NEW YORK -- James Paxton stood at the top of the Yankee Stadium mound in the sixth inning on Friday, patiently waiting as Aaron Boone covered the ground between him and the first-base dugout. Sensing an opening to dissuade the manager from raising his arm for a pitching change, the left-hander calmly mouthed the words, “I’m good. Let’s go.”
It was convincing enough. Boone clapped and returned to his perch, watching Robinson Chirinos slug a drive to left field that died in the cool air. With his club on the brink of elimination, Paxton delivered his grittiest performance of the season as the Yankees celebrated a 4-1 victory over the Astros in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
“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,” Paxton said. “He gave me the chance to compete and keep on going. I wanted it, and I did everything I could. When that ball went up, I was begging it to stay in and it did. I just got fired up; it was awesome.”
Powered by first-inning homers from DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks off AL Cy Young Award contender Justin Verlander, the Yankees fulfilled their stated objective of forcing the ALCS back to Houston. They now trail the best-of-seven series three games to two, with Game 6 scheduled for 8 p.m. ET on Saturday.
In all best-of-seven postseason series, teams holding a 3-2 lead have gone on to win 72 of 103 times (70%). 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%).
“Those guys took care of business today,” Boone said. “They came in and got it done. The first goal after last night was to get on the plane, and now we’ve got an opportunity to go play in a tough place. We look forward to that and can’t wait.”
Paxton had allowed four runs over seven innings across his first two starts of the postseason, but the Canadian-born “Big Maple” delivered the caliber of performance that had tantalized the Yankees, who acquired him in a trade from the Mariners 11 months ago. His 112 pitches were the most by any Yanks pitcher this season, as the lefty scattered four hits and four walks while striking out nine over six innings.
Houston took a first-inning lead with assistance from a passed ball and a wild pitch, but Paxton permitted nothing more, stranding at least one runner in each of his next five frames.
“After that first inning, he was attacking hitters and being aggressive,” catcher Gary Sánchez said through an interpreter. “He was really good tonight. All of his pitches were really good. We were able to get strike one. That was hard to do his last outing, but we were able to do that.”
The Astros’ first-inning run seemed to subdue much of the sellout crowd of 48,483, likely a carryover from the uninspired four-error performance in Game 4 that prompted Boone to call a postgame meeting, but LeMahieu sparked new life by slugging Verlander’s second pitch over the right-field wall for a game-tying homer. No meeting would be necessary after Game 5.
“For us to tie it back up and reset back to zero, get the crowd back into it, it was huge for us,” Aaron Judge said. “Down 1-0, I don't know if the crowd was thinking it was going to be like the game before, but once DJ hit that home run, it was back on and rowdy as ever.”
LeMahieu’s leadoff homer was the first by a Yankee in the postseason since Derek Jeter opened Game 3 of the 2009 ALCS with a blast off the Angels’ Jered Weaver.
“We all expected something good to happen today, just the way the last couple of days went,” LeMahieu said. “That allowed Pax to settle in a little bit and all of us to get our swagger on a little bit again.”
The Bombers continued to rake, taking advantage as Verlander struggled to get his fastball down in the zone. Judge singled and Gleyber Torres doubled before Verlander recorded an out, and Hicks continued his string of solid playoff at-bats by working the count full, then barreling an 88.2 mph slider.
Hicks was considered a long shot to play in the postseason one month ago, when he sat on the couch of his Arizona home nursing a right flexor strain in his elbow and pondering Tommy John surgery. As such, Hicks savored the moment, flipping his bat as he watched the drive clang off the right-field foul pole for a 4-1 lead.
“I knew I hit it well,” Hicks said. “I felt like I stayed inside the ball well enough for it to be fair, and that’s kind of my thing, staying up on home runs like that -- especially when I know I’ve got it. 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.”
Verlander regained his footing and silenced the Bombers’ bats from then on, but the damage was done. Following Hicks’ homer, the Yankees’ only hit off Verlander was Didi Gregorius' opposite-field single in the fourth inning, yet Paxton’s splendid performance kept the anxiety level low in the home dugout.
After Paxton had talked his way into facing one more hitter -- Chirinos, whose drive fell harmlessly into Brett Gardner's glove just in front of the left-field wall -- Tommy Kahnle logged the first out of the seventh before handing the ball to Zack Britton, whose 1 2/3 hitless innings set up Aroldis Chapman for his second save of the postseason.
“When you think of the Yankees,” Paxton said, “you think of the postseason. They pride themselves on winning, and that’s what we do here. It’s been a great experience, and I want to keep on going.”