As the ball left Aaron Hicks’ bat and hooked down the right-field line, Yankee Stadium came to a halt. Everyone turned, watched the ball and held their collective breath. Hicks dropped his bat and sauntered a few steps down the line. Fair or foul?
“It definitely had a lot more spin on it than I thought,” Hicks said.
A moment later, the ball bounced squarely off the foul pole, and the crowd went berserk. The stanchion lights strobed and music blared, as Justin Verlander crouched down on the infield grass and asked for another ball.
The New York Yankees had been so starved for offense, had been in such desperate need of a big hit, the celebration felt like a release of pent-up frustration. Hicks’ three-run home run gave the Yankees a first-inning lead in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series and they rode that momentum to a 4-1 victory over Houston to stave off elimination for at least one day.
The Astros still lead the series 3-2 and will have a second chance to close it out, back home at Minute Maid Park on Saturday.
Before the Yankees’ first-inning rally, the Astros had seemed poised to close out the series, considering how the Yankees had been playing. They had lost the three previous games, and the Game 4 loss had been particularly embarrassing. After the Astros had taken control of the game, the Yankees had made a series of errors and seemed generally lackadaisical in the field. Afterward, Yankees manager Aaron Boone had addressed the team. He stressed that they needed to “flush this immediately” and move on. They had to face Verlander the following day.
Verlander had shown signs of cracking, though. He had pitched in a close-out game just last week, in Game 4 of the AL Division Series against Tampa Bay, and it had not gone well. The Rays scored three runs in the first inning and had knocked him out by the fourth.
After the Astros took a 1-0 lead in the top of the first Friday on James Paxton’s wild pitch, the Yankees pounced on Verlander early too. On his second pitch of the game, D.J. LeMahieu smacked a solo home run to right field. Then Aaron Judge singled and Gleyber Torres doubled, before Verlander could record an out.
In the previous three games, the Yankees had struggled mightily in these moments. They’d managed to reach base against the Astros’ great starting pitchers, but they hadn’t come through with clutch hits. In those games, they stranded 26 runners on base, batted one for 16 with runners in scoring position, and had scored only six runs.
It looked as if that frustration might continue, when Giancarlo Stanton struck out swinging. Then up came Hicks. It was somewhat remarkable he even found himself in this situation. Hicks had missed most of the last two months of the regular season with an elbow injury, and he’d contemplated having Tommy John surgery. Last month, he’d been at home, in Arizona, thinking his season had ended, when he decided to play catch in his backyard with a friend. After Hicks realized he could throw pain-free, he lobbied the Yankees to reevaluate him. They ultimately decided he was healthy enough to merit a spot on their ALCS roster.
In his first three games back, Hicks had shown positive signs. He’d been having good at-bats, working counts deep and taking walks. After falling behind 0-and-2 against Verlander, he took three straight balls, working the count full. Then Verlander hung a slider about belt high, and Hicks ripped it off the foul pole to give the Yankees a 4-1 lead.
“That was the game plan, to strike early,” Hicks said. “Get some good pitches to hit early in the count and try to be aggressive towards him early in the game.”
Neither team scored again. Given a little breathing room, Paxton settled in and worked six strong innings, striking out nine and holding the Astros to that lone run. To his credit, Verlander retired 20 of the next 21 batters after Hicks’ home run. But the damage had been done.
The Yankees still have a tough road ahead of them. If they win Game 6, which will be a bullpen game for both teams, they’ll probably face Gerrit Cole, the Astros’ other Cy Young candidate, in Game 7. But beating Verlander was a start. Boone would be not be admonishing his team today.
“I don’t need to say a word tonight,” he said. “Those guys took care of business today, man.”