If you didn’t watch Game 6 in Houston between the Astros and the Yankees and only saw the 7-1 final score — or even if you only saw the highlights — what I’m about to say will make no sense. This was a six-run Houston win that easily could’ve gone either way were it not for a moment here or there. The narrative that will run in most of the newspapers across the land will be about Justin Verlander’s continued dominance, José Altuve’s continued success, and the reemergence of the Houston offense. There’s truth in all of that, but like most stories, especially the ones told in October, it’s important to take a deeper look.
After the Yankee hitters were able to take care of Dallas Keuchel in their second look at him in Game 5, there was hope that we might see more of the same with Verlander on the mound in Game 6. Looking for a different result, the Yankees came out with a different game plan. Instead of making Verlander work and looking to exploit any lingering effects of his 124-pitch effort last Saturday, the New York hitters were aggressive all night long, jumping on pitches early in the count to avoid falling behind and giving a great pitcher a greater advantage.
Brett Gardner singled on the third pitch of the game, but a double play from Aaron Judge and a popup from Didi Gregorius consumed just eight pitches and the Yankees were done. From there Verlander would throw thirteen pitches in the second, eleven in the third, twelve in the fourth, and fourteen in the fifth. No Yankee hitter would see more than five pitches during those first five innings, one would see just two, and two others (Gardner and Castro) would go down on a single pitch.
Opposing Verlander was Luís Severino. There can be no doubt that Severino has the potential to be the Yankee ace for years to come, but this postseason has been something of an education for him. After that disastrous start in the Wild Card game against Minnesota that almost ended this playoff run before it began, Sevy rebounded with seven strong innings against Cleveland in Game 4 of the divisional series, but was pulled after four innings in the second game of this series when an injury scare forced him from the game.
How would he respond on this stage, paired against one of the best pitchers in the game in a hostile environment, with an opportunity to pitch his team into the World Series? Early on, he was more than good. In fact, he was better than Verlander. He walked Yuli Gurriel with one out in the second, but didn’t yield his first hit until Carlos Correa singled with two outs in the fourth.
In fifth, however, things began to unravel. Alex Bregman worked a leadoff walk, laying off pitches that teased the edges of the strike zone. After Marwin González hit a soft grounder to Starlin Castro to advance Bregman to second, designated hitter Evan Gattis brought his bat up to the plate even though he wouldn’t end up needing it. Perhaps reading from the wrong scouting report, Severino pitched Gattis as carefully as if he were Altuve or Correa, and the result was a four-pitch walk, bringing our old friend Brian McCann into the batter’s box.
One look makes it clear that McCann left his razor in New York when he was traded away following last season’s emergence of Gary Sánchez. He is completely unrecognizable. As he dug in against Severino with one out and runners on first and second, his Keuchelish beard dipped into the strike zone as he prepared for what would probably be the biggest at bat of his Houston career.
The walk to Gattis notwithstanding, Severino was still in control, and if his first two pitches to McCann — a 98-MPH fastball on the outside corner followed by a 90-MPH slider in essentially the same spot — demonstrated this, his next three were even better. With McCann frustrated with home plate umpire Jim Reynolds’s strike zone (more on this later), Severino shrewdly tried to stretch that strike zone a bit more, looking to entice either a swing from McCann or a strike call from Reynolds with a slider and a fastball just a few inches farther outside. Neither hitter nor umpire bit, so Severino came back into the zone with his 2-2 pitch. It was a good pitch, 98 and heading right for his catcher’s glove on the outside corner, but McKeuchel reached across the plate and slashed a hard liner that rocketed past Aaron Judge before leaping into the right field stands for a ground rule double and a 1-0 Houston lead.
With runners now on second and third and only one out (and Verlander pitching well), it was important to turn back this Houston uprising without any further damage. Severino walked George Springer on four pitches, kind of intentionally unintentional, to face Josh Reddick, who hasn’t had a hit in almost two weeks. It was a good choice, as Reddick popped up harmlessly to Aaron Hicks in short center, but all that meant was that Altuve was coming to the plate with the bases loaded.
Altuve had disappeared with the rest of the Houston offense during the three games in New York, going hitless in those three losses, but the tiniest Astro is still a serious threat. Severino was in an interesting spot. The ultra-aggressive Altuve feasts on first-pitch fastballs, so the Yankee pitchers have made it clear that he’ll never see another one from them. The problem with this, of course, is that now Altuve knows that every at bat will start with a breaking ball. In this moment he was clearly sitting on a slider, and Severino threw him a bad one. The pitch floated up into the zone a bit, and Altuve pounced on it, rifling a line drive through the left side of the infield and scoring two more Houston runs to build the lead to 3-0.
Severino’s night was done, but Verlander’s was just about to get interesting. The red hot Chase Headley started the sixth inning with a single, and after Gardner and Judge each made out, Gregorius shot a line drive base hit into right field to bring Sánchez to the plate as the tying run. Verlander went to his fastball, but his three attempts to lure Sánchez out of the strike zone all failed, and suddenly the Kraken was in the driver’s seat. Perhaps sensing an opportunity to jump back into the game with one swing, manager Joe Girardi gave Sánchez the green light. Perhaps sensing that Girardi was sensing this, Verlander went to his slider, and this time Sánchez bit. Kind of. Fooled by the pitch, Sánchez tried to check his swing but ended up making minimal contact, dribbling the ball out to Correa at short for the final out of the inning.
The Yankees’ best chance would come in the following frame. Greg Bird worked a six-pitch walk to lead off the inning, and two pitches later Verlander nicked Castro’s sweatband to put runners on first and second with Hicks coming up. It will be noted that Hicks put on a professional at bat, pushing Verlander for ten pitches before striking out, but one thing that won’t make it into any box score was a pitch that could’ve changed the entire game. Verlander’s first three pitches were balls, and after taking the next pitch down the middle for strike one, Hicks got ready for a 3-1 pitch and waited for the chance to get his team back in the game. Verlander’s pitch tailed out of the strike zone — clearly out of the strike zone — and Hicks began to toss his bat away in anticipation of a walk that would’ve loaded the bases with none out.
But Jim Reynolds called the pitch a ball. In fairness, Reynolds’s strike zone was a moving target all night long for both teams, but this particular call victimized Hicks and stifled a rally. Had Hicks been awarded first base, Houston manager A.J. Hinch would’ve faced a difficult decision: stay with Verlander or take his chances with his shaky bullpen. But he didn’t have to think about that. Five pitches later, Hicks struck out.
Todd Frazier wilted beneath the spin of a curveball on the first pitch of the next at bat, putting him down 0-1, but then Frazier found a fastball to his liking and pounded it deep to center field. I was up off the couch almost immediately, yelling at the ball to get out, but Springer was tracking it, heading confidently back to the wall. He got to the warning track and leapt up against the ten-foot barrier, robbing not a homer but an extra base hit from Frazier and preserving Verlander’s shutout.
Twice it looked like the game was going to change, but twice it remained the same. The next hitter was Headley, who grounded out to end the inning.
The Astros happily accepted those seven scoreless inning from Verlander and turned to their bullpen in the eighth. Brad Peacock came in, and Aaron Judge reminded everyone that Altuve wasn’t the only MVP candidate on the field when he launched a monstrous home run to left, cutting the Houston lead to two runs at 3-1. Peacock was momentarily shaken by the blow and initially struggled to regain the strike zone against Gregorius, but then Didi popped up and Sánchez watched a fastball down the middle for strike three, and the inning was over.
David Robertson came on for the bottom of the eighth to keep things close, but instead he blew everything up, and it only took twelve pitches. Five of those were to Altuve. With the count 2-2, Robertson made a nice pitch, a slider that started at the knees before dipping below the strike zone, but Altuve reached for it anyway and flicked a fly ball that barely carried over the high wall in left for a home run. I see you Aaron Judge, and I raise you. The lead was back to three.
Shockingly, the Astros would add two more runs in what seemed like thirty seconds. Correa jumped on the next pitch and laced a double down the line in left, then Gurriel singled him to third three pitches later. Three pitches after that Bregman pounded a long double to center to score Correa and Gurriel. 6-1. With one eye already on Game 7, Girardi pulled Robertson and waved the white flag, bringing in Delin Betances to finish the inning. Delin eventually allowed a seventh run, and that was that.
While it might sting a bit to know that the Yankees missed a chance to clinch the series on Friday night and avoid the cauldron of Game 7, I can’t imagine there’s a player on the roster, a suit in the front office, or a fan wearing pinstripes who sees anything but opportunity waiting on Saturday night.
When Joe Girardi first saw the replay of the ball hitting Lonnie Chisenhall’s hand after the loss in Game 2 put the Yankees in an 0-2 hole in Cleveland, do you think he would’ve turned down Game 7 in the LCS? When CC Sabathia walked away from the team in the closing weeks of 2015 to pursue treatment for alcoholism, do you think he would’ve shied away from an October start two years later? Or what about when he tweaked his knee in August and feared he might never pitch again? Don’t you think he would’ve given anything to get the ball in Game 7? When Greg Bird was lying in a hospital bed in the winter of 2015, rehabbing throughout 2016, then missing more than 100 games in 2017, don’t you think he’d have given years of his life to play in this deciding game?
During this past off-season, faced with the prospect of rebuilding a team whose stated goal is to compete for a championship every season, do you think general manager Brian Cashman could ever have imagined a one-game shot for the World Series?
And what about you? When the Yankees were wandering aimlessly in the desert, losing fifteen games in August, did you even believe they’d make the playoffs? Did you ever imagine that Judge and Sanchez and Bird and Severino would draw legitimate comparisons — this year — to Jeter and Posada and Pettitte and Rivera? Could you have possibly dreamed of a run like this, a unlikely trip through October that has finally arrived at the most magical of destinations? If you did, your dream has come true.
Don’t worry. Believe.