HOUSTON -- There were those in the Yankees' clubhouse who would have loved to play Thursday after reeling off three straight victories in front of sold-out, frenzied crowds at Yankee Stadium, viewing their travel day to the Bayou City as the equivalent of a football team icing the kicker with
HOUSTON -- There were those in the Yankees' clubhouse who would have loved to play Thursday after reeling off three straight victories in front of sold-out, frenzied crowds at Yankee Stadium, viewing their travel day to the Bayou City as the equivalent of a football team icing the kicker with a timeout.
The deep freeze had more to do with Justin Verlander, who was dominant once again as he helped the Astros even the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World with a 7-1 victory in Game 6 on Friday. One win away from securing a trip to Los Angeles for the World Series against the Dodgers, the momentum the Yankees enjoyed in the Bronx never arrived, though they had chances to break through.
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"You tip your cap. Verlander pitched a heck of a game," said Todd Frazier, who made the Yanks' loudest out of the night, a deep fly ball to left-center field in the seventh inning. "If you get one run on the board, you're not going to win games."
Aaron Judge's fourth postseason homer represented the Yankees' only run, and manager Joe Girardi highlighted the sixth and seventh innings as their best opportunities to bust through against Verlander, who had blanked New York on a very efficient 62 pitches (48 strikes) through the first five frames.
"Those two innings were the two innings we had to capitalize on, and we weren't able to do it," Girardi said.
Chase Headley opened the sixth with a single and Didi Gregorius stroked a two-out hit, giving the Yanks their first runner in scoring position against Verlander. Gary Sanchez looked at three balls out of the strike zone, then checked his swing to weakly nub an 85.3 mph slider to shortstop Carlos Correa, ending the inning.
"I was just looking to make good contact there up the middle," Sanchez said through an interpreter. "I just wanted to put a good swing on that pitch, but he surprised me with that slider."
A surprise, indeed: Verlander threw 31 pitches on a 3-0 count during the regular season, and only one of them was a slider.
The Yankees made Verlander sweat again in the seventh. Greg Bird trotted to first base after a six-pitch walk to open the inning -- the deepest count they had worked to that point -- and a video review revealed that Starlin Castro had been nicked on the right forearm by a 94.8 mph fastball, giving New York two men on with none out.
Verlander quickly fell behind the next batter, Aaron Hicks, pumping three straight out of the zone. A heater crossed the plate to bring the count to 3-1, and Hicks prepared to drop his bat after watching a 95.2 mph fastball tail outside for what he believed had been ball four. Home-plate umpire Jim Reynolds didn't see it that way, ringing Hicks up for strike two.
"I felt like that [3-1] pitch was outside," Hicks said. "I'm getting ready to walk to first base, and the next thing you know, he calls a strike. Now I've got to battle 3-2 against a very good pitcher. Sometimes it doesn't go your way."
Four foul balls followed, including a long one down the right-field line that momentarily hushed the crowd, before Verlander struck out Hicks with the 10th pitch of the at-bat, a slider that cut right across the inner half of the plate.
"He was giving me a great battle," Verlander said. "I threw a cement-mixer slider 3-2 that he fouled off to left field, and I called [catcher Brian] McCann out and said, 'We're going slider again.' It was so many foul balls, and in my head, I knew that was the game right there.
"I was saying that this is the game. I need to execute this pitch right here. It comes down to this pitch, and I was able to throw probably the best slider I threw all day and got a swing and miss. I felt like that changed everything."
Frazier followed by barreling an 0-1 fastball to the 404-foot marker in left-center field, where it was reeled in by George Springer, who hopped against the padded wall for a long, loud out. The ball left the bat at 102.8 mph at a launch angle of 28 degrees, and balls hit at those numbers go for home runs roughly 70 percent of the time, per Statcast™.
"Right off the bat, I could've sworn it was going out," Frazier said. "If you play long enough, you basically know if it's going to go or not, and it was one of the best balls I squared up this whole postseason. I guess it just died and I didn't get enough."
Verlander then induced Headley to roll a ground ball to the right side of the infield, ending the inning.
"He doesn't ever lose his composure," Headley said. "Pitchers like that, they get better in big situations. He really, really threw the ball well against us two times and shut us down. We almost got to him today. We put some stress on him."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook.