HOUSTON — The trail to the World Series for the Yankees goes not only through the Houston Astros but specifically their ace, Justin Verlander. If the Yankees wish to win their first American League pennant since 2009, they might need to search out a solution to beat Verlander — this 12 months’s presumptive A.L. Cy Young Award winner — at the very least once this October.
Verlander, 39, may go down as probably the greatest starting pitchers ever. After coming back from Tommy John surgery that cost him nearly two entire seasons, he went 18-4 with a 1.75 E.R.A. over 175 innings through the regular season. He has 244 profession wins, 3,198 strikeouts, a Rookie of the Yr Award, a Most Precious Player Award, two Cy Young Awards and a World Series ring.
Sweeping the Seattle Mariners within the previous round allowed the Astros the posh of lining up their pitching staff strategically to face the Yankees. By tabbing the right-hander Verlander for Game 1 of the best-of-seven A.L. Championship Series that began on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, the Astros could turn to him again on regular rest for a possible Game 5.
Sure, the Yankees could lose each games began by Verlander and still win the series, but that significantly narrows their margin for error on this showdown between the A.L.’s top two seeds. Of their first crack at Verlander, the Yankees held their very own but couldn’t quite topple him. He allowed one run and struck out 11 over six innings, paving the best way for the Astros’ bats to blow up in a 4-2 win.
“He’s not only physically strong, which you possibly can see, but he’s mentally strong,” said Astros Manager Dusty Baker, who added that Verlander was higher from pitches No. 80 through 103 than earlier in the sport. “This guy, he has mental toughness. When he’s down and out and it looks such as you got him in trouble, this guy, he can dial it up.”
Verlander began off slowly, but when he departed the sport, the rating was tied, 1-1. In the underside half of the sixth inning, though, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel and center fielder Chas McCormick each slammed solo home runs off the Yankees right-handed reliever Clarke Schmidt. An inning later, the Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña cracked a solo shot off the right-hander Frankie Montas, who was making his first appearance after coming back from a shoulder injury that popped up last month.
“I felt like they’d the momentum early as an offense against me, but I felt like I used to be in a position to form of bring it back on my side and just form of keep the pressure on them once that happened,” Verlander said. “And thankfully our boys got here through with some big hits and the bullpen did their job like they typically do. That’s how we win a number of ball games.”
While Verlander is sensational, it’s not just like the Astros, who’re making their sixth straight A.L.C.S. appearance, have a top-heavy rotation. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rotation had a greater E.R.A. (2.75) than the Astros’ (2.95). At the least one advanced metric (wins above substitute) rated the Astros’ group higher than everyone else’s. Framber Valdez, José Urquidy, Luis García, Cristian Javier and Lance McCullers Jr. each posted an E.R.A. under 3.95 this season.
So after the challenge of Verlander in Game 1, the Yankees get the left-handed Valdez, who went 17-6 with a 2.82 E.R.A. over 201 ⅓ innings within the regular season, in Game 2 on Thursday. The Yankees will counter with the right-hander Luis Severino, who allowed three runs over five and two-thirds innings in his lone start of the previous playoff round against the Cleveland Guardians.
On Wednesday, Yankees starting pitcher Jameson Taillon did his best to neutralize the Astros. His only appearance within the previous round — his first ever postseason outing and in addition his first profession relief appearance — was disastrous. Within the Yankees’ 4-2 loss in extra innings in Game 2 against Cleveland, he pitched the tenth inning in relief and coughed up two runs on three hits. Wednesday was his first start since Oct. 4, and he allowed only one run over 4 and one-third innings.
But Taillon and the Yankees couldn’t outlast Verlander and the Astros. To start out, Verlander combated some wayward command and difficult plate appearances. He needed 55 pitches to finish the primary two innings. A surging Yankees hero, center fielder Harrison Bader, gave his team an early lead against Verlander.
Acquired just before the Aug. 2 trading deadline in a surprise swap with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bader didn’t made his Yankees debut until late September due to a foot injury. But in six games in pinstripes this postseason, Bader has mashed 4 home runs, his latest coming off Verlander within the second inning.
That was all of the Yankees could muster off Verlander, whose command improved to the purpose that he was hitting the sides of the strike zone with ease within the later innings. In addition they didn’t capitalize after they had him cornered. After first baseman Anthony Rizzo walked and left fielder Giancarlo Stanton doubled within the third inning, the Yankees had a fruitful probability with one out. But third baseman Josh Donaldson and designated hitter Matt Carpenter each struck out — Carpenter a called strike he disagreed with — to finish the threat.
That was the start of a stretch during which Verlander struck out six straight Yankees. When he struck out Carpenter again, swinging this time, to finish six innings, Verlander bounced off the mound and pumped his right fist.
It was his eighth profession postseason start with 10 or more strikeouts, extending his major league record. Together with his sixth strikeout of the night, he passed Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers (213) for essentially the most profession strikeouts in postseason history.
“He’s very necessary for us,” Gurriel said of Verlander. “Everyone knows he’s our principal pitcher and for him to come back out that way gives us a number of confidence.” He added later, “He’s an incredible pitcher, at that age and the best way he’s doing it, it’s so impressive.”
The strikeouts continued even after Verlander exited. Overall, Yankees batters struck out 17 times to the Astros’ two.
The Yankees did manage to inject some drama within the eighth inning when Rizzo homered off the right-handed reliever Rafael Montero. But with two runners on and two outs, Astros closer Ryan Pressly got here on, struck out Carpenter after which was back out secure the win within the ninth. Not typically asked to work for greater than an inning, Pressly was perfect, retiring all 4 batters he faced.