HOUSTON — At the crack of the ball off Todd Frazier’s bat — a sound heavier and more authoritative than any the New York Yankees have produced off Justin Verlander in the postseason — it seemed as if everyone who had squeezed into Minute Maid Park on Friday night was consumed by a singular thought.
“I thought holy hell,” Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “It’s going to leave the yard.”
“I thought it was gone,” Frazier said.
“I thought homer,” Verlander said.
But as the ball sailed toward the deepest recesses of center field, with two runners aboard, one out in the seventh inning and the Astros clinging to a three-run lead — as well as their playoff lives — center fielder George Springer gave chase.
Tracking the ball as it approached the wall, Springer leapt and caught it as he crashed into the padding, bringing the capacity crowd to its feet and providing the signature moment in the Astros’ 7-1 victory over the Yankees, which forced a seventh, and deciding, game in the American League Championship Series.
The Astros, after losing three straight games at Yankee Stadium, evened the series at three games apiece. They rode another stellar performance from Verlander, who complemented his complete-game, 13-strikeout masterpiece in Game 2 with seven shutout innings, and a better-late-than-never awakening of their bats.
But it was Springer’s catch that kept the Yankees at bay, assuring that there will be one more game to determine who will play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. The Yankees will start C.C. Sabathia in Saturday’s Game 7, and the Astros will counter with Charlie Morton. It will be the fifth time the Yankees have faced elimination in the 2017 postseason.
If the Yankees are buoyed by the presence of Sabathia, an unflappable veteran who won the decisive fifth game of their division series at Cleveland, it is also worth remembering that whichever team has been at home in this ALCS has played with verve and confidence.
While the Astros looked frazzled at Yankee Stadium, their defense has stood out in all three games here. In addition to Springer’s catch and a slick early double play started by shortstop Carlos Correa on Friday night, there was the Game 1 gem turned in by left fielder Marwin Gonzalez, who threw out Greg Bird at the plate. And there was the Game 2 rat-tat-tat relay from right fielder Josh Reddick to Correa to third baseman Alex Bregman that cut down Brett Gardner at third.
The Yankees, whose only run Friday came on Aaron Judge’s long homer off reliever Brad Peacock in the eighth inning, have scored just once in each of their three losses here.
For the first time in this series, the Astros unleashed the offense that led Major League Baseball in runs in the regular season. Jose Altuve snapped out of a 0-for-12 slump by ripping a two-out, two-run bases-loaded single in the fifth that put the Yankees in a 3-0 hole. Then he hit a curveball off his shoe tops for a solo homer in the eighth against David Robertson, who ended up being pounded for four runs without retiring a batter.
“I threw it exactly where I wanted to, and he hit it out of the park,” Robertson said. “Didn’t get the job done today. It would have been nice to get a 1-2-3 inning and give us a chance to come back in the ninth, but I went out there and got my butt kicked.”
The Astros, to that point, had been carried by Verlander, who won a postseason elimination game for the fourth time in his career.
Verlander has been rejuvenated by his Aug. 31 trade from Detroit, which came minutes before the deadline for him to be eligible for the postseason. He has won all eight starts in an Astros uniform — as well as gaining a victory in a relief appearance in the division-series clincher against the Boston Red Sox — and has compiled a 1.05 ERA.
Few pitchers have his playoff résumé, which includes a pair of Game 5 shutouts of the Oakland Athletics and three wins over the Yankees.
“I consider him to have a bionic arm,” Hinch said before Game 6. “He’s never fatigued. Whatever that pitch count, I hope he gets as many outs as he can.”
The Yankees had few hard-hit balls in Game 6, rarely getting on top of Verlander’s four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone, where contact often resulted in towering, but nonthreatening, fly balls. He allowed five hits — all singles — and one walk, striking out eight.
The Astros, who had not scored in 15 innings, broke through in the fifth on a run-scoring double by former Yankee Brian McCann — his first hit of the series — and the single by Altuve, who jumped on a first-pitch slider from Luis Severino.
The decision to allow Severino to face Altuve, with Chad Green warming up in the bullpen and with Severino having issued three walks in the inning, was a second-guesser’s delight.
When asked before the game about the depth of his well-rested bullpen, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said: “Believe me, it’s been really nice to have. I know that we have weapons down there.”
That bullpen will not be so fresh — or fearsome — come Saturday night. Green will be unavailable after throwing 38 pitches in 2 1/3 scoreless innings in Game 6, and Robertson was assailed in his brief time on the mound.
If there was a consolation for the Yankees, it was that they made Astros closer Ken Giles expend himself in the ninth, throwing 23 pitches.
The Yankees’ best chances came late against Verlander. With runners at first and second and two out in the sixth, Gary Sanchez took three borderline pitches for balls to find himself in a favorable 3-0 count. But Sanchez took a checked swing on the next pitch, a slider, and tapped a slow roller to shortstop that Correa handled easily.
The Yankees threatened again in the seventh when Verlander walked Bird and nicked Starlin Castro with a pitch that, after a video review, sent him to first and Bird to second. With the tying run at the plate and no one out, Verlander struck out Aaron Hicks at the end of a tense 10-pitch at-bat to bring up Frazier.
Frazier had struck out in his previous at-bat, feebly swinging at a curveball — a pitch Verlander rarely throws. When Verlander threw it again in the seventh, on the first pitch of the at-bat, Frazier was ready, but he just missed, fouling it straight back.
Frazier was then ready for the fastball, which he drove to center field.
“I know our dimensions out there, I know how much space I have, and how much time I have before I hit the wall,” Springer said. “I knew I had a good shot at it.”
Verlander escaped the inning when he retired Chase Headley, who had seven hits in his last nine at-bats, on a grounder to second. When the out was recorded, Verlander roared and pumped his fists, then waited — along with Altuve and Correa — to high-five Springer as he came off the field.
“He’s a free safety playing baseball,” McCann said.
Frazier’s shoulders slumped as he reached first base.
“I thought I hit it out,” he said. “It was one of those balls where I thought I had it, where I thought I tied the game.”
Instead, it is the series that is tied.
Frazier acknowledged that he might not sleep well Friday night, and he had two reasons to toss and turn: the excitement of what lay ahead Saturday night and the frustration of what he had just endured.