John McClain: Verlander gave Astros a boost in Game 1, but a new challenge awaits in Game 2

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Eric Gay/AP/Shutterstock (13479570bx) Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) celebrates the third out during the sixth inning in Game 1 of baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, in Houston ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 19 Oct 2022

John McClain: Verlander gave Astros a boost in Game 1, but a new challenge awaits in Game 2

The last thing the Astros want to do is allow the Yankees to return to New York with a split of the first two games of the American League Championship Series.

The Astros gained the upper hand with a 4-2 victory in Game 1 at Minute Maid Park, thanks to terrific pitching by Justin Verlander, Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly and three solo home runs by Yuli Gurriel, Chas McCormick and Jeremy Pena.

This season, the Astros have now won six of eight over the Yankees, who are winless in Houston entering Thursday night’s second game.

Framber Valdez, who had a no-decision in the 4-2 victory over Seattle in the ALDS, tries to pick up where Verlander left off Wednesday night.

“It’s nice to get back in the flow of the game and win one,” Verlander said after Game 1. “I think I’ve said this before about our team: There’s zero complacency. Just because we won Game 1, we understand there’s a hard road ahead of us.

“We expect everybody to come out (for Game 2) like we lost this game. That’s the sense of urgency we always have, particularly in the playoffs. That’s why I think these guys are so special because we do that in the regular season as well, but in the playoffs, it’s taking it to another level.”

After a slow start in which the Yankees led 1-0 on a Harrison Bader home run and threatened to increase the lead in the third inning, Verlander seemed to turn up the dial and pitch the way he did this season when he compiled an 18-4 record and a 1.75 ERA, making him the favorite to win the American League Cy Young Award. He threw 103 pitches over his six innings.

With two on and one out in the third inning, Verlander struck out Jeff Donaldson and Matt Carpenter to end the threat.

“It was big of him to pitch out of trouble,” Dusty Baker said. “When he got the strikeout to Donaldson, that was huge. And then the strikeout to Carpenter. He dialed it up. He got it together.

“He was actually better between (pitches) 80 and 100 than he was prior to that. “Early on, I’m looking on the board and he had like almost 60 pitches after two. (Then) he was dealing, especially (during) that period of time when he found his rhythm. He found his breaking ball. He knows how to pitch. He’s not only physically strong, but he’s mentally strong. When he’s down and out and it looks like you’ve got him in trouble, he can dial it up.”

Verlander was outstanding over his last three innings. In becoming baseball’s career postseason strikeout leader with 215 – two more than Clayton Kershaw – Verlander threw 66 pitches in the first three innings and 37 over the last three. He allowed three hits, one run and one walk. He had 11 strikeouts.

“I kept telling myself, ‘Just keep making your pitches,’” he said. “I gave it everything I had to try to get a couple of strikeouts and was able to do that. From there, that kind of mentality — just keep making your pitches — and a couple adjustments I was able to make fairly quickly on the off-speed stuff really paid off.

“It (breaking ball) was a little loose early in the game. I was able to — particularly the slider — to make some adjustments and kind of get that pitch where I wanted it to be, thank goodness, because the Yankees lineup is hard enough to face when you’re on. When your stuff’s not working, it’s incredibly difficult. I was able to lean on it later in the game, and, obviously, have some success with it.”

Verlander finished by striking out nine of 11 Yankees before giving way to Hector Neris, who pitched a perfect seventh inning. After Rafael Montero allowed a home run to Anthony Rizzo in the eighth, Pressly replaced him and retired the last four batters, including three with strikeouts.

Like Verlander, Neris and Pressly were exceptional.

“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 kind of built on that.

“I felt like they had the momentum early against me, but I was able to bring it back on my side and kind of keep the pressure on them once that happened. Thankfully, our boys came through with some big hits, and the bullpen did their job like they usually do. That’s how we win a lot of games.”

Home runs by Gurriel and McCormick in the sixth provided Verlander with enough runs to earn the victory. Pena’s homer in the seventh boosted the lead to 4-1.

Verlander, 39, was able to make the kind of adjustments he couldn’t make in the first game against the Mariners, an 8-7 victory. In Game 1 of that series, he lasted four innings and surrendered 10 hits and six runs.

“Just being in this stage of my career,” he said about being able to make adjustments when he’s struggling. “I think it’s difficult for younger players to make adjustments so quickly, but that’s what veterans do. We’ve been around long enough, we know ourselves well enough that when something’s not working, it’s like I’ve got a checklist of things, like, ‘Try to fix this. Try to fix that.’

“When it’s going really bad, though, it still ends up over the plate, and it gets hit like it did a couple times early (Wednesday night).”

Thursday night, the Astros try to duplicate what they did in Game 1.

“Ask anybody in the playoffs would you rather win or lose Game 1, I think everybody has the same identical answer – you would rather win,” Verlander said. “In a seven-game series, I think it’s a little less important because you have a little longer than a five-game series. But, obviously, getting out on a good note and winning the first one you kind of keep the momentum going.”

Valdez, who was 17-6 with a 1.82 ERA during the season, has a 4-2 playoff record. In his start against the Mariners, he lasted 5.2 innings, allowing four hits, six runs and striking out six.

Aaron Boone was asked after Wednesday’s game if the Astros’ pitching staff – top to bottom — is the best he’s faced as the Yankees’ manager. He said it is.

“They’re, obviously, really dynamic,” Boone said. “Outstanding starting pitching but can shorten the game with the best of them. We’ve got to find a way to break through against them. It’s a challenge but one we look forward to.”

(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on

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