NEW YORK -- There is more than a little symbolism at work now for the Astros, tourists who got rolled in New York City this week, when they get home to Minute Maid Park for Game 6 on Friday night: The Astros acquired Justin Verlander 'round midnight at the very end of August. And now the great October clock in baseball is about to strike midnight for Verlander and the Astros if he can't get a game off the Yankees. This is how fast what you are sure is your year can become somebody else's.
The Astros won 101 games in the regular season and now are a loss away from going home, and watching somebody else -- the Yankees -- go to the World Series. The Indians won 102 games and have already been pitched and hit and Yankee Stadium-ed out of October by these Yankees, who are trying to win it all before their time the way the 1996 Yankees once did.
The Astros still have the chance to be the only team to beat the Red Sox and the Yankees in the same postseason. But the Yanks have a chance to pull off a real hard double play for themselves, which means beat at least two 100-win teams in the same October. The 2001 Yankees did it against the A's and the Mariners to make it to the World Series. The 2003 Marlins did it on their way to winning it all. The 2004 Red Sox did it to the Yankees and the Cardinals in an October that was as magical for them as this one has a chance to be for the 2017 Yankees.
Of course, the narrative flips again in the American League Championship Series if Verlander pitches on Friday night the way he did in Game 2 of this series. We are looking at a Game 6 that could be the first of two Game 7s for the Astros. As they try to get home and prove that this year is still theirs, even though they have scored just nine runs in five games; even though sometimes in baseball when you stop hitting in October, you don't again until April.
The reality for the Astros, having seen what we've seen from them at a new Yankee Stadium that has finally started to sound like the old Yankee Stadium, is this: They are probably lucky at this point that they aren't out of business already. The Indians might have lost to the Yankees in four if Joe Girardi had challenged a call in Game 2 of that series, the one that awarded Lonnie Chisenhall first base on a phantom HBP right before Frankie Lindor's grand slam when the Yankees were ahead 8-3.
And it is a good thing, if you're an Astros fan, that Gary Sanchez dropped a relay throw at the end of Verlander's Game 2 with Jose Altuve flying toward the plate. Because if that game goes to extras, the Astros would have had to ask their bullpen to get them a game, which it sure could not on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium in a game the Astros led, 4-0.
So much has gone wrong for the Astros since they left Minute Maid. Even Dallas Keuchel has gotten bounced around. And the two Yankee aces of the moment -- Masahiro Tanaka and old CC Sabathia -- have been brilliant. Keuchel (he got behind early in Game 5 and never recovered) and Verlander were supposed to be able to, well, trump the Yankee aces. Not so. And not so fast.
"Coming in, their bullpen was so much more heralded than the starting rotation, and the starters have really stepped up against us and made good pitches," A.J. Hinch said in the interview room after Game 5. "Tanaka tonight was good. I thought he was good in Game 1, as well. He changed his game plan, threw a few more splits today, some finish fastballs, which are rare for him -- he's usually a secondary pitcher late in at-bats. For them, CC had a good game, Tanaka has done well twice, Sonny [Gray] threw well last night. Again, they're pretty hot and certainly played well these last few games."
And you have to know that Hinch's Astros didn't just run into a hot team. They ran into a Yankee Stadium that really has made you remember the old one; what it was once like on the south side of 161st St., when Torre's Yankees owned one October after another; when you got the feeling that you didn't have to just go through them in the late innings especially to get a game, you had to go through the 55,000 fans who used to make the old place a force of baseball, and sometimes a force of nature.
There was the night in the past when Scott Brosius hit a big double in a playoff game against the A's and said, "I could feel the ground shaking" when he got to second base. After Game 5, some of the Astros -- shaken a bit themselves -- spoke of what the new place had felt like and sounded like over the past three baseball days and nights.
"New York is no joke," Keuchel said when it was over, and he'd finally lost an October game to the Yankees. "Yankee Stadium is a tough place to play."
Not for a long time. Just now. Now this ALCS, which really has shown you how easily and quickly and dramatically the narrative can flip in a short series, returns to Houston. It was 2-0 for the Astros after those 2-1 wins, and after Verlander had produced a complete-game, old-school postseason start out of the past. Suddenly, though, even Verlander isn't scaring Yankee fans, because nothing is right now. Their team came back from 2-0 against the Indians and has done it now against the Astros.
I was moving with part of the big crowd when it was over on Wednesday night, across 161st, the place where the old Stadium stood, the people moving toward the train station at 153rd and toward parking lots and garages. And one guy, still feeling it, one more Yankee fan who had been part of the roar of the new place all game long, kept shouting, "Bring on Verlander." Sometimes, he would add an expletive as an adjective. Every time he did there would be another loud, happy Bronx cheer.
Verlander is as good as there is right now in his game, looking even more dominant in his start than Tanaka was in Game 5. He tries to get a game and get the Astros to Game 7. This series has become the show in baseball. Now we get one more game out of it, or we get two. The thing goes back to Houston now. Astros fans will try to match the noise and force of Yankee Stadium, as they watch the Yankees and Astros decide, once and for all, whose year it really is in the American League. Couple of minutes before midnight -- again -- for the Houston Astros.