NEW YORK -- It was one inning. One long and erratic inning, but ultimately, that’s all it was for Justin Verlander.
Even though it was a rough start, it was far from a bad outing.
The right-hander gave up four runs on two home runs in the bottom of the first inning, but he quickly returned to form in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Friday, though Houston would fall to New York, 4-1.
It was the type of effort the Astros needed, especially with Houston one win from the World Series, yet set to employ a bullpen game for Game 6 on Saturday at Minute Maid Park.
Yankees first baseman DJ LeMahieu stung Verlander with a homer to center field on the veteran’s second pitch of the game. Right fielder Aaron Judge followed with a single, and second baseman Gleyber Torres hit a double to left to put runners on second and third to get the Yanks’ offense on track before many of their fans had even taken their seats.
The next batter, designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton, struck out swinging. But Hicks followed with a three-run homer that bounced off the foul pole in right field to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead that would hold the rest of the game.
It was the first time Verlander allowed four runs in an inning since joining the Astros late in the 2017 season.
“I thought I could have made some better pitches. I had some opportunities,” Verlander said of the first inning. “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.”
Here’s how the Yanks were able to get to Verlander early.
First and foremost, they came out swinging, and their aggressive approach paid off. LeMahieu swung at the first pitch Verlander threw, then jumped on the second for the homer. Judge swung at the third pitch he saw for the single, Torres swung at the second and third pitches leading to his double.
To his credit, Hicks worked the count full before he got the hanging slider.
Verlander averaged 95.7 mph in that initial frame, the highest first-inning average on his fastball in any game this season, but he couldn’t control the pitch, and he struggled with his slider, too. As a result, he didn’t go to the fastball as often after the first inning and began using his changeup to counter New York's aggressive approach.
In fact, Verlander threw his changeup only 4.1 percent of the time during the regular season, but he went to it 13.3 percent of the time on Friday, his highest single-game usage of the pitch this season. All but three of his changeups came in the fifth through seventh innings, when he was facing the Yankees’ lineup for the second and third time.
The strategy worked.
Verlander retired 10 Yankees in a row after the Hicks homer and 20 of the next 21. The Yanks’ only other hit off him was Didi Gregorius' bloop single to left field in the fourth.
“You have to turn the page and start from scratch, really,” Verlander said. “At that point, you are hoping and praying that your team can fight and claw back and get you back in the ballgame, but at the same time, especially in the playoffs, especially when you have four games in a row, I’m trying to save our bullpen as much as possible.”
Verlander recorded nine strikeouts in seven innings in the 105-pitch outing before being replaced by Brad Peacock to start the eighth.
“I’m very disappointed in the first, and then not so disappointed in the rest of it,” he said. “At least I was able to take away a positive in the last six innings in keeping our bullpen fresh, and that hopefully that helps us win another ballgame.”
That eventful first inning was the first time in Verlander's career that he allowed multiple home runs in the first inning of a postseason game; the four runs allowed were his most in any inning of a playoff game. What’s more, LeMahieu's leadoff home run was the second of its kind allowed in Verlander's postseason career. The first time was Game 1 of the 2012 AL Division Series, when Oakland’s Coco Crisp tagged Verlander, then with the Tigers, with a homer to start the game at Comerica Park.
Catcher Robinson Chirinos blamed himself for Verlander's troubles in the first inning and for not doing more to settle down his pitcher.
"He didn't miss as much after the first inning," said Chirinos. "I think he was missing up, up with his fastball, and the slider was backing up. I feel like the game was fast in the first inning. I should have called [for a] timeout and talked to him. That was my fault."
Manager AJ Hinch described his starter’s effort as “incredible.”
“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.”