ALCS Takeaways: ‘Big game’ James keeps Yankees alive

James Paxton joined Hazel Mae to discuss his performance as the New York Yankees defeated the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the ALCS.

The New York Yankees took care of business Friday, beating the Houston Astros, 4-1, to force a Game 6 in the American League Championship Series. That contest goes Saturday night in Houston with both teams likely throwing bullpen games. But before we get there, here are your takeaways from a cold night in the Bronx:

Big game James

Here’s how Yankees starter James Paxton’s night began: infield single, passed ball, ground out, walk, wild pitch, run on the board. That’s a frustrating way to begin an evening, but credit Paxton for settling in after a 23-pitch first inning and holding the Astros to only that run through six.

Paxton’s 95-97 m.p.h. fastball was overwhelming, as the Ladner, BC native located it all over the zone, throwing a heater nearly 70 per cent of the time. His cutter and curveball were there when needed, but it was really all about the fastball for Paxton in this one:

Things got a little dicey with one out in the sixth when Paxton issued his fourth walk of the night. He quickly rallied, getting Yordan Alvarez to swing over a curveball for his 9th strikeout. But then Yankees manager Aaron Boone made the slow walk out of the dugout with Tommy Kahnle warming in the bullpen.

Paxton had his argument ready when Boone got there and, in a remarkable moment, the Yankees starter successfully lobbied to stay in the game. Boone went back to the dugout. Paxton started Robinson Chirinos with a slider, his 112th pitch. The Astros catcher lifted the ball high and deep into the cold New York air in left field, where it hung up just long enough to fall into Brett Gardner’s glove on the warning track 373-feet away.

That was a massive leverage point in a tightly contested game. If Chirinos had hit that ball just a little bit farther — if the air had been just a little bit warmer, or perhaps if the regular season balls were being used rather than the deadened post-season ones — it’s a two-run shot and Boone’s being criticized for leaving Paxton in too long. But it ended up just short enough for Boone’s gamble to pay off.

Verlander’s rough start

Astros starter Justin Verlander didn’t look much like Justin Verlander in the first inning Friday, allowing a home run, single, and double — all well struck — to the first three batters he faced. That put a run on the board and two on base for Aaron Hicks, who clubbed this hanging slider off the right field foul pole:

Verlander hung a few sliders like that in the early going when he wasn’t missing way up and out of the zone with his fastball. With the Astros likely looking at a bullpen day in a possible Game 6 on Saturday, the gears had to be spinning awfully quickly in the mind of Houston manager AJ Hinch.

But the thing that separates elite pitchers like Verlander is their ability to make adjustments on the fly. Verlander brought his fastball back in the zone and took his slider off the plate, which helped him retire 10 straight after Hicks’ blast.

Remarkably, he allowed only a soft single over the remainder of his outing, sitting down 17 of 18 Yankees from the second inning through the seventh. It was an utterly dominant performance featuring all the trademark Verlander flash. Fastballs sitting between 95 and 97-m.p.h. Wicked, biting sliders. Twenty-five swinging strikes. Nine strikeouts. He was in peak form for every inning but the first. Unfortunately for him, that’s the one that made the difference.

Still, Verlander saved Hinch’s bullpen for Saturday, when it’ll be needed. The Astros have a few different directions they can go, but it’s safe to say they’ll use a cavalcade of relievers as they try to end the series in six. And if it goes seven, Gerrit Cole will be ready and waiting.

Odds and ends

• The Yankees scored more runs in first inning than they did in any of the first three games of this series.

• Yordan Alvarez has been mired in a series-long slump, but the Astros have opted to stick with him for Game 6. The likely rookie-of-the-year is having a miserable post-season and, after going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts Friday, is now 1-for-19 in the ALCS. His plate appearances in Game 5 were particularly uncompetitive. But he’ll get another try, at least for one game.

• Giancarlo Stanton toughed it out through a quad injury and looked far less than 100 per cent in his three plate appearances, which resulted in two strikeouts and a groundout. It’ll be interesting to see how his leg is feeling Saturday after a four-hour flight to Houston.

• New York’s bullpen was clinical over the final three innings, as Kahnle, Zach Britton, and Aroldis Chapman held the Astros to only a hit and a walk. Their efficiency was crucial. Kahnle threw eight pitches, Britton used 18, and Chapman only 9. That’s huge for Boone, who will almost certainly call on them in Game 6, and potentially again in Sunday’s Game 7.

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