Sports

MLB PLAYOFFS

Justin Verlander solid again as Astros force Game 7

By Rob Longley, Toronto Sun

Astros' Justin Verlander (right) congratulates George Springer (4) after a catch at the wall of a ball hit by the Yankees' Todd Frazier during the seventh inning of Game 6 of the AL Championship Series in Houston on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. (Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

Astros' Justin Verlander (right) congratulates George Springer (4) after a catch at the wall of a ball hit by the Yankees' Todd Frazier during the seventh inning of Game 6 of the AL Championship Series in Houston on Friday, Oct. 20, 2017. (Charlie Riedel/AP Photo)

HOUSTON -- From L.A. to New York, it is a dream matchup for so many in baseball that it has been difficult not to look ahead.
The TV networks are salivating at the thought of it and those at MLB’s Manhattan head office couldn’t have envisioned a more prosperous pairing.
But thanks to the Houston Astros, the possibility of the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees renewing one of baseball’s greatest rivalries in the World Series will have to wait another day.
And if the Astros have another noisy statement to make, perhaps much, much longer than that.
Riding their ace starter Justin Verlander until the offence finally resurfaced, the Astros still have their own eyes on Hollywood, thanks to a blowout 7-1 win Friday night at Minute Maid Park.
The victory evened the ALCS at three home wins apiece with the drama of Game 7 slated to unfold here on Saturday night while the Dodgers wait back in L.A. for next Tuesday’s World Series opener.
“This is a difficult team across the way,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “We’re also a difficult team to close out. It’s only just that we’re going to a Game 7.”
The stone-cold Astros offence finally broke out in the fifth inning, interrupting what was an incredibly entertaining pitching duel between Verlander and the Yankees’ Luis Severino.
And, boy, did the bats start booming.
After that three-run fifth, as if to hammer home the point, the Astros kept scoring, beating up on the Yankees bullpen for four more runs in the eighth to give them something unsettling to sleep on.
The seven Astros runs were just two shy of their total from the first five games combined.
“This offence is just a monster, a sleeping giant,” Verlander said. “We had an unfortunate time to fall into a slump. When these guys start swinging their bats, it’s impressive to watch.”
So is Verlander, especially when the stakes are extreme. In five career post-season starts in elimination games, he’s now 4-1 with a 1.21 ERA.
On Friday, it all started in the fifth when former Yankee Brian McCann’s double to right scored Alex Bregman to end a stretch of 16 scoreless innings by MLB’s highest scoring regular-season team.
How about that for an unlikely power boost. McCann entered the game batting .077 in the post-season and was hitless in the ALCS.
With Severino matching Verlander in nastiness through the first four innings, Bregman was the first runner from either team to reach second base. 
After George Springer walked to load the bases, the Astros offensive leader Jose Altuve ripped a double to bring in two more and up the lead to 3-0.
And it was if the pressure that was lifted -- not to mention the noise -- had raised the Minute Maid roof right into the Texas night.
“He just lost his command,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Severino.
Altuve, who was hitless in the Astros' three losses in New York, clearly had his confidence renewed. The diminutive MVP candidate went back for more, line-driving a solo homer off  Yankees reliever David Robertson in the eighth to increase the Astros lead to 4-1.
The Bronx Bombers vainly attempted to make it interesting with runners on first and second in the seventh and a solo home run from Aaron Judge off reliever Brad Peacock in the eighth, but the uprising was far too mild.
Using a mixture of four pitches, the 34-year-old Verlander was overpowering at times. The Game 2 winner wasn’t flawless but he was ferocious, digging in whenever he allowed a Yankees runner on base.
The gameness was particularly evident in the seventh when Verlander allowed the first two runners on.  But Aaron Hicks finally struck out to end a 10-pitch at-bat and then Todd Frazier rocked one deep to the centre field wall and was robbed of extra bases by a leaping Springer.
“I thought home run,” Verlander said of the blast that was feet away from squaring the game. A ground out to Chase Headley followed and 99 pitches into the game, Verlander was out of trouble and done for the night.
It started out as a pitcher’s duel -- just as Games 1 and 2 were here. And like every game in the series so far, the home side has emerged the winner.
The Yankees managed base runners in each of the first three innings, but it was as if that merely heightened Verlander’s focus
Judge was fanned by Verlander in the third and sixth innings to equal a dubious major-league record of 26 strikeouts in a single post season. By going deep into the game, Verlander was doubly valuable keeping the Yankees away from the beat up Astros bullpen.
And once again he proved the value of that late summer trade that bolstered the AL West champions for just such moments. He struck out eight giving him 21 in his two games pitched this series.
“This was everything we could have hoped for and more,” Hinch said of Verlander. “This guy prepares. He rises to the moment. He emptied his tank tonight. He chose to come here for games like this.”
Verlander has been a key piece, of course, but it’s been the bats that have taken the Astros this far. And now they’re one win away from advancing to the World Series.
Charlie Morton will get the ball for the Astros in Game 7 facing CC Sabathia. On paper, the Yankees would appear to have the edge there, for what little that’s worth.
“I think you have to keep tonight’s game in perspective,” Girardi said. “We still have a shot to do what we want to try to do tomorrow. The way we’ve bounced back (this post season), it’s a situation our guys have been in a lot.”