NEW YORK – Justin Verlander watched and waited, hoping Aaron Hicks’ drive deep down the right-field line would hook foul at the last instant.
When it bonked hard off the bright yellow foul pole for a three-run homer, Verlander crouched beside the mound and simply held up his glove, waiting for a new baseball as the Yankee Stadium crowd roared.
Houston’s star pitcher had put his team in an early hole — no doubt about that now. And when the Astros were unable to rally during a 4-1 loss Friday night to New York, their first of three chances to close out this AL Championship Series was gone.
Same as Hicks’ shot.
And the one just before that off DJ LeMahieu’s bat.
“I was able to settle down,” Verlander said. “Too little too late.”
Earlier this season, Verlander playfully waved at Yankees fans as he walked off the mound on the way to a win. He entered Game 5 of the ALCS with a 4-0 record and 2.38 ERA in seven previous postseason starts against New York. But he was unable to put away these Bronx Bombers for good, struggling through a four-run first that ate up 29 pitches and marked his worst inning in two-plus years with the Astros.
Houston still headed home with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series — and one more ace up its sleeve.
October star Gerrit Cole, who is 19-0 since May, would be ready on full rest if the series goes to a deciding Game 7. Comforting thought for the Astros as they seek a second World Series trip in three years.
To push it that far, the Yankees must win Game 6 on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
“We have to go and take care of business at home,” Verlander said.
Verlander retired 20 of his final 21 batters after Hicks’ home run, permitting only a soft single during that stretch, to finish with nine strikeouts and no walks.
“He was incredible after the first,” Houston manager AJ Hinch said. “I thought he recovered great and did his best to continue to keep us in the game.”
But the damage was already done.
While fellow aces Cole and Zack Greinke were mostly able to escape first-inning trouble in the Bronx over the previous two games, Verlander wasn’t. And that terrible start prevented him from finishing off New York.
After the Astros grabbed a 1-0 lead Friday against James Paxton in the top of the first, Verlander gave up four hits to his first five batters — three for extra bases.
Payton worked six innings of one-run ball to earn the win. He allowed four hits and issued four walks while striking out nine batters.
It was the first postseason game in major league history in which both teams scored in the first inning and neither one did so again.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5