Before the Astros could start preparing to play the Nationals in the World Series, the Yankees found new life to extend the ALCS to a sixth game
The Houston Astros thought they had the perfect scenario set up: Justin Verlander, coming off a Cy Young-worthy regular season, on the mound at Yankee Stadium for Game 5 on Friday with a chance to book a trip to the World Series.
The plan backfired, as Verlander gave up four runs in the first inning off home runs by DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks. The Astros hitters could only manage one run off Yankees starter James Paxton and a host of relief pitchers, sending the ALCS back to Houston for Game 6 on Saturday after a 4-1 Yankees victory.
Suddenly, it’s the Astros facing a bit of uncertainty after appearing to have the series all but locked up. Rather than bring back Gerrit Cole on three days rest, manager A.J. Hinch will instead ride his bullpen in Game 6, possibly starting Jose Urquidy. The 24-year-old rookie right-hander only made his Major League debut on July 2 and has appeared in one game this postseason, pitching 1.2 innings back in Game 4 of the ALDS. He’s given up just three earned runs over his last 19.2 innings dating back to the regular season.
The silver lining, if there is one, from the Game 5 loss is that Verlander managed to settle down after the first and pitch seven innings. Houston only used one reliever, Brad Peacock, on Friday. Ryan Pressly wasn’t used, and neither was Joe Smith or closer Roberto Osuna. The Astros top setup man, Will Harris, has only thrown 17 pitches in the past four days. It will be all arms on deck in Game 6—right arms because the Astros don’t have a left-hander in the bullpen.
In order to give their bullpen a chance and avoid having to go to a seventh and deciding game on Sunday, the Astros need to start hitting. The only run they scored on Friday came off a wild pitch. They are collectively batting .178 this series and are 4-39 with runners in scoring position. Alex Bregman, the MVP-candidate third baseman, is hitting .200. Yuli Gurriel is 1-20, Yordan Alvarez 1-19. In LCS history, only nine batters have finished with one hit in that many at-bats. No team ever had two hitters endure such a prolonged slump in an LCS.
A few things are working in the Astros favor. They are returning to the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park, where they went 60-21 this season. Since 1969, only two teams won more home games in a season, the 1998 Yankees and 1975 Reds. Both of those teams went on to win the World Series.
The Yankees also don’t have a starting pitcher for Game 6 and will rely heavily on their bullpen that has already been pushed to the limit this series. Tommy Kahnle has been used the past two games, and manager Aaron Boone never used one of his relief pitchers three days in a row during the regular season. Only Zack Britton and closer Aroldis Chapman are relatively well-rested, Chapman needing just nine pitches to retire the side on Friday.
And, even if the Astros falter at home on Saturday, they still have Cole ready for a potential Game 7. They haven’t lost a game he’s started since July. The Yankees have a glimmer of hope after staving off elimination in Game 5, but the advantage still lies—barely—with the Astros.