NEW YORK -- The Astros had to have known it wouldn’t be this easy. Marching into Yankee Stadium and winning three in a row to celebrate a pennant seemed extremely unlikely when the American League Championship Series shifted to the Bronx after a two-game split in Houston.
After pushing the Yankees to the brink of elimination with wins in Games 3 and 4, the Astros couldn’t finish the job Friday night. Justin Verlander was tagged for four runs in the first inning, including a pair of homers, and James Paxton shut down a punchless offense for six innings as the Yanks beat the Astros, 4-1, in Game 5 of the ALCS.
“We are up 3-2, we are in the driver’s seat and we are going back to Houston, but that’s a great ballclub,” Verlander said. “[New York] is stacked. They gave me great at-bats in Houston and they continued to do so tonight. I know the last six innings went well for me tonight, but there were still a lot of great at-bats with a lot of them mixed in there. These boys are not going to lay down for us and we have to go and take care of business at home.”
In all best-of-seven postseason series, teams holding a 3-2 lead have gone on to win 72 of 103 times (70 percent). In series with the current 2-3-2 format, clubs holding a 3-2 lead and heading home for Games 6 and 7 have gone on to win 34 of 45 times (76 percent).
“We came here and took two out of three,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “We come back home to Houston and come back after it tomorrow.”
Verlander, who was unbeaten in his previous seven career postseason starts against the Yankees, gave up a homer to DJ LeMahieu on the second pitch he threw in the game. Aaron Hicks turned on a 3-2 slider four batters later and clanked a three-run homer off the right-field foul pole for a 4-1 lead that ignited the Yankee Stadium crowd.
That was essentially the ballgame.
“The fastball command was not very good and the slider was just hanging,” Verlander said. “I just wasn’t able to execute anything. I thought I could have made some better pitches. I had some opportunities. I got the strikeout and then had Hicks in the hole and wasn’t able to execute anything. I got ahead of him early and had opportunities to get a strikeout or a weak fly ball. I let him back into the count and hung the slider, 3-2.”
The Astros, whose only run in the first inning came on a wild pitch, had no answer for Paxton, who struck out nine and allowed four hits and four walks in six innings. They had the tying run at the plate in the seventh against reliever Zack Britton, but Michael Brantley hit into a fielder’s choice and Bregman flied out.
“As you know, it’s baseball and we’re facing really good pitching,” Bregman said. “I think we do a good job of staying in the zone tomorrow and passing the torch to the next guy, we’ll be successful.”
Verlander was nearly untouchable after the Hicks homer, sending down 20 of the next 21 batters he faced. He kept the game close and enabled Hinch to use only one reliever -- Brad Peacock for one inning -- to save the rest of the bullpen for Game 6. Verlander threw 79 of his 105 pitches for strikes and whiffed nine batters.
“I thought he recovered great and did his best to continue to keep us in the game, because that was a great recovery after an inning that looked like it was spiraling away from him,” Hinch said. “The two balls that they hit, unfortunately, went out of the ballpark.”
Houston’s offense has been largely nonexistent in the ALCS with the exception of home runs. Of the 16 runs the Astros have scored in the series, 10 have been on home runs. Houston is slashing .178/.275/.302 in the series and hitting .103 (4-for-39) with runners in scoring position.
“I’m not too worried about that,” Correa said. “We need one game where the offense just goes off and we can put up 10 runs in one game. That would be nice. At the same time, we know we’re facing great pitching on their side and we have to go out there and try to put up great at-bats as a team for us to have a chance.”