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Justin Verlander, Astros confound Phillies to move within a win of World Series title

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PHILADELPHIA — Justin Verlander's years and years of searching for one of the few achievements that has eluded him ended Thursday and put Houston only two days away from a playing to secure a championship.

Verlander, one of the most decorated pitchers of his generation and a surefire Hall of Famer, won his first career World Series game in his ninth try. The veteran right-hander pitched downhill, gathering momentum through his five innings and then watching as two snazzy defensive plays foiled the Phillies and the Astros bullpen bobbed and weaved toward a 3-2 victory against Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park in Game 5.

Verlander’s first win puts the Astros one win away from a title.

As the best-of-seven series shifts back to Minute Maid Park for the weekend, Houston leads, three games to two.

Rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena snapped a 1-1 tie with a solo homer in the fourth inning that gave the Astros’ a lead with Verlander still on the mound. In the eighth inning, Jose Altuve walked, took third on a single, and scored on a groundout to extend the lead, firewalling it from the Phillies’ rally in the eighth. The Phillies spiraled through a zero-for-20 stretch with runners in scoring position before getting a single that scored a run in the eighth.

In the ninth, the Phillies had the ideal setup.

It was their final home game of the season.

They're Nos. 2-3-4 hitters were coming up.

They trailed by a run.

J. T. Realmuto drilled a ball to deep right-center field that had the arc of a double, maybe a triple with his speed. The drive and those extra bases disappeared when center fielder Chas McCormick soared in from stage right to make a leaping catch at the right-field wall.

The game found its way to Bryce Harper, who took a pitch off the right foot to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. It proved an effective way to short-circuit the threat.

Nick Castellanos grounded out to end the final game of the year in Philly.

Harper, clad in the Phillies’ beloved baby blue jerseys, was the 12th runner left marooned on base in the game.

Verlander, 39, made his World Series debut in 2006 on a chilly night in Detroit as the Tigers’ Game 1 starter against the Cardinals. Albert Pujols greeted him with a home run. The heavily favored Tigers lost that series in five, and Verlander went 0-2. He would return to the World Series with Detroit in 2012 and then appear three times in the past six years with Houston. In eight World Series starts, he had a 0-6 record and an ERA bubbling above 6.00.

Once he got his footing Thursday, he pushed through five innings. He walked a season-high four batters, but six strikeouts helped him minimize the damage. The only run he allowed was on a solo homer.

New first baseman smothers Phillies’ rally

Philadelphia got the tying run to third base – just a wild pitch away from tying the game – in the eighth inning, and they needed to address a drag on their offense to do so.

Including at-bats that ended the second, third, and fifth innings with runners in scoring position, the Phillies had gone without a hit in 20 consecutive at-bats with runners in scoring position. That empty set stretched back to Game 1. Second baseman Jean Segura flipped an RBI single to right field to score Castellanos from second and shave the Astros’ lead down to a run, 3-2. Two walks had primed the Phillies’ rally, and after Segura’s single the Phillies had two more swings at tying the game.

Make them one-for-23 with runners in scoring position.

Houston closer Ryan Pressly, pressed into the game 24 hours after finishing Wednesday’s no-hitter, struck out No. 9 hitter Brandon Marsh to bring the game back around to Kyle Schwarber. The leadoff slugger tied the game in the first inning with a solo homer, and he had a chance here in the eighth to tie the game with a base hit of any kind. He pulled a hard shot down the first-base line that tested new first baseman Trey Mancini.

Mancini came off the bench to hit for Yuli Gurriel in the eighth inning, shortly after Gurriel had been run over during a rundown in the top of the seventh.

In his first inning in the field, Mancini dropped to his knee to smother Schwarber’s grounder. Catching the ball took Mancini into foul territory, but he reached back with his foot to end the inning with the out and a one-run lead.

Verlander adds exclamation point to start

The veteran right-hander, on that careerlong quest for a win in a World Series, got finer as the game aged.

He was at his best in the moments around which his start hinged.

In the second inning, Verlander’s 33rd pitch of the game gave Schwarber a walk to load the bases. Ten batters into the game and Houston’s starter had two outs in the second, three runners on base, and real tenuous feel for the command of his pitches. He would walk a fourth batter of the game in the third inning – more batters in the first three innings on a Thursday than any previous start in 2022 or any previous playoff start of his career. The walk to Schwarber brought Rhys Hoskins up with a chance to seize momentum for Philadelphia for the first time since Tuesday.

It took Verlander five pitches to dispatch Hoskins and keep the score tied, 1-1.

Verlander got two swings and misses on sliders – including a 2-2 slider he tucked sharply into the lower edge of the strike zone. Hoskins did not make contact.

Before the game, Houston manager Dusty Baker said how “everybody’s wondering” if Verlander was on a tight pitch count or limited latitude when it came to facing trouble.

“I mean, he’s Justin Verlander,” Baker said. “Nobody can get out of trouble better than him. I’ve seen it over and over and over.”

And made sure Verlander had the chance to show him again.

Backing up his comments with his decisions, Baker had Verlander in the game the next time the middle of the Phillies’ order came up and did not flinch. Verlander struck out Schwarber to end the first inning, and he whiffed Hoskins again to open the fifth. No. 3 hitter Realmuto struck out for the second out of the fifth, and then came The Problem.

Verlander sidestepped Harper in previous innings with walks, and here, as his start neared its inevitable terminus, was a chance to challenge the Phillies’ cleanup hitter. Verlander did. Harper pounced. A double to right field that pinballed off outfielder Kyle Tucker put Harper, the potential tying run, in scoring position. A quick inning became an arduous one.

The final batter Verlander was likely to face – regardless of outcome – came to the plate in Nick Castellanos. This was his chance to flex.

Castellanos was hitless in the Phillies’ wild-card series in St. Louis, and in the World Series he’d been largely absent, even in Philadelphia’s most bountifully offensive games. They hit five home runs in Game 3. He had a single. They were no-hit in Game 4. He struck out three times. They had scored 43 runs so far at home in the playoffs. He drove in one.

As buttress in the lineup behind Harper, here was his chance to fly.

Castellanos got ahead in the count, 2-0, before Verlander challenged him with strike after strike. Castellanos fouled off four consecutive pitches to keep the count level, 2-2. After a meeting on the mound, Verlander sailed a pitch out of the zone just to see how far he could get Castellanos to reach. Castellanos didn’t bite. He fouled of a curveball to force the 10th pitch of the at-bat. He would see a fifth consecutive off-speed pitch, a seventh breaking ball.

And on Verlander’s 94th and final pitch, Castellanos flew out to left. 

'Thor' strikes to reclaim control

His start in the series delayed by two days thanks to Monday’s rainout, Noah Syndergaard encountered quick turbulence. Known as Thor for his long hair, Marvel Cinematic Universe frame, and the lightning that once crackled off his fastball, Syndergaard allowed two hits to the first two batters he faced.

Houston had a leadoff double and a run scored before Syndergaard got an out.

But when he did it changed the direction of the inning.

With help from Gold Glove-winning catcher Realmuto, Syndergaard seized control of the inning with a strikeout of Yordan Alvarez that Realmuto deftly turned into a double play. Realmuto’s throw to second caught rookie shortstop Pena trying to steal. In that one exchange, the Phillies went from a runner on base, a run already in, and no outs to the bases empty and two outs. Syndergaard struck out Bregman to end the inning and send the sellout crowd of 45,693 into an ovation that carried into the bottom of the first inning.

After an exchange of runs …

It took two pitches for Schwarber to give them a reason to raise the decibel level.

As if completing the hairpin turn of momentum that came from the double play, leadoff slugger Schwarber tied the game on Verlander’s second pitch. Schwarber whipped a fastball on a line into the right-field seats to knot the game, 1-1. Schwarber’s second homer in three games and fifth of the postseason left his bat at 111 mph and traveled an estimated 368 feet.

It felt like it took the Phillies much farther at the time.

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