NEW YORK — Another long night of baseball in the American League Championship Series, and another night of baseball turning on one or two pitches. This time Home Run Roulette landed on the number of Justin Verlander.
The Houston ace stood there at his locker Friday night with the resignation of someone who had just been told, “Tag, you’re it.” You probably never heard this before, but Verlander somehow navigated his way through seven innings with the assistance of a nasty changeup, such was the MacGyver role his night required. But a loser was he regardless, all because of a horrendous 3-and-2 slider he hung to Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks in a 1-1 game in the first inning of ALCS Game 5. Hicks kerplunked it off the rightfield foul pole for a three-run homer. Game over.
“I wish,” Verlander said, “I could recognize sooner when my slider is [bad].”
New York sent the series back to Houston for Game 6, a game in which both teams will start a relief pitcher, and one team will likely win it with multiple home runs.
As this series keeps proving, postseason baseball has never been simpler than how it is played today. Teams that hit zero or one home run are 14-25 (.359). And teams that hit at least two homers, as the Yankees did in Game 5, are 15-4 (.789). No other factor influences an outcome more.
Most every major pivot point in this series has been a home run. Gleyber Torres and Giancarlo Stanton broke open a 1-0 Game 1 with homers. George Springer tied Game 2 with a homer; Carlos Correa won it with a homer. Jose Altuve and Josh Reddick homered off Luis Severino first time around in Game 3, and that was enough for Gerrit Cole. Springer and Correa each hit three-run homers in Game 4. And DJ LeMahieu and Hicks went yard in the first inning of Game 5.
Two-thirds of the runs in this series (22 of 33) have scored on home runs. More runs have scored without a hit (6) than on one of those old-fashioned hits that stay in the ballpark (5).
We always make a big deal out of hitting with runners in scoring position in October, as if that still matters in a boom-or-bust game. The Yankees and Astros combined are hitting .132 with runners in scoring position (9-for-68).
MLB hitters are batting .202 with runners in scoring position this postseason, this after hitting .262 in such spots in the regular season. It is harder to get a hit with runners in scoring position this postseason than in any other postseason in the past three decades.
“The pitching is just too good,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said.
And so games are decided in spaces as narrow as one or two pitches, like the slider Verlander threw Hicks. Verlander came out of the gate trying to bully the Yankees with fastballs, but that played right into their approach. They decided before the game they were going to ambush Verlander rather than draw out at-bats.
Verlander threw fastballs with his first five pitches, and this is how it went: foul ball, home run, ball, called strike, single. The single by Judge was the signal that the Yankees were hunting fastballs early. He pulled it sharply into leftfield. Judge pulling an above-average fastball for a hit? Now that’s news: he had done that only nine times the entire season.
Verlander tried a curveball to Torres, but he hooked it for a double. Verlander finally got an out by fanning weak-legged Giancarlo Stanton, who fairly creaked with rust. But then he couldn’t finish off Hicks, not with a hanging slider that had Yahtzee! written all over it.
“I wasn’t able to execute anything,” Verlander said. “I let him back in the count. If there’s anything I can take out of this, it’s knowing I was able to save the bullpen.”
Verlander’s six scoreless innings of one-hit ball after the first allows Houston manager A.J. Hinch to take a fresh, loaded bullpen into Game 6.
First Hinch needs to start his best option against LeMahieu, Judge and Torres to begin the game. He has to treat the top of the first like it’s late-inning high leverage, because that’s how it has played out the past three games. The Yankees and Astros have scored seven runs and put 18 runners on in the six turns at-bat in the first innings. Hinch needs a shutdown inning to start the game, which means he should start Brad Peacock over rookie Jose Urquidy.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone is likely to start his favorite opener, Chad Green. His biggest decision is who is his next man in after he squeezes every possible pitch out of Green. J.A. Happ? Boone can carve up the final eight or so outs between Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman, but he has to manage his way there carefully—and still have some gunpowder dry for Game 7 behind Severino and against Cole.
Bregman is right, of course. The pitching is too good. Jonathan Loaisiga is buried deep in the Yankees bullpen, for instance, and he throws a hundred miles an hour with a knee-buckling curve. (He’s actually set up to be a key player in Game 6.) The pitching is too good to expect a shower of singles, especially when you also consider how dialed in are the alignments of the defenses. The Yankees are hitting .236 when they put the ball in play and the Astros are at only .207 when they do. (Houston hit .296 on BABIP during the regular season; the Astros look up and it seems as if the Yankees have 12 defenders.)
The season for New York and Houston comes down to this: defend the home run, which pretty much means don’t make a mistake over the plate, especially with fastballs. Fastballs account for only 55% of the pitches thrown this postseason, but 71% of the home runs (48 of 68).
Home Run Roulette resumes Saturday night with Game 6, a game in which you should expect 10 or more pitchers to try their luck.