Beforehand, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said the arrival of the Astros in town the next few days would lead to “a shot-in-the-arm series.’’ For eight innings, though, that sounded like a shot-in-the-dark prediction.
But then the Yankees brightened what has been a transcendent season. Trailing 6-3 and hitless since the first inning, they erupted for four runs in the bottom of the ninth inning, sending an Astros-jeering crowd of 44,071 out of their seats and then out of the Stadium believing anything is possible, reveling in a 7-6 victory on Thursday against a team they love to hate.
Aaron Hicks clubbed a three-run home run off closer Ryan Pressly, who entered and promptly walked the first two batters he faced, setting up Hicks’ line drive into the right-field seats. Aaron Judge, headed to an arbitration hearing with the Yankees on Friday, smacked a game-winning single off reliever Ryne Stanek, continuing his magical, MVP-worthy season.
“That’s a pretty special game for June,’’ Boone said.
“We don’t want to lose you know,’’ Hicks said. “We’re a team that’s gonna keep fighting until the end, until the last out was made. We’re gonna believe that we still have a chance.’’
If the next three games of this series are anything like the opener, it figures to be a riveting showcase of the two teams with the best records in the American League. The Yankees are 52-18, the third-best start in franchise history after 70 games. It matches the third-best start after 70 games by any major league team in the past 93 years. This one might have been the most difficult, and dramatic, of them all.
The Astros jumped on top early against Jameson Taillon, struggling through a rare ineffective outing. Before registering an out in the first inning, he gave up a three-run home run to Alex Bregman. The Yankees countered in the bottom of the first with Giancarlo Stanton’s three-run shot off Astros starter Framber Valdez but what looked as if it might turn into a slugfest never ensued. Valdez settled in and the Yankees did not get another hit until the ninth inning.
Yordan Alvarez, who hit two home runs against the Mets on Wednesday night in Houston, slammed a three-run homer off Taillon in the third inning. Valdez retired 14 straight Yankees batters and they did not threaten to score until the eighth inning, when right fielder Kyle Tucker chased down Anthony Rizzo’s drive and made a leaping catch, holding on despite crashing into the wall.
Three times in the past seven years, the Astros eliminated the Yankees from the postseason, including the 2017 ALCS, won by the Astros in seven games. When it was revealed that the Astros were involved in a sign-stealing scandal that season — possibly robbing the Yankees of a World Series appearance — the Astros instantly became enemies of the (New York) state. Jose Altuve was jeered before and during every at-bat and he responded with two doubles and a single.
The Yankees were being out-hit 11-2 heading into the ninth inning.
“We are never out of a game,’’ Judge said.
It looked as though the Astros would quiet the crowd but their bullpen did them in. Pressly walked Stanton and Gleyber Torres to start the bottom of the ninth and Hicks then cranked his third home run of the season. After Jose Trevino singled to center, Pressly was pulled for Stanek, who struck out Joey Gallo and then, with two outs, made the crucial mistake of walking D.J. LeMahieu.
That brought Judge to the plate. Stanek fell behind 3-0 and looked as if he was pitching around MLB’s home run leader. Judge was given the green light and drove the ball into left field, sending home LeMahieu with the winning run and sending the players in the Yankees dugout streaming onto the field to mob Judge.
Three relievers — Lucas Luetge, Albert Abreu and Miguel Castro — pitched 3 ¹/₃ scoreless innings to allow the comeback to materialize and give the Yankees their ninth walk-off victory of the season, tops in baseball.