HOUSTON – Two hours into Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, and it felt as if the Houston Astros held a five-run lead at Minute Maid Park against the New York Yankees.
There was traffic on the bases and drives that somehow landed in the gloves of Aaron Judge and – yes – Giancarlo Stanton, making his first outfield start since July 21, also at Houston.
But the ALCS opener remained knotted until the sixth, when Yuli Gurriel and Chas McCormick belted solo homers that sent the Yankees to a 4-2 defeat.
And the vocal, standing sellout crowd of 41,487 fans were only too happy to double down on the Yankees’ anguish in this ballpark, where the Yanks watched the Astros celebrate pennants at their expense in 2017 and 2019.
As Jeremy Pena trotted around the bases following a towering solo homer in the seventh off reliever Frankie Montas, the Wednesday night celebration party was full go in downtown Houston.
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Here are our observations from Game 1:
Justin Verlander vs. Jameson Taillon
Making his first start in two weeks, Jameson Taillon was shaky from the beginning.
And the Cooperstown-bound Justin Verlander only got better, finishing his six-inning start by retiring the last 11 batters he faced – nine of them on strikeouts.
Of course, the only Yankee to tag him was Harrison “Babe’’ Bader, whose second-inning solo shot was his fourth homer in six postseason games with his new club.
Verlander quelled a potential rally in the third, striking out Josh Donaldson and Matt Carpenter after Stanton’s double off the right field wall put runners at second and third with one out.
With 11 strikeouts, Verlander bounced back from his rough AL Division Series start against Seattle (4 IP, 10 hits, 6 ER), and established an MLB record with his eighth postseason start reaching double-digit Ks.
Taillon didn’t strike out anyone in his 4.1 innings but yielded just one run – a two-out RBI double by No. 9 hitter Martin Maldonado – on more luck than guile.
ALCS: Verlander tosses a gem, Astros slug three homers to win ALCS Game 1
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Clarke Schmidt on the wrong end again
Four days after his ALDS Game 4 ninth-inning collapse at Cleveland, Clarke Schmidt was in the thick of it again Wednesday night.
Summoned in the fifth to replace Taillon, Schmidt was asked to intentionally walk playoff gamebreaker Yordan Alvarez with first base open.
Schmidt then walked Alex Bregman on his own before inducing an inning-ending double play grounder by Kyle Tucker, wildly pumping a fist for emphasis as he kept the game tied.
But in the sixth, Schmidt surrendered solo homers to Gurriel and McCormick, and Montas gave up a leadoff homer to Jeremy Pena in the seventh, making it a 4-1 Houston lead.
Anthony Rizzo’s solo homer in the eighth cut the lead to 4-2, and Houston’s Ryan Pressly was summoned with runners at first and second to preserve the lead.
Matt Carpenter starts, falters
Pressly did it by striking out Matt Carpenter to end the eighth.
Making his first start of the postseason – his first overall since Aug. 8 due to fractured left foot – Carpenter struck out all four times as Wednesday’s designated hitter.
Manager Aaron Boone gave Stanton the start in left field. And after being frozen momentarily on a Pena double over his head in the first, Stanton made a sensational running catch to his right, at the wall, to rob Gurriel leading off the fourth.
Judge’s amazing, headlong diving catch to his right saved two runs in the first, but the slugger was 0-for-4 at the plate with one strikeout.
After being benched in Games 4 and 5 of the ALDS due to shaky defensive play, Isiah Kiner-Falefa was back as the starting shortstop, with rookie Oswald Cabrera on the bench.
Cabrera is expected to start in left field for Game 2, with lefty Framber Valdez due to start for Houston against Luis Severino.
That will put Stanton back at DH and Carpenter back on the bench.