John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Aaron Boone was already way out over his skis, at least from an analytics point of view. The game was in the sixth inning and he had stuffed the game plan in his back pocket because his eyes told him James Paxton was still dealing, third time through the lineup or not.
And good for Boone. If there's not room for a manager to make that type of call, based on what he's seeing, even in this analytics-heavy era, then what's the point of having him there at all?
In the end, Boone's judgment paved the way for the Yankees to get off the deck after the ugliness of Game 4 and beat Justin Verlander and the Astros 4-1 to send this series back to Houston.
It's still a huge mountain to climb, with Gerrit Cole ready to go Game 7 on full rest if necessary, but at worst the Yankees showed some pride and toughness, pouncing on Verlander with a first-inning explosion built around home runs by D.J. LeMahieu and Aaron Hicks that set the crowd ablaze.
The Yankees couldn't muster another rally the rest of the night, but it didn't matter because Paxton delivered on the vision GM Brian Cashman had of him as a No. 1-type starter when he traded for him last November.
And in the game's moment of truth, Boone made a gutsy call, then got a little lucky that it worked out.
In the aforementioned sixth inning, Paxton had struck out lefthanded-hitting Yordan Alvarez for the second out of the inning, pushing his pitch count to 111, his highest total of the season. And with a runner on first the big lefty would be facing righthanded-hitting Robinson Chirinos, a catcher with some pop in his bat.
By now someone in the Yankees' analytics office at the Stadium was surely screaming to get Paxton out of the game.
Still, Boone resisted. He liked the matchup, especially since Paxton had struck out Chirinos swinging at up-and-in fastballs two times already, but he wasn't sure if his pitcher had any gas left in the tank so he went to the mound needing affirmation.
"I was up in the air," Boone said afterward. "I liked the way Pax was attacking Chirinos (in previous at-bats) but I wanted to get a look at Gary (Sanchez) and at Pax to have a feel that he had a little bit left because we obviously we were pushing him pretty far right there."
Paxton is soft-spoken by nature but in this case, as soon as he realized Boone was giving him a shot to stay in, he barked, "I want it," and that was enough for Boone.
One more time Paxton attacked Chirinos inside, but instead of up-and-in with the first pitch, his first pitch was down-and-in.
"I didn't get it up and he put a good swing on it," Paxton said afterward. "I was glad it stayed in the yard."
For a long time it looked like it might reach the seats in left.
Boone, who'd barely had time to return to the dugout, felt a little squeamish before the ball even left the bat.
"I'm seeing the pitch almost in slow motion, feeling like it's coming down and in, right into the hot zone," he said. "And I'm like, 'No.' But fortunately it stayed in the ballpark.
"I felt good about the decision. I felt like the matchup was right. But definitely when it first left the bat…"
At this point, in the interview room, Boone managed a sheepish grin and completed his thought:
Had Chirinos' ball gone out the Yankees still would have been leading 4-3, but who knows how the game might have changed in that case. Instead Brett Gardner made the catch in front of the left-field wall, and the night belonged to Paxton, with the help of three scoreless innings from the bullpen.
It was a payoff of sorts for Cashman and the Yankees on what was an up-and-down season for Paxton, and it offered reason to believe he can grow into more of a true ace in the next couple of years.
After all, Paxton admitted this post-season stuff was all new to him, after spending his career in Seattle with the Mariners. He was even candid enough to admit he's not sure how he got through his first October start, against the Twins in the ALDS, because he was practically overcome by nerves.
"Feeling that (adrenaline) for the first time, in the DS," Paxton said, "I couldn't feel my body the entire time. It was just numb.
"Just the experience of going out there is allowing me to get more comfortable. And I just have more feel with my body."
You don't often hard big-leaguers admit to such nerves, but Paxton is as unassuming as they come at this level. As such can't help but feel good for a guy like that, coming up big with the season on the line.
So now the Yankees go to Houston with momentum, and with uncertainty in the air as both teams will try to bullpen their way through Game 6. Cole is still the wild card that gives the Astros a huge advantage, but it's not over yet.
Paxton is the biggest reason. Boone's willingness to trust his eyes was no small matter either.