HOUSTON — A few moments before midnight on Aug. 31, the final signatures were secured, the official documents were routed electronically to Major League Baseball’s Manhattan offices, and Justin Verlander became a Houston Astro. He flew in the next day, stepping into the embrace of a franchise that desperately needed a veteran ace and a storm-ravaged city that needed a reason to believe there would be better days ahead, days that might even include baseball in late October.
Fifty days later, on a Friday night that pushed two teams’ seasons to their breaking point, Verlander ascended the mound at Minute Maid Park, rescued the Astros from the abyss and ensured there would be baseball in Houston for at least one more night.
With seven brilliant, shutout innings in a 7-1 win over the New York Yankees in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Verlander pitched the Astros to within one more win of the second World Series appearance in their history, and first since 2005. On Saturday night, when New York’s CC Sabathia faces off against Houston’s Charlie Morton, baseball will witness the first Game 7 in an LCS since the San Francisco Giants outlasted the St. Louis Cardinals to win the NL pennant in 2012.
“I’m not going to lie to you. It’s a lot of emotions in that clubhouse,” said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who drove in three of their runs with a single and a homer. “I believe in my team. Tomorrow is going to be a good night.”
The Astros would almost certainly be finished without Verlander on their side. His gem Friday night came six days after he shut down the Yankees in a complete-game victory in Game 2. All told, he has thrown 16 innings in the series, allowing just 10 hits, two walks and one run while striking out 21 batters. Since arriving in Houston, he is 9-0 with a 1.23 ERA, 67 strikeouts and only 11 walks.
“He’s been everything we could have hoped for and more,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “He rises to the moment. He emptied his tank tonight. I know how much he puts into these outings. He chose to come here for games like this. We hope we all get to see him pitch again.”
On Friday night, Verlander’s performance veered from overpowering at the beginning to crafty and gutsy — with a heaping measure of good fortune tossed in — at the end. His toughest inning by far was his last, when he put the first two batters of the seventh inning on base with a walk and a hit-by-pitch. But he struck out Aaron Hicks on a 3-2 slider at the end of a 10-pitch duel — “The pitch of the game for me,” Verlander would say — then became a spectator like everyone else on both teams and the crowd of 43,179, as his epic night hung on the outcome of Todd Frazier’s flyball to deep center.
“I thought, ‘Homer,’ ” Verlander said.
“I thought, ‘Holy hell, it’s going to leave the yard,’ ” Hinch said.
Frazier’s deep blast carried, carried, carried, and George Springer drifted, drifted, drifted, until Springer sprung from the warning track and met the ball at the apex of his jump, just in front of the wall — a spectacular catch that robbed Frazier of extra bases and prevented two runs from scoring.
At the end of every inning he pitches, Verlander stalks off the mound like a predator and goes down the stairs at the far left end of the Astros’ dugout, walks the length of the dugout and descends the stairwell at the other end that leads to their clubhouse.
But after his escape in the seventh, Verlander diverted from form. Near the first base line, he stopped, pumped his fists and screamed. And he waited. He waited until Springer made the long jog in from center field. Verlander wasn’t going anywhere until he could thank his center fielder, with some colorful language, in person.
“He said something I can’t repeat and then ‘yeah,’ ” Springer said of his brief conversation with Verlander. “He was pretty hyped. To see him that fired up means a lot to me.”
Verlander’s night was over, but there were decisions still to be made on both sides that had ramifications for Game 7. Yankees Manager Joe Girardi used two of his best relievers, right-handers Chad Green and David Robertson, to try to keep the deficit manageable, in hopes his team could mount a late comeback — a decision that backfired when Robertson gave up four runs in the eighth. Green, who threw 2⅓ innings, is probably out of commission for Saturday night.
Hinch, too, managed aggressively, taking no chances with the lead. He used Brad Peacock, a converted starter who has become a critical reliever, for the eighth inning — and Peacock surrendered a massive home run to Aaron Judge, the ball clanging off the train that sits some 75 feet above the wall in left-center — then, even with a six-run lead, used closer Ken Giles in the ninth. Giles needed 23 pitches to get out of the inning, which likely will limit his availability in Game 7.
“There was no tomorrow, so we didn’t have the luxury of limping into that inning,” Hinch said of the decision to use Giles. “We wanted to shake hands and get to tomorrow. How it happens tomorrow, we’ll see. I’ll use every pitcher on the staff if we need to, to get 27 outs.”
If the Astros had been able to win just one of the three games this week at Yankee Stadium — where they instead found themselves outscored 19-5 in a trio of losses — Verlander could have been pitching Friday night with a chance to send them to the World Series.
For all their many attributes and charms, the Yankees had been a mediocre team away from Yankee Stadium, going 40-41 on the road in the regular season and 1-4 in the postseason entering Friday night. And everything that went down at the cavernous ballpark on Texas Street seemed designed to remind everyone, the Yankees most of all, that they weren’t in the Bronx anymore.
The pregame soundtrack featured both types of music, country and western. The crowd was early-arriving, clad in bright orange and hopped up on Budweisers and salsa verde. Country singer Jack Ingram drawled out the national anthem, finger-picking his own accompaniment on a Gibson J-45.
And then Verlander ascended the mound. He isn’t a Texan, but by the end of this month he might be an honorary one.
“This is why I’m here,” Verlander said the day before his start.
The Yankees had turned their second chances against Cleveland’s Trevor Bauer in the Division Series and against Houston’s Dallas Keuchel in Game 5 of this series into acts of redemption, lighting up both pitchers the second time around. But Verlander is a different animal entirely.
Weak swings were one good measure of Verlander’s dominance. He ended the fifth by getting Frazier to make a feeble, ungainly swing at a curveball, the fourth straight inning Verlander ended with a K. At a critical juncture in the sixth, with Verlander facing runners on first and second and two outs, Gary Sanchez, clearly looking for a fastball, got a slider instead and was fooled into taking a weak, checked-swing hack and grounded out meekly to shortstop.
“There’s an element of — I don’t even know how to explain it,” Verlander said. “Multiple times throughout the game, I forget what inning we’re in, what’s going on around me. I won’t even remember what batter is coming up. My only focus is to execute, pitch by pitch.”
An Astros offense that led the AL in runs, with 5.5 per game, had scored only nine in the first five games of this series, and was on the verge of being shut down yet again by Yankees starter Luis Severino, who retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced, firing fastballs that topped out at 101 mph.
But when the end came for Severino, it came with breathtaking swiftness. He issued three walks in the fifth inning — never a great idea to give free passes to a team whose collective batting average is intimidating — and the Astros made him pay, with Brian McCann, 0 for 11 in the series to that point, lashing a 98-mph fastball into the right-field corner for an RBI ground-rule double, and Altuve crushing a first-pitch hanging slider to left for a two-run single.
“We have the best offense in the major leagues,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “You can see that by [the numbers over] 162 games. At some point, we had to come out and hit.”
Game 7s are unlike any other moments in baseball. The last one came a year ago in the World Series; it lasted 10 innings and instantly immortalized the members of the 2016 Chicago Cubs.
You are sure to see quick hooks and starting pitchers — beginning with New York’s Sonny Gray and/or Houston’s Lance McCullers — coming on in relief. You will feel the tension from your box seats or through your television. You will hear the phrase “all hands on deck” a million times.
And one possibility was particularly tantalizing as the teams retreated into Friday night to try to get some sleep: the possibility Verlander could attempt to pull a Randy Johnson — defined as starting and winning Game 6 then pitching in relief in Game 7 on zero days’ rest, something Johnson did against the Yankees in the 2001 World Series.
“I don’t know,” Verlander said with a laugh when asked about the possibility. “We’ll have this conversation tomorrow.”
Whether he does or doesn’t, and whether the Astros get to the World Series or don’t, Verlander has already done his part. This performance Friday night was why the Astros got him. This moment was why he was here.