HOUSTON – It’s been five years, one disputed World Series championship, two pinstripe heartbreaks and countless scores of angry fans jousting verbally and virtually since all this began. And still, so little has changed.
Wednesday night, Justin Verlander took the Minute Maid Park mound against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, just as he did in 2017 and 2019, the years the Houston Astros deployed their illicit sign-stealing scheme and subsequently saw it revealed. They have become Major League Baseball’s most reviled team in the years since, an unforeseeable twist given that the Yankees tend to attract that heat.
Yet one thing stays true: Even at 39 years old, with a rebuilt right arm, cheating hitters or not, Verlander remains the difference between the two American League titans.
If the league runs through Houston, as the six consecutive ALCS appearances and Yankees slugger Aaron Judge himself suggest, running through Verlander is the more specific task. And the Yankees, once again, were not up for it.
Verlander struck out 11 Yankees over six innings, long enough keep his club level against a squad that flew in from New York drained from merely surviving their AL Division Series against Cleveland. Eventually, home runs by Yuli Gurriel, Chas McCormick and Jeremy Peña off the taxed Yankees bullpen provided the difference in a 4-2 Game 1 victory.
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For the Yankees, it was far from a gut punch. A Game 1 win would have been viewed as found money, what with exactly 24 hours separating their modest champagne celebration after suppressing the Guardians and the first pitch of Game 1.
Yet that the Yankees would be both the betting and perceived underdogs in this matchup speaks volumes for how both clubs played down the stretch and their championship aspirations.
On July 8, New York was 5 ½ games better than Houston, only to fall into three months of often desultory and arrythmic play, and the Astros blew past them, winning 106 games to the Yankees’ 99 and earning the right to host Game 1 in front of 41,487 fans still as thirsty and verbose as they were five years ago.
That edge seemed blunted a bit when Verlander got rocked by the Seattle Mariners in Game 1 of their AL Division Series, giving up 10 hits and six earned runs in just four innings.
This time, the vintage October Verlander returned to claim his 15th postseason victory.
He yielded the fourth home run this postseason to Yankees outfielder Harrison Bader in the second yet stayed in almost utter command otherwise. Verlander’s fastball hummed at a consistent 95 mph, but he bumped it up to blow his two hardest pitches of the night – 97 and 98 mph – past Josh Donaldson and Matt Carpenter to escape a second-and-third, one-out spot in the third inning.
That sequence marked a turning point, catcher Martín Maldonado and manager Dusty Baker agreed. Verlander was not landing his breaking pitches in the first two innings. But he found something in punching out of trouble, as much a testament to what’s between his ears as his arm.
‘He dialed it up. He got it together,’ says Baker. ‘He was actually better between 80 and a hundred than he was prior to that. He was dealing, especially that period of time, between 80 and a hundred (pitches) and he found his rhythm. He found his breaking ball, because he didn’t have his breaking ball early. Sometimes that happens.
‘He knows how to pitch.’
That sequence started a streetch where Verlander struck out five consecutive batters and seven of eight, retaking the all-time postseason strikeout lead from Clayton Kershaw with 219. His 11 strikeouts were the most in a playoff game since, well, let’s see here:
Oct. 14, 2017. Against the Yankees. In the ALCS. At Minute Maid Park – where he struck out 13 Yankees walked just one and threw a five-hitter.
That’s where all this began, Verlander and Lance McCullers Jr. spinning gems and toppling the Yankees in seven games, all four wins coming in Houston. Two years later, it was Jose Altuve’s Game 6 walk-off homer against Aroldis Chapman that sent the Astros to the World Series.
And now, in Yankees-Astros III, a mélange of new and old faces define the rivalry.
It was Gurriel whose sixth-inning homer off Yankee reliever Clarke Schmidt finally gave Verlander a 2-1 lead. Center fielder McCormick – a lowly 21st-round draft pick by the Astros in 2017 – went opposite field off Schmidt a batter later. Peña finished the hat trick with a thunderous shot off Frankie Montas for a 4-1 seventh-inning lead.
And good for Houston – it needed the insurance after Anthony Rizzo’s eighth-inning homer kick-started a two-out eighth-inning rally, prompting closer Ryan Pressly to enter and strike out Carpenter to strand the tying runs on base.
So the Yankees got into the Astros bullpen. And forced the closer into the game a batter early. Nice work for a team playing a hangover game, but also a first strike against them in their third try to crack the Astros at the door of the World Series.
“We got to get four against this team,” manager Aaron Boone said. “So hopefully that starts tonight with Justin.”
Verlander, once again, was not having it. He’ll be waiting if Houston needs him in Game 6 – or as long as this rivalry may go, it seems.
‘There’s just zero complacency, ever,’ says Verlander. ‘Just because we won Game 1 we understand that there’s a hard road ahead of us still.’
Yet one they’ve twice traveled successfully.