HOUSTON — The path to the World Series for the Yankees goes not only through the Houston Astros but specifically their ace, Justin Verlander. If the Yankees want to win their first American League pennant since 2009, they may need to find a way to beat Verlander — this year’s presumptive A.L. Cy Young Award winner — at least once this October.
Verlander, 39, may go down as one of the best starting pitchers ever. After returning from Tommy John surgery that cost him nearly two entire seasons, he went 18-4 with a 1.75 E.R.A. over 175 innings during the regular season. He has 244 career wins, 3,198 strikeouts, a Rookie of the Year Award, a Most Valuable Player Award, two Cy Young Awards and a World Series ring.
Sweeping the Seattle Mariners in the previous round allowed the Astros the luxury of lining up their pitching staff strategically to face the Yankees. By tabbing the right-hander Verlander for Game 1 of the best-of-seven A.L. Championship Series that began on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park, the Astros could turn to him again on regular rest for a potential Game 5.
Sure, the Yankees could lose both games started by Verlander and still win the series, but that significantly narrows their margin for error in this showdown between the A.L.’s top two seeds. In their first crack at Verlander, the Yankees held their own but couldn’t quite topple him. He allowed one run and struck out 11 over six innings, paving the way for the Astros’ bats to explode in a 4-2 win.
“He’s not only physically strong, which you can see, but he’s mentally strong,” said Astros Manager Dusty Baker, who added that Verlander was better from pitches No. 80 through 103 than earlier in the game. “This guy, he has mental toughness. When he’s down and out and it looks like you got him in trouble, this guy, he can dial it up.”
Verlander started off slowly, but when he departed the game, the score was tied, 1-1. In the bottom half of the sixth inning, though, Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel and center fielder Chas McCormick each slammed solo home runs off the Yankees right-handed reliever Clarke Schmidt. An inning later, the Astros rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña cracked a solo shot off the right-hander Frankie Montas, who was making his first appearance after returning from a shoulder injury that popped up last month.
“I felt like they had the momentum early as an offense against me, but I felt like I was able to kind of bring it back on my side and just kind of keep the pressure on them once that happened,” Verlander said. “And thankfully our boys came through with some big hits and the bullpen did their job like they usually do. That’s how we win a lot of ball games.”
While Verlander is sensational, it’s not like the Astros, who are making their sixth straight A.L.C.S. appearance, have a top-heavy rotation. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers’ rotation had a better E.R.A. (2.75) than the Astros’ (2.95). At least one advanced metric (wins above replacement) rated the Astros’ group better than everyone else’s. Framber Valdez, José Urquidy, Luis García, Cristian Javier and Lance McCullers Jr. each posted an E.R.A. under 3.95 this season.
So after the challenge of Verlander in Game 1, the Yankees get the left-handed Valdez, who went 17-6 with a 2.82 E.R.A. over 201 ⅓ innings in the regular season, in Game 2 on Thursday. The Yankees will counter with the right-hander Luis Severino, who allowed three runs over five and two-thirds innings in his lone start of the previous playoff round against the Cleveland Guardians.
On Wednesday, Yankees starting pitcher Jameson Taillon did his best to neutralize the Astros. His only appearance in the previous round — his first ever postseason outing and also his first career relief appearance — was disastrous. In the Yankees’ 4-2 loss in extra innings in Game 2 against Cleveland, he pitched the 10th inning in relief and coughed up two runs on three hits. Wednesday was his first start since Oct. 4, and he allowed just one run over four and one-third innings.
But Taillon and the Yankees couldn’t outlast Verlander and the Astros. To start, Verlander combated some wayward command and tough plate appearances. He needed 55 pitches to complete the first two innings. A surging Yankees hero, center fielder Harrison Bader, gave his team an early lead against Verlander.
Acquired just before the Aug. 2 trading deadline in a surprise swap with the St. Louis Cardinals, Bader didn’t made his Yankees debut until late September because of a foot injury. But in six games in pinstripes this postseason, Bader has mashed four home runs, his latest coming off Verlander in the second inning.
That was all the Yankees could muster off Verlander, whose command improved to the point that he was hitting the edges of the strike zone with ease in the later innings. They also failed to capitalize when they had him cornered. After first baseman Anthony Rizzo walked and left fielder Giancarlo Stanton doubled in the third inning, the Yankees had a fruitful chance with one out. But third baseman Josh Donaldson and designated hitter Matt Carpenter each struck out — Carpenter looking at a called strike he disagreed with — to end the threat.
That was the beginning of a stretch in which Verlander struck out six straight Yankees. When he struck out Carpenter again, swinging this time, to complete six innings, Verlander bounced off the mound and pumped his right fist.
It was his eighth career postseason start with 10 or more strikeouts, extending his major league record. With his sixth strikeout of the night, he passed Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers (213) for the most career strikeouts in postseason history.
“He’s very important for us,” Gurriel said of Verlander. “Everyone knows he’s our principal pitcher and for him to come out that way gives us a lot of confidence.” He added later, “He’s an incredible pitcher, at that age and the way he’s doing it, it’s so impressive.”
The strikeouts continued even after Verlander exited. Overall, Yankees batters struck out 17 times to the Astros’ two.
The Yankees did manage to inject some drama in the eighth inning when Rizzo homered off the right-handed reliever Rafael Montero. But with two runners on and two outs, Astros closer Ryan Pressly came on, struck out Carpenter and then was back out secure the win in the ninth. Not typically asked to work for more than an inning, Pressly was perfect, retiring all four batters he faced.