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ALCS Game Five Rewind: James Paxton’s playoff arrival

James Paxton came up clutch when the Yankees’ backs were against the wall in Game Five of the ALCS against the Astros

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees’ final win of the 2019 season was an important one, despite the fact that their season would come to an end the next night. After taking Game One in Houston, the Yankees lost three straight, including a gut-wrenching extra innings loss in Game Two and back-to-back losses in front of their home crowd at Yankees Stadium. In a win-or-go-home situation, the Yankees turned to James Paxton, the left-hander who carried them through the final weeks of the regular season.

After spending the first five seasons of his MLB career in Seattle, Paxton was getting his first taste of the postseason, and it wasn’t going particularly well. The big lefty surrendered three runs through 4.2 innings in Game One of the ALDS, keeping the Yankees in the game, but not instilling a ton of confidence with his command or ability to pitch into the later innings. They turned to Paxton again in Game Two of the ALCS in Houston, and this time he didn’t make it out of the third inning. It’s unclear how much of his struggles in Game Two can be attributed to certain factors at Minute Maid Park, but a rematch with Justin Verlander in Game Five at Yankees Stadium didn’t feel promising for the Yankees with their season on the line.

Paxton got into immediate trouble in the first. The game started with a weak grounder up the middle that Paxton couldn’t handle and the “here we go again” crowd was out in force right from the jump.

A passed ball, a ground-out, a walk, and another passed ball later and the Astros were on the board before their Cy Young pitcher even took the mound. That’s seemingly when the Yankees decided that’s not how their season was going to end. DJ LeMahieu led off the bottom of the first with an opposite-field home run, and Hicks blasted a three-run shot off the foul pole minutes later to put the Yankees ahead 4-1. The pressure was back on Paxton to do his part and keep the Yankees’ World Series hopes alive. That’s exactly what he did.

At least one Astros’ batter reached base in each inning, but Paxton made big pitch after big pitch to keep them at bay.

A strikeout of George Springer with two aboard in the top of the second:

Back-to-back strikeouts after the leadoff man reached in the fourth:

A strikeout of Yordan Alvarez in the top of the sixth:

Verlander was dominant after the first inning, but Paxton went toe-to-toe with him and pitched with more emotion than he had previously displayed in his first season in pinstripes. With high-90’s fastballs and a devastating breaking ball, Paxton has the stuff to match nearly any pitcher in baseball. Perhaps the most important moment came in the top of the sixth, after Paxton’s strikeout of Alvarez. With two down, Aaron Boone came out to the mound and was quickly sent away by a confident Paxton, who retired Robinson Chirinos on a fly ball to left.

It wasn’t the pitch Paxton wanted to deliver, but it got him through a strong six innings and gave him playoff success he can build off of as the Yankees’ number two starter behind Gerrit Cole. Even more than the six innings and nine strikeouts, Paxton proved that he has the mental fortitude to show up in a big moment at Yankees Stadium in October. Boone’s trust in Paxton paid off, and the best bullpen in MLB slammed the door, giving the Yankees a 4-1 win. When the Yankees can get six innings from their starters they’re in great shape to win games. Every playoff game is a learning experience, good or bad, and both the Yankees and Paxton learned what he can be capable of in the postseason against an elite lineup. The Yankees might have lost the series, but they’ll take plenty away from their final win of 2019.