NEW YORK -- The Yankees needed a hero. Down 3-1 in the ALCS, they were all set up to waste another run-scoring opportunity in the first inning of Game 5 on Friday night. The Yankees stranded the bases loaded in the first inning against Gerrit Cole in Game 3, and did the same against Zack Greinke in Game 4. That's no way to beat a team as good as the Astros.
The Yankees already trailed 1-0 before they even had a chance to bat Friday. James Paxton came out wild -- and Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez came out with shoddy defense -- and allowed a run to cross the plate in the top of the first inning on a wild pitch. The ugly late-inning sloppiness of Game 4 had carried over into Game 5.
DJ LeMahieu, as he did countless times during the regular season, started things offensively for the Yankees. He sent Justin Verlander's second pitch over the right field wall for a game-tying solo homer that brought the Yankee Stadium crowd back to life. When Aaron Judge followed with a single and Torres with a double, the party in the stands was on.
"I feel like we've done a pretty good job offensively of putting ourselves in position to have that breakthrough inning where we can throw a crooked number up there or get that big hit to kind of get us rolling," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said after Game 4. "... We've had our chances here these last few days, we've got to come up with a big hit in a big spot."
With runners on second and third and no outs, Verlander struck out Giancarlo Stanton in his first at-bat since Game 1, and suddenly that "here we go again" feeling began to settle in. The Yankees were unable to break through against Cole and Greinke, and up to that point they'd been hitless in their last 15 at-bats with runners in scoring position, their longest such streak of the season.
About 10 days ago, Aaron Hicks was an afterthought. New York's center fielder had been out since early August with an elbow injury and there was concern he would need Tommy John surgery. He was on the 60-day injured list and was not at all a consideration for the ALDS. Then he showed up to Yankee Stadium last week, and the team cleared him to play.
"I've been throwing, hitting, facing pitchers. Doing pretty much everything I need to do to be able to give myself an opportunity to make the postseason roster," Hicks said at the time, later admitting he threw on his own before being cleared by doctors. He started throwing, sent a video to the Yankees, and the team told him to report to their spring training complex so he could rehab properly.
After being considered a bench player in the ALCS, Stanton's quad injury opened the door for Hicks to return to the everyday lineup. Hicks drew two walks in Game 3, then added another two walks and a bloop single in Game 4. "I think Hicks has had really good at-bats in both of his days," Boone said following the Game 4 loss.
It was Hicks who came to the plate with two on and one out following Stanton's strikeout in Game 5. Verlander fed him two breaking balls for a quick 0-2 count -- Hicks was 2 for 23 with 10 strikeouts in his career against Verlander at that point -- and the strikeout felt fait accompli. Instead, Hicks took three elevated pitches (two fastballs, one curveball) to work the count back full.
"The first three pitches seemed to go kind of quick. I just felt like I just needed to slow down and see the ball," Hicks said. "I think I got two fastballs after that up in the zone and I saw them very well. That's kind of where I was at. Needed a fastball to get comfortable. And then that's kind of where the confidence started to build that all I need to do was see the pitch, see the pitch and read the pitch. And that's kind of what I've been doing this whole postseason is kind of seeing the ball and reacting."
At that point Verlander had thrown 20 pitches to get one out and his breaking ball was not really cooperating. Even the slider he used to strike out Stanton was up in the zone rather than buried down and away. The 3-2 slider Verlander threw Hicks was a cement mixer. It spun right out over the plate. In Games 3 and 4, the Yankees popped that pitch up during their first-inning rallies.
Hicks did not pop that pitch up. He did almost pull it foul down the right field line, but in cozy Yankee Stadium, it stayed fair long enough to clank off the foul pole for a three-run home run. The big blow the Yankees couldn't muster in Games 3 and 4 had finally arrived in Game 5. For the first time franchise history, the Yankees hit two homers in the first inning of a postseason game (really).
"I knew I hit it well," Hicks said. "I felt like I stayed inside the ball well enough for it to be fair. And that's kind of like my thing, kind of staying up on home runs like that, especially when I know I've got it. It definitely had a lot more spin on it than I thought. But it was able to stay fair and put us up right there."
Boone added: "It was just a really good string of at-bats together against obviously Justin, who's probably the best time to hopefully get to him is early. With DJ going out there and getting into one, and then Judge, and Gleyber finding the chalk down there. I thought Giancarlo worked a really tough at-bat. And then Hicks, the same thing, and he was able to clip him."
The Yankees had Verlander on the ropes in the first inning and, like Cole in Game 3 and Greinke in Game 4, Houston's starter settled down after a rocky first inning. Verlander found his slider and retired 20 of the 21 batters he faced following the Hicks homer, and was able to complete seven innings after throwing 29 pitches in the first inning. He was lights out.
"Yeah, he was incredible after the first," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said following Game 5. "(We) felt really good about going into the bottom of the first. We had put up a run and then we were just barely a few feet away from putting up a second run with (Alex) Bregman's bullet to left field ... Hicks had a really good at-bat. Mistake slider for a homer off the foul pole 315 feet away."
Unlike Cole and Greinke, the Yankees did not let Verlander off the hook in the first inning. Hicks went from possibly needing Tommy John surgery to ALCS hero in about a week. He jumped on a hanging slider for a season-saving three-run home run, and in no way is that overstating it. The Yankees looked like a dead team walking in Game 5. Now they have life going to Houston for Game 6.
"It was to a point where I got my second opinion and it was the worst thing to hear, to hear you're going to have Tommy John and your season is going to end is something. That isn't what you want to hear," Hicks said. "Good thing I was messing around in the backyard with my buddy and kind of started throwing because if I didn't do that, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have this opportunity to play in the postseason, and grind and try to win with my team."