NEW YORK — As the ball left Robinson Chirinos’ bat, Aaron Boone’s first reaction was, “Oh, no.’’
He had just made a trip to the mound to visit his starter, James Paxton, with two out in the sixth inning, a runner on base and the New York Yankees holding on to a three-run lead in a game they absolutely, positively had to have.
Unlike most of his trips to the mound this year — when he comes out, nine times out of 10 he’s bringing the pitcher back with him — Boone had no clear intention in mind as he climbed out of the dugout. Paxton had just thrown his 111th pitch of the night, a curveball that disappeared on Yordan Alvarez for his ninth strikeout of the game, and in his bullpen, Tommy Kahnle was hot and ready to go.
And besides, the last time Paxton had pitched in a playoff game, five days earlier in Game 2 at Minute Maid Park, Boone had had him on a very short leash, yanking him just one out into the third inning and having allowed only one run. The odds of him staying in this game did not seem very good.
“There wasn’t a lot said,’’ Paxton recalled of the meeting. “He just said, ‘Are you ready? Do you have anything more left in the tank?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, let’s go. I want this.’’’
The videotape tells a slightly different story. Paxton inserted a word between “let’s’’ and “go’’ that is sometimes called a modifier but more commonly described as an expletive. In any event, Boone left the mound without his starting pitcher in tow.
“I liked the matchup and how he was attacking Chirinos,’’ Boone said. Paxton had struck out Chirinos, the Houston Astros catcher, in their two previous encounters. “The last thing I wanted him to do was throw a down-and-in heater.’’
So of course, that was the first thing Paxton did, and even before Boone could resume his seat in the Yankees dugout, the ball was rocketing in an arc that seemed destined to end somewhere in the not so distant left-field seats.
“I was seeing the ball almost in slow motion, feeling like it’s coming down and in right into [Chirinos’] hot zone,’’ Boone said.
“When it left the bat I was worried,’’ Paxton said. “But as soon as I saw Gardy camp under it, I was like, ‘Thank god.’’’
Had that ball traveled six inches further, Boone might well have found himself being chased into crosstown traffic on the nearby Grand Concourse by the 48,000-plus in Yankee Stadium who had just given him a rousing ovation for not removing Paxton from the game.
And Paxton might have found himself on the wrong end of a comparison some Yankee fans had been tempted to make during the first half of his inaugural Yankee season. Sonny Paxton, as in Sonny Gray, the former standout pitcher for the Oakland Athletics who came to the Bronx two years ago and failed miserably.
It’s moments like that one that resulted in the cliché saying, baseball is a game of inches. Never was it more true.
Luckily for Boone and Paxton, Yankee Stadium was just a few inches too big for Chirinos’ drive, and when Paxton left the mound at the end of the inning, it was to an even louder ovation than the one Boone had been treated to. His six innings of four-hit, one-run ball were exactly what the Yankees needed to flush away the stink of Thursday’s Game 4 loss, cement their 4-1 victory in Game 5, and push a suddenly intriguing again American League Championship Series one more day into the future.
Thanks to six good innings by Paxton and one terrible inning by Justin Verlander, there will be a Game 6 Saturday night in Houston. And if the Yankees bullpen can outduel the Astros bullpen in that one, maybe even a Game 7, a rematch between Luis Severino and Gerritt Cole on Sunday, for the right to host the Washington Nationals in the World Series on Tuesday.
“I thought James was great today,’’ Boone said. “He came in with an edge, a focus, and he got better as the night went on.’’
In fact, Game 5 began for the Yankees as if it were the 10th inning of their horrifically sloppy Game 4. The Astros scored first with just one hit, a George Springer roller that traveled 60 mph off the bat and according to Statcast had a 1-in-10 chance of being a hit. But Gleyber Torres, who committed two errors on Thursday, tried to barehand the ball and muffed it. A passed ball on an apparent cross-up moved him to second, an infield out moved him to third, and Paxton spiked a curveball to Alex Bregman that scooted past Gary Sanchez, the wild pitch allowing Springer to score.
It seemed like a sickeningly familiar script was replaying for Paxton; the lefthander had a 9.00 ERA in the first inning this season, and had allowed 12 first-inning home runs. And the next two hitters, Bregman and Yuli Gurriel, hit the ball hard, but within the confines of the ballpark and right at Yankee outfielders, sparing him further damage.
“There was a lot of nerves, I was fired up and I think I was overthrowing a little bit,’’ Paxton said. “I just had to battle through it.’’
Paxton allowed just three more singles over the next five innings and was enjoying a drama-free night until that moment when he convinced Boone to allow him to stay in the game, a decision both of them almost came to regret.
“I felt good about my decision,’’ Boone said. “But definitely, when that ball first left the bat, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’’
Meanwhile, the Yankees teed off on Verlander in the first, DJ LeMahieu hitting his second pitch of the game into the right-field seats to tie the score, and then, after a single by Aaron Judge and a double by Gleyber Torres, Aaron Hicks, who was only activated for the post-season after missing the last two months of the regular season with an elbow injury, lined a hanging slider off the four pole in right.
That, too, ended the Yankees scoring; Verlander retired 20 of the next 21 hitters, allowing only Didi Gregorius’ bloop single in the fourth. He wound up striking out nine and walking none, but it didn’t matter. The game had been decided in the first inning. Now, the series, which looked as good as over after the Astros’ 8-3 win on Thursday, will be ultimately decided in Houston.
“This is definitely the biggest game of my career,’’ said Paxton, acquired from the Seattle Mariners in a trade last winter. “When you think of the Yankees, you think of the postseason. That’s what I wanted when I came here and that’s what we’re doing now. It’s been a great experience and I want it to keep on going.’’
Thanks to Paxton, the Yankees will keep going, for at least one more day.
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