HOUSTON – Justin Verlander lives for these moments, the long nights of October that test a man. Every pitch takes on heightened importance, an amp cranked to 11, each as draining mentally as it is physically. And so Verlander’s gift isn’t just the right arm that shut down the New York Yankees on Friday and forced a winner-takes-all Game 7 of American League Championship Series. It’s the mind that allows it to flourish.
Facing elimination, the Houston Astros rode their ace’s seven shutout innings and a late-game offensive breakout to a season-saving 7-1 victory at Minute Maid Park on Friday night. Verlander ground through 99 pitches, working around jams in the sixth and seventh innings before yielding way to the Astros’ shaky bullpen, which bowed but never broke. The Astros’ hitters, dormant for nearly the entire series, awoke with three late runs, including one on a home run from Jose Altuve, whose two-run single earlier had given Verlander a cushion.
Now comes an 8:10 p.m. ET showdown Saturday with the Yankees for the right to face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The Yankees will start CC Sabathia. The Astros announced after the game that Charlie Morton will get the call for Houston.
Of course, with Verlander on the mound, the Astros felt like Game 7 was an inevitability. In Game 2, he struck out 13 Yankees over nine innings and 124 pitches. Though his performance in Game 6 didn’t quite match the epic nature of his first ALCS start, he still struck out eight and left the Yankees with a zero on the scoreboard after each of his innings.
“It’s hard to measure. It’s hard to fake. You either have it or you don’t,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “Verlander has it.”
Verlander’s “it” doesn’t just emanate from an arm that at 34 years old continues to pump fastballs at 98 mph and mixes in sliders, curveballs and changeups that elicit embarrassing swings. His “it” goes back to his preparation and confidence – the latter of which leads him to wanting nine towels waiting for him on the landing beneath the dugout, one for each inning he plans on pitching.
He didn’t quite get there in Game 6, though this was exactly the sort of performance the Astros dreamt of when they acquired him from the Detroit Tigers one minute before the Aug. 31 trade deadline. The Yankees put a pair of runners on in his final two innings, and Hinch pulled Verlander for Brad Peacock before the eighth. Peacock promptly allowed a massive Aaron Judge home run that cut the Astros’ lead to 3-1.
Then came the offensive surge that took nearly an entire series. The Astros were batting an inconceivable .144 before the eighth. Altuve’s leadoff homer made it 4-1. Carlos Correa ripped a double. Yuli Gurriel poked a single to push Correa to third. And Alex Bregman’s double to left-center field scored Correa and Gurriel, the latter after a relay throw kicked away from him, similar to the play that lost the Yankees Game 2. An Evan Gattis sacrifice fly pushed the Astros ahead, 7-1, and closer Ken Giles worked around a ninth-inning single and walk. Giles threw 23 pitches, perhaps testing his ability to throw multiple innings in Game 7.
The Yankees will rely on Sabathia, their old workhorse whose six shutout innings in Game 3 started the Yankees’ rally from a two-games-to-none deficit. The home team now has won all six games of the ALCS, and if Houston wants to make it seven, it will rely on Morton.
Either way, the back-and-forth series has come to its rightful place: An all-hands-on-deck, madcap showdown between the blue bloods of baseball and the organization that tore itself down to build itself back to this place.
“This is why I’m here,” Verlander said before his start, and he just as well could’ve been speaking for everyone else, too.