1 of the series. The four runs were the most given up by Verlander in a single inning since he joined the Astros in August 2017.
Verlander stiffened from there, but this was Paxton’s show, and it officially signaled the Yankees’ return to this ALCS.
“I wasn’t ready to go home yet,” Paxton said.
And so the Yankees are on to Houston.