HOUSTON (AP) — When Justin Verlander was laboring and needed 45 pitches to get through two innings, Astros manager Dusty Baker was worried he’d have to go to his bullpen early.
Instead, the veteran ace buckled down and found a groove, striking out 11 in six strong innings to lead Houston over the New York Yankees 4-2 in their AL Championship Series opener Wednesday night.
“This guy, he has mental toughness,” Baker said. “When he’s down and out and it looks like you got him in trouble, this guy, he can dial it up.”
Yuli Gurriel launched a tiebreaking homer for Houston in the sixth. Chas McCormick and Jeremy Peña also went deep as the AL West champions improved to 4-0 in the playoffs after going 106-56 during the regular season.
The Astros are in their sixth consecutive ALCS, looking to reach the World Series for the fourth time in that span, against a New York team in the LCS for the first time since being eliminated by Houston in 2019.
The game was tied 1-all when Gurriel connected off reliever Clarke Schmidt for a solo shot into the left-field seats to put Houston on top. Two batters later, McCormick sent a sinker from Schmidt into right field to make it 3-1.
“I didn’t do my job today,” Schmidt said.
Verlander set a major league record with his eighth double-digit strikeout game in the postseason. He passed Clayton Kershaw (213) to become the career leader in postseason strikeouts with 219.
“As the game’s going along, you just gain more confidence as you start making better pitches,” Verlander said. “Once I started being able to execute my pitches the way I wanted, I feel like my confidence just kind of built upon that.”
New York whiffed 17 times in all to only two for the Astros — the largest difference ever in a postseason game.
“They’re obviously really dynamic,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “Outstanding starting pitching, but can shorten the game with the best of ’em. So we’ve got to find a way to break through against them.”
Peña, whose 18th-inning home run completed a sweep of the Mariners in the ALDS, belted a homer off Frankie Montas to start the seventh and extend the lead to 4-1. Montas was pitching for the first time since Sept. 16 because of a shoulder injury that kept him off the Division Series roster.
Anthony Rizzo homered off Rafael Montero with two outs in the eighth to get the Yankees within two. Giancarlo Stanton singled before Josh Donaldson walked, spurring Baker to bring in closer Ryan Pressly.
He struck out Matt Carpenter to end the inning and pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to get the four-out save.
Carpenter, back recently from a broken foot, fanned all four times up.
“The way (Verlander) threw the ball tonight, I could have played for the last two months and it would have been a tough day,” he said.
After struggling in Game 1 of the ALDS against Seattle, Verlander looked shaky early in this one, giving up a second-inning homer to Harrison Bader that put the Yankees up 1-0. It was Bader’s fourth home run in six playoff games — his first four long balls with New York.
But the Astros tied it in the bottom half on an RBI double by Martín Maldonado.
The Astros had a few days off after eliminating Seattle on Saturday. The Yankees dealt with a quick turnaround after winning a rain-postponed Game 5 over the Guardians at home Tuesday before heading to Houston.
They had runners at second and third with one out in the third after a double by Stanton, but Verlander struck out Donaldson and Carpenter to escape the jam.
“I gave it everything I had to try to get a couple strikeouts and was able to do that,” Verlander said. “Then from there, that kind of mentality, just keep making your pitches and a couple adjustments that I was able to make fairly quickly on the off-speed stuff really paid off.”
Those were the first of six consecutive strikeouts for Verlander, which matched a postseason record. It’s the second time he’s tied the mark after also fanning six in a row in Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS for Detroit.
“I thought early we had our chances. I don’t think he was real sharp early, but then he kind of dialed it in,” Boone said. “He started really executing, staying away from trouble. I thought he spun the ball really well.”
Verlander didn’t allow a baserunner after the third inning, retiring his last 11 batters with nine strikeouts. When he fanned Carpenter to end the sixth, he pumped his fist and yelled before trotting off the field to a huge ovation from the mostly orange-clad home crowd.
“We couldn’t really get anything going against him,” said Yankees slugger Aaron Judge, who was 0 for 4. “We couldn’t really come up with that timely hit early on to keep him on his toes.”
The two-time Cy Young Award winner and nine-time All-Star permitted three hits and one run in his 32nd postseason start, 11th in a series opener. It was his first playoff win since 2019.
Peña doubled twice before his homer to give him seven hits this postseason. His three extra-base hits equaled a rookie record for a postseason game.
The clutch performances by Peña, who took over for Carlos Correa at shortstop this season, have helped the Astros this October as superstar Jose Altuve has struggled.
“It’s everything I’ve dreamed of,” Peña said about his first postseason. “The environment, the fans, the crowd, the preparation that goes into every game. It’s fun.”
Altuve, a three-time batting champion, went 0 for 3 with a walk and is 0 for 19 this postseason.
Stanton played left field with Aaron Hicks sidelined for the rest of the postseason with a sprained knee he sustained in an outfield collision Tuesday. It was Stanton’s first appearance in the field since July 21 and his rust showed early when he couldn’t grab a fly ball that Peña hit for a double in the first.
New York starter Jameson Taillon walked Yordan Alvarez after that, but Judge robbed Alex Bregman of a hit and saved at least one run and maybe more when he made a diving catch in right field for the second out of the inning.
Taillon yielded four hits and a run in 4 1/3 innings.
Astros third base coach Gary Pettis was out because of an illness. First base coach Omar Lopez filled in for Pettis, and quality control coach Dan Firova coached first.
Roger Clemens, who pitched for both the Yankees and Astros in a 24-year career that included a record seven Cy Young Awards, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
He stepped a couple of feet in front of the rubber before throwing a perfect strike to Houston starter Lance McCullers.
“Every time I get out there, he looks further and further (away),” the 60-year-old Clemens said. “So, I’m just glad it made it there.”
Asked for a prediction on the series, Clemens didn’t give any insight into which team he’s pulling for this week.
“I think it’s going to go to seven games,” he said. “And that’s it.”
Framber Valdez (0-0, 3.18 ERA) opposes Luis Severino (0-0, 4.76) and the Yankees when the series continues Thursday night.
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