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 did what seemed impossible, brightening what has been an illuminating season. Trailing 6-3 and hitless since the first inning, they erupted for four runs in the bottom of the ninth, 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 Thursday night 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.’’
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.
“We are never out of a game,’’ Judge said.
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 Valdez settled in and the Bombers did not get another hit until the ninth inning.
Yordan Alvarez, who hit two home runs against the Mets on Wednesday in Houston, slammed a three-run homer off Taillon in the third inning. During one stretch, Valdez retired 14 straight Yankees batters.
Three times in the past seven years, the Astros have 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.
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.
“Man, it feels amazing,’’ Hicks said. “When you make contact with a ball, and you don’t even feel it and you know you flushed it well, especially in a situation like that, having two guys in front of me that got on base for me and to come up big and tie the game right there was huge.’’
After Jose Trevino singled to center, Pressly was pulled for Stanek, who struck out Joey Gallo and then, with two outs, Stanek made the crucial mistake of walking DJ 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 Trevino 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.
“Wow,’’ Judge said. “Just top to bottom, just starting off getting on base, just getting Hicks up there with some guys on base to tie it. Just a lot of good at-bats all around. I think [Stanton] started it off, I can go through every single guy, every single pitch was important. Working one of the best closers in the game, working him into that spot, and then Hicks coming up big for us, that was big-time.’’