We could talk about the empirical qualities of Justin Verlander’s Game 6 ALCS masterpiece against the Yankees, a game that extended the ailing Astros’ season by another night and that typified the literary trope of one man standing against the world and prevailing in the way that, in baseball, only a great starting pitcher can. It conjured images of Madison Bumgarner putting the Giants on his back like a furry Atlas in 2014.
We could talk about how many innings Verlander threw in the 7-1 victory and how many batters he struck out—and we will—but first, y’all need to get a load of this.
Justin Verlander just isn't fair. https://t.co/hieAmLBtwu— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) October 21, 2017
That’s Todd Frazier, a two-time All-Star with 175 career home runs. He’s seen just about everything there is to see in baseball, but that two-strike curveball was too much—it buckled his knees and hung up there long enough for Frazier to try a last-ditch slap at the ball. He was going to strike out anyway—might as well get his money’s worth.
That was one of eight strikeouts for Verlander, who threw seven scoreless innings in Houston’s first win since Verlander’s 124-pitch complete-game gem in Game 2. The five intervening days have seen almost every other pitcher on the staff fail. The Astros’ bats, removed from the suffocating mugginess of southeast Texas, went ice cold as a 2-0 series lead turned into a 3-2 deficit.
It was the latest in a string of dramatic performances for the 34-year-old right-hander, who was acquired on August 31 with minutes to spare before the waiver trade deadline to make him postseason-eligible. Verlander beat Boston’s big hired gun, Chris Sale, in Game 1 of the ALDS, then earned the series-clinching win in relief on three days rest, then threw the aforementioned complete game in his first action of the ALCS. Baseball doesn’t have many bigger names than Verlander, and you’d be hard-pressed to find bigger situations for the Astros to use him in—the combination of the two has been nothing short of magical for the Astros this postseason.
“He's been everything that we could have hoped for and more,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said after Game 6.
This game was like a Lord of the Rings movie—no action whatsoever for the first hour and a half, then total mayhem. It took until the fourth inning for the Astros to put a hit on the board, and it took until the fifth for a player from either team to reach second base. That player, Alex Bregman, came around to score on a ground-rule double by Brian McCann, who’d been 0-for-the series until that point. It was the Astros’ first run in 15 innings. Houston tacked on two more in that inning on an RBI single by José Altuve to bring the score to 3-0.
“As soon as we started playing, we forgot about the last three games in New York,” Altuve said after the game.
The Minute Maid Park crowd took on an unusual tenor in the early innings. After the Astros scored just five runs in three games in New York (with four of those runs coming in Game 4, which Houston lost thanks to a horrifying bullpen meltdown) any path back into the series would have to start with a gem from Verlander in Game 6. Considering how well he’s pitched since arriving in Houston, there was a tangible sense that he was expected to produce another one here.
Particularly compared to the Yankees, the Astros’ culture is young, having been completely torn down and built back up in the decade between their only pennant, in 2005, and their return to the postseason in 2015. It was a decade in which, conveniently for purposes of symbolism, the Astros got a new owner, a new league, and new uniforms. The current cultural cycle is new enough that—and this is the coolest thing about the past nine weeks in Houston—Verlander’s arrival almost validates it. He’s not just another piece, he’s a superstar, coming to play with this homegrown core, and loving every second.
“It’s pretty amazing how quickly these fans have bonded to me, and vice versa,” Verlander said after the game. “I feel it, I appreciate it, especially on the field.”
In Games 1 and 2, the stadium overflowed with the confidence born out of not having been in a game of this magnitude in the past decade, not anticipating the kind of disaster that would ultimately take place in New York. By Friday night, the crowd had been staring into the abyss all week, looking at a full-time transition to football season about a week and a half earlier than they’d planned. With Verlander on the mound, they expected the best, but with the team hitting .143/.234/.213 through five games of the ALCS, they expected the worst. It was optimism underpinned by anxiety, and as the game wore on that anxiety grew and grew. If the Astros didn’t score, one rough inning by Verlander could end the season.
But the Astros scored in the fifth, and in the seventh, Verlander hit his rough inning. He walked Greg Bird to lead off the inning, then hit Starlin Castro. Aaron Hicks, representing the tying run, worked a 3-0 count, took two strikes, then fouled off four straight pitches before Verlander finally put him away with a dirty slider low and on the outside corner. The next batter, Frazier, scalded a ball to the gap. It would’ve hit the wall just right of the 404 sign in left center and brought home two runs had center fielder George Springer not hurled himself against the fence to reel it in.
A literal back-against-the-wall play.
“I thought, ‘Holy hell, it’s going to leave the yard.’ I thought it was out,” Hinch said. “That's the deepest part of the yard, and I've seen a lot of balls carry. And I've seen him hit one arm or one-handed swings this series and the ball carry out of the ballpark. I did think it was out.”
It wasn’t, and just like that, Chase Headley grounded out to end the inning. The intensity of the frame, and the 24 pitches Verlander threw, took him out of the game after just seven innings, but he’d escaped the Yankees’ biggest threat of the night, and the stadium exhaled again. Aaron Judge cut the lead to two with a towering home run off Brad Peacock in the eighth, but in the bottom of that inning, the Astros’ bats showed up in a way they hadn’t since the Division Series.
The leadoff hitter, Altuve, answered Judge’s homer with a wall-scraper into the Crawford Boxes, and the next three Astros got hits—importantly, off David Robertson, who’d been imperious so far this postseason. The Astros pushed four across the plate in the bottom of the eighth, and each hit peeled off a layer of the crowd’s anxiety, until all that remained was the brash confidence of Games 1 and 2. Nothing tempered their enthusiasm afterward—not closer Ken Giles’s scoreless but shaky ninth, nor the knowledge that the Astros will have to somehow get 27 outs on Saturday without Verlander, and with Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers available only out of the pen on short rest.
The Astros brought the series level, to be decided by one last game—at home, where they’re 15-2 since September 1. In the process they not only won, but made the vaunted Yankee bullpen bleed. Verlander was incredible once again, and Altuve and the offense are finally putting runs on the board. This is business as usual—what is there to fear?