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Next-Best Yankees Playoff Games of the Past 25 Years: Hicks, Paxton keep season alive

James Paxton outduels Justin Verlander and Aaron Hicks launches a first-inning bomb to lead Yankees past Houston.

2019 ALCS Game 5 - Houston Astros v. New York Yankees Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

A common theme throughout this series has been that a Yankees series loss doesn’t negate the great victories that occurred along the way. Everybody knows Derek Jeter’s Mr. November moment, and the comeback in Game 4 of the 2017 ALCS announced the arrival of the Baby Bombers era (even if the era didn’t quite go as planned, it was still fun). A series loss does put a damper on things, but those moments still shine through.

The 2019 ALCS is often remembered for a home run that buzzed off the bat of Jose Altuve into both left-center field and the national consciousness, and it serves as the prologue for the biggest scandal this side of the Steroid Era. But before Aroldis Chapman took the mound in Minute Maid Park, the Yankees stared a 3-1 series deficit in the face in the Bronx and risked watching their archrivals celebrate on their own turf.

2019 ALCS Game 5- October 18

Final Score: Yankees 4, Astros 1

Game MVP: James Paxton

The Yankees entered Game 5 beat up, both physically and spiritually. Physically, CC Sabathia was removed from the ALCS roster after a shoulder injury in his final career outing, and though he returned to the lineup after missing three games, Giancarlo Stanton was hurting, too. Emotionally, the team had just lost three in a row after beating Justin Verlander in Game 1, putting them on the brink of elimination. On top of that, starting pitcher James Paxton couldn’t get out of the third inning in Game 2. With a potential bullpen game looming in Game 6 (assuming they got there, of course), the Yankees not only needed him to pitch well, they needed him to pitch deep into the ballgame and outpitch the 2019 Cy Young Award winner in the process.

And so naturally, the top of the first got off to the worst possible start it could. George Springer led off the game with an infield single, advanced to second on a passed ball, moved to third when Altuve grounded out, and scored on a wild pitch. On top of that, in between the groundout and wild pitch, Michael Brantley had walked; he also advanced on the wild pitch, putting another runner in scoring position with Alex Bregman at the plate and only one out. Paxton, however, battled back and got both Bregman and Yuli Gurriel to fly out, ending the threat.

With their backs against the wall, the Yankees wasted no time fighting their way back, as team MVP DJ LeMahieu led off the game against Verlander with a solo home run to tie it up.

Aaron Judge followed that up with a single to left field, and a Gleyber Torres double to left put runners on second and third and nobody out. Although Stanton struck out — it was obvious he wasn’t anywhere near 100-percent healthy — Aaron Hicks went hunting for the foul pole, and boy, did he find it.

In hindsight, it’s remarkable that Hicks was able to do this while playing with a damaged UCL that would soon require Tommy John surgery.

That home run gave the Yankees a quick 4-1 lead, and although they would struggle to do anything else offensively beyond this point — Verlander set down the next 10 Yankees in order, allowed a two-out single to Didi Gregorius in the 4th, then retired another 10 — that’s all they would need, because James Paxton had his signature Yankees moment.

The right-hander acquired from Seattle prior to 2019 was absolutely electric, matching the future Hall of Famer zero-for-zero, and despite an elevated pitch count early (he was at 54 pitches through two innings), he managed to fight his way through six innings one-run ball, working around eight baserunners (four hits, four walks) by striking out nine.

The bullpen picked it up from there, and aside from a pair of one-out baserunners put on by Tommy Kahnle in the seventh, they dominated the Astros lineup. Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman combined to retire 10 in a row, sending the series back to Houston.

I’d like to say that the dominant showing shifted the momentum in the series, allowing the Yankees to complete a stunning comeback and head to the World Series to face the Washington Nationals. Alas, that did not come to pass, and this win only extended the season by one day. Even so, despite the heartbreak and loss, dropping a four-spot in a do-or-die game against a Hall of Fame pitcher is nothing to sneeze it, giving Game 5 of the 2019 ALCS a spot among the best of the rest.