HOUSTON – Justin Verlander agreed to that last-minute trade to the Houston Astros with hopes of another World Series, and has since won all eight games he has pitched.
Eight is not enough. The Astros have to win Verlander’s ninth game – or their season will end short of that goal.
“Obviously. I know this is one of the main reasons I was brought here,” Verlander said Thursday. “This is why I’m here.”
Six days after the big right-hander threw a complete game against the Yankees to put Houston up 2-0 in the best-of-7 AL Championship Series, the teams will be back in Minute Maid Park for Game 6 on Friday night with the Astros facing an elimination game after New York swept three games in the Bronx.
“Well, there’s immediate belief when you have a Justin Verlander go,” manager A.J. Hinch said. “His presence will immediately make everybody sit up straight, stand up a little bit more, have a little bit more energy because of the presence that he brings.”
The Astros certainly need the boost.
Aaron Judge and all those baby bombers from New York, who had a pair of 2-1 losses in Houston and struck out 13 times against Verlander, definitely have a lot more energy and confidence after outscoring the Astros 19-5 and outhitting them 25-12 in their three home games.
And they have already turned the tables on Dallas Keuchel, the other Astros ace who lost Game 5 after winning the series opener with 10 strikeouts over seven scoreless innings.
“Look at a number of other players that have been through playoffs, and they’ve had their struggles, and all of a sudden they can get hot,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “And I think everything is magnified when you’re in the playoffs, and two games seem like forever, where if you struggle two games in the season people don’t say much.”
The Yankees are one win away from their first AL pennant since 2009 and record 41st overall.
Houston has to win Verlander’s start and then another game for its first AL pennant. The Astros were still in the National League for their only World Series appearance 12 years ago.
Verlander in Game 2 threw 124 pitches, exactly twice as many as Luis Severino did for the Yankees. That is also the starting matchup for Game 6.
Severino didn’t take the mound for the fifth in Game 2, an inning after Girardi and a trainer visited the mound after the 23-year-old right-hander uncharacteristically wound his arm several times soon after giving up a solo homer to Carlos Correa. He stayed in then, but then he was struck on the wrist of his no-throwing hand by a one-hopper that was the inning-ending out.
Afterward, Severino said he was fine – and that checked out with doctors – and had wanted to keep pitching.
Now he gets a chance to pitch the Yankees into the World Series.
“My (excitement) level is, I think it’s a hundred,” Severino said, adding he felt great after a good bullpen session Wednesday.
So what did the 34-year-old Verlander do in between starts after the 124 pitches last Saturday?
“I kind of stepped on the gas. I feel as good now as I’ve felt all year,” Verlander said. “This is what we work so hard for. My workout regimen in the offseason, my throwing regimen, my shoulder regimen in season, all that stuff, this is when it pays off the most. ... I came out of that start better than almost any I have all year.”
This ALCS so far has followed the same pattern as the 2001 World Series for New York, which then lost the first two games at Arizona before winning three in a row at Yankee Stadium.
That’s where the Yankees would like the similarities to end since they lost 15-2 in Game 6 against Randy Johnson when Andy Pettitte started tipping his pitches. Roger Clemens started game 7 for the Yankees against Curt Schilling, but it was Johnson who got his third win of the series pitching in relief after the Diamondbacks scored twice in the ninth off Mariano Rivera for a 3-2 victory.
After having to win the AL wild card game over Minnesota, then overcoming an 0-2 deficit to win the best-of-5 AL Division Series, the Yankees are suddenly in an unusual position this postseason – leading a series.
“Yeah, it does feel different,” Girardi said. “We’ve been on ‘we have to win today, we can’t afford to lose today for a number of reasons.’ But I still think the attitude will be the same, win one game. That is what we’ve kind of talked about, and that’s kind of what we’ve stuck to around here.”