Verlander can’t close out Yanks; ALCS heads back to Houston

Yankees 4 Astros 1

NEW YORK — Justin Verlander watched and waited, hoping Aaron Hicks’ drive deep down the right field line would hook foul at the last instant.

When it clanged hard off the bright yellow foul pole for a three-run homer, Verlander crouched beside the mound and simply held up his glove, waiting for a new baseball as the Yankee Stadium crowd roared.

Houston’s star pitcher had put his team in an early hole — no doubt about that now. And when the Astros were unable to rally during a 4-1 loss Friday night to New York, their first of three chances to close out this AL Championship Series was gone.

Same as Hicks’ shot.

And the one just before that off DJ LeMahieu’s bat.

Earlier this season, Verlander, who led the majors with 21 wins and 223 innings pitched, playfully waved at Yankees fans as he walked off the mound on the way to a victory. But he was unable to put away New York for good in Game 5, struggling through a four-run first that marked his worst inning in two-plus years with the Astros.

It was similar to the Division Series against the wild-card Rays, when Verlander lost 4-1 on three days’ rest at Tampa Bay with an opportunity to end the series. He was on a regular schedule this time — but maybe the eight-time All-Star had trouble fully getting loose at the start in 52-degree weather.

Houston still headed home this weekend with a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven playoff — and one more ace up its sleeve.

October star Gerrit Cole would be ready on full rest if the series goes to a deciding Game 7. Comforting thought for the Astros as they seek a second trip to the World Series in three years.

And even to get that far, the Yankees need to win Game 6 at Minute Maid Park, where both teams figure to go with bullpen games on the mound.

So the fact that Verlander, the 2017 ALCS MVP against the Yankees, settled into a groove and lasted seven innings Friday was a big help in saving the relief corps. He retired 20 of his final 21 batters after Hicks’ home run, permitting only a soft single during that stretch, to finish with nine strikeouts and no walks.

“He was incredible after the first,” manager AJ Hinch said. “I thought he recovered great and did his best to keep us in the game.”

But the damage was done.

After the Astros took a 1-0 lead against James Paxton in the top of the first, Verlander gave up four hits to his first five batters — three for extra bases.

LeMahieu hit a leadoff homer to right field and Hicks fought back to a full count from 0-2 before pulling a slider down the line.

Back to Houston.

One win needed, two chances left.

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