On Friday night, Dallas Keuchel won Game 1 of the ALCS with a seven-inning, 109-pitch gem. That game was the 20th of the MLB postseason, for 40 starting pitching performances in total. Keuchel’s was the second-longest by both batters faced and pitches thrown, and tied the longest by innings.
Only half of those 40 starters lasted long enough—five innings—to be credited with a win. None had pitched more than three times through the order, and none had recorded an out in the eighth inning. Thinking back to Keuchel’s LDS start against Kansas City two years ago, I tweeted this:
First MLB playoff game I covered, Keuchel threw 124 pitches. Wonder how long it'll be before a starter does that in a playoff game again— Michael Baumann (@MJ_Baumann) October 14, 2017
Justin Verlander did it 21 hours later, with a 124-pitch, complete-game victory that put the Astros up 2-0 over the Yankees in the ALCS.
Verlander had 13 strikeouts against just one walk, five hits, and one run. Carlos Correa drove in both Astro runs, including a wall-scraping home run in the fourth inning and a dramatic walk-off double in the ninth, to lead Houston to a 2-1 win.
“Big moments are meant for big-time performers,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “From pitch one, Justin Verlander was big for this team. Really, pitch one as an Astro. But most importantly, this game today he was exceptional in every way.”
Since 2010, there have been 17 playoff starts of 120 pitches or more, seven of them courtesy of Verlander, including Saturday’s. Since the Royals and Indians have provided proof of concept over the past three years, bullpen games have become more common in the playoffs. The heroic one-man-against-the-world performance—the kind of outing Bob Gibson made a living on in the 1960s—is endangered, if not on its way to going totally extinct.
As a starter goes deeper into games, he tends to get tired, and (though the scientific consensus on this isn’t as clear as it was as recently as two years ago) opposing batters might figure him out the third or fourth time through the order. And given that it’s easier to find a relief pitcher who can throw 97 with a plus slider than it is to buy Sudafed nowadays, deeper bullpens and shorter outings for pitchers in the playoffs are more common. The Astros acquired Verlander moments before the August 31 deadline to make him playoff eligible, with just such a game in mind.
Verlander, who’d played his entire career in Detroit and had to waive a no-trade clause before the Tigers could send him to Houston, was also imagining this kind of performance. “When it came down to it, when I decided to say yes, these are the moments that you envision,” Verlander said. “You don't envision going 5-0 in the regular season once you get here—that’s all fine and great, but that’s not why I was brought here. I was brought here to help this team win a championship.”
Verlander has thrown 200 or more innings in a season 10 times, and with his 19th playoff start, he has more experience in the postseason than all but three active pitchers: Jon Lester, John Lackey, and CC Sabathia.
On Saturday, Verlander had already thrown a masterpiece through eight innings—13 strikeouts, one run, 109 pitches—when it became clear that the Astros didn’t have a reliever up in the pen in the bottom of the eighth. When the top of the ninth rolled around, Verlander was a little late coming out of the dugout, but when he appeared, the crowd acted like Metallica had just come out for an encore.
“Early in my career, when things in baseball are kind of transitioning from older school to newer school, I was fortunate to have a manager in Jim Leyland who realized that I got stronger as games went on and let me continue to pitch,” Verlander said after the game. “When I got here, one of the first things I did was have a conversation with A.J. about how he would like to use me, and he told me that he didn’t plan on trying to shorten my leash or take me out early.”
Though Verlander only faced 20 batters this year on his fourth time through the order, pitching late into games hasn’t bothered him much over the course of his career. His opponent OPS is only about 20 points higher than his career average the fourth time through the order, and it’s 50 points lower from his 101st pitch of the game on than it is from pitch 76 to 100.
After 40 starts of nobody facing a batter four times in a game, Verlander did it five times in one outing and sat down four of them, including Aaron Judge, Gary Sánchez, and Greg Bird—three very dangerous hitters—in the ninth.
“I get talked to about the third time through the order these days—so fourth time is definitely going to create a little bit of curiosity,” Hinch said. “But you guys watched the game: He was really good and he had plenty left and he was making pitches and he was missing bats. That’s enough for me.”
Great as Verlander was, and inviting as it is to act like he did this on his own, he left the mound after nine innings and 124 pitches in a tie game—his opponent, Luis Severino, allowed one run in four innings, and David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle pitched two scoreless innings apiece.
The Astros had numerous close calls to even get to the bottom of the ninth at 1-1. In the second inning, Correa and Alex Bregman collided on an infield pop-up; the next inning, right fielder Josh Reddick made a leaping grab at the wall to rob Chase Headley of a home run.
When the next batter, Brett Gardner, pulled a ball down the first base line into the corner, Reddick made a perfect throw to Correa who made a perfect relay throw to Bregman and got Gardner trying to stretch a double into a triple.
Even Correa’s home run was weird—Judge came about a foot short of making a play at the track, but the ball escaped him and hit the glove of a 12-year-old who was reaching over the fence, evoking memories of the 1996 ALCS and Jeffrey Maier. Unlike in the case of Maier, who pulled a sure out over the wall at Yankee Stadium, this ball would’ve at least bounced off the top of the padding and into the stands, if not cleared the wall on the fly.
Also unlike in Maier’s case, this play was reviewed and found not to constitute fan interference, much to Correa’s relief.
“I was jogging around the bases and I said, ‘I ain’t going back to second if they review it,’” Correa said.
The Yankees had their own wall drama. Their run came on a ground-rule double to left center as Todd Frazier’s line drive bounced up onto the fence protecting the Yankee bullpen and got stuck there, out of the reach of Astros center fielder George Springer.
For all Verlander’s dominance, he still would’ve been left with a no-decision had José Altuve and Correa not teamed up to create the winning run against Aroldis Chapman in the ninth. With Altuve on first, Correa doubled to the gap in right center, and Judge cut the ball off and nearly nailed Correa at second. Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius delivered the ball to home plate in plenty of time to cut down Altuve.
“We joke in our clubhouse about Gary Pettis being the most aggressive third base coach in the league, and I think he still lives as the most aggressive third base coach in the league because he wants to put pressure on the opponent,” Hinch said.
Gregorius’s throw beat Altuve by so much that one had time to follow the ball as it short-hopped Sánchez and hit him in the torso, then watch Sánchez pick it up, then track Altuve’s hand as it evaded Sánchez’s tag and slapped home plate to end the game.
“It’s the greatest feeling ever,” Correa said. “Winning is always fun, but winning in the playoffs and such an important spot is even bigger.”
Saturday’s result leaves the Astros in control of a surprisingly low-scoring ALCS as it heads back to New York. The Astros and Yankees were by far the two highest-scoring teams in MLB this year, but they’ve combined to produce just six runs in two games, though the strikeout-happy Yankee pitching staff managed to punch out just four Astros on Saturday. Severino, who struck out 29.4 percent of the batters he faced this year—sixth out of 58 qualified starters—failed to strike out even one of the 15 Astros he faced in Game 2.
Game 3, set for Monday night at Yankee Stadium, will pit Astros righthander Charlie Morton against veteran lefty CC Sabathia, last seen turning back the clock against Cleveland to send the Yankees to this round in the first place. If the Yankees lose on Monday, they’ll have to win four in a row to erase a 3-0 series deficit, a feat which—much to the franchise’s chagrin—has only been achieved once before in baseball history.