Masahiro Tanaka pitched seven innings of three-hit ball and the New York Yankees finally solved Houston Astros nemesis Dallas Keuchel, beating the ace lefty 5-0 on Wednesday for a 3-2 lead in the AL Championship Series.
Gary Sanchez hit an RBI single off Keuchel and later homered to help the wild-card Yankees win for the third straight day at home and move within one victory of their first trip to the World Series since 2009.
The teams head back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday night, when Justin Verlander and the reeling Astros will try to regain their footing following an off day and force a decisive Game 7. Luis Severino is scheduled to start for New York.
Just days ago, Houston was up two games to none and appeared to be closing in on its second World Series appearance. But the Astros, like defending AL champion Cleveland before them, have been unable to put away these poised Yankees, who improved to 6-0 at home in this postseason in front of their cheering, chanting fans.
Aaron Judge, Greg Bird and Didi Gregorius also delivered big hits as New York chased Keuchel in the fifth and handed him his first postseason loss. The 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner had been Yankees kryptonite throughout his career, entering 6-2 with a 1.09 ERA in eight career starts against New York, including a pair of scoreless outings in playoff wins.
Both of those came at the expense of Tanaka, who lost 3-0 to Keuchel in the 2015 AL wild-card game at Yankee Stadium and 2-1 in Game 1 of this series.
But this night belonged to Tanaka and the Baby Bombers.
New York finally broke through against Keuchel with two outs in the second, when Starlin Castro doubled to deep left-center and scored on Greg Bird’s sharp single. Cheering fans almost sounded surprised by the hit — big enough for Bird to flash both thumbs down, doubling up on the Yankees’ playful sign to each other for clutch swings.
In the third, Judge grounded an RBI double just inside the third base line and past a diving Alex Bregman. Brett Gardner sped all the way around from first and scored with a headfirst slide.
Bregman’s throwing error on Chase Headley’s infield single aided the Yankees in the fifth. Keuchel pitched around Judge and walked him with two outs before Sanchez lined a run-scoring single into the left-field corner.
Going into that at-bat, Sanchez was 1 for 16 with seven strikeouts in the series — and 0 for 8 with 6 strikeouts against Keuchel overall.
Gregorius then grounded an RBI single up the middle that grazed the glove of diving second baseman Jose Altuve. With the score 4-0, that was it for Keuchel after he yielded his most runs ever to New York.
Sanchez hit his third postseason homer off Brad Peacock in the seventh to make it 5-0.
Despite beautiful weather in the Bronx, the Astros didn’t take batting practice on the field. If they were hoping that might help their slumping hitters reset, it didn’t.
The highest-scoring team in the majors this season, Houston batted .153 through the first four games of the series and fared no better against Tanaka. The normally reserved right-hander from Japan, who can opt out of his $155 million contract this winter, has been at the top of his game in October and showed rare emotion on the mound during this one.
He worked around a leadoff double in the second, when the Yankees — with a stingy Keuchel undoubtedly in mind — successfully played their infield in with Yuli Gurriel on third and one out in a scoreless game. Tanaka later spun around and shouted in excitement after striking out struggling table-setters George Springer and Josh Reddick with two on to end the fifth.
Tanaka received treatment on his leg between starts after being struck by Reddick’s liner in Game 1, but showed no ill effects. Keeping the ball down with his slider and splitter, he struck out eight and walked one.
TIES THAT BIND
Andy Pettitte threw out the ceremonial first pitch in a Yankees jacket. The former New York and Houston left-hander appeared in the World Series for both the Yankees and his hometown Astros.
Wednesday marked the 40th anniversary of Reggie Jackson’s three-homer game at old Yankee Stadium in the 1977 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Astros: Verlander will try to get the Astros to Game 7. The 2011 AL MVP is 8-0 in eight outings for Houston since agreeing to a trade from Detroit, just minutes before the Aug. 31 deadline for postseason eligibility. He is 3-0 with a 2.04 ERA in these playoffs, including a series-clinching victory in relief during the Division Series against Boston and his five-hitter to beat the Yankees on a season-high 124 pitches in Game 2. The right-hander is 10-5 with a 3.18 ERA in his postseason career.
Yankees: Severino gave up one run and two hits over four innings in Game 2 but was pulled as a precaution after only 62 pitches because manager Joe Girardi was concerned about the 23-year-old righty pitching hurt, saying he didn’t look comfortable in his mechanics. Girardi said Severino didn’t require any tests and, by now, the Yankees are confident he’s fine. “I feel good about where he’s at,” Girardi said Wednesday. “Those concerns have kind of been put to rest for me.”