NEW YORK — James Paxton was filled with nerves, and so were New York Yankees fans who worried the season was slipping away.
Tension only surged when the top of the first inning Friday night featured a little grounder that got away, a passed ball and a run-scoring wild pitch.
Boom! DJ LeMahieu drove Justin Verlander's second pitch over the wall to tie the score.
Clang! Aaron Hicks hit a three-run homer off the foul pole later in the inning.
Just like that, the Bronx Bombers were back — both in the game and this matchup of American League powerhouses.
A day after a brutal loss and with little margin for more errors, the Yankees played like the team that won 103 games in the regular season. Paxton chilled Houston's bats, and the bullpen followed with shutdown relief to beat the Astros 4-1, cutting New York's deficit in the best-of-seven AL Championship Series to 3-2.
"I wasn't ready to go home yet," said Paxton, a 30-year-old Canadian who played for the University of Kentucky, "so I wanted to go out and give my team everything I had and just battle away."
The rush was on to Texas, where the series resumes tonight without a day off. With pitching plans disrupted when Game 4 was pushed from Wednesday to Thursday because of rain, both teams are expected to take a bullpen approach in Game 6. Gerrit Cole, 19-0 since May, looms as the Astros' starter on Sunday if New York manages to extend the series to the limit.
Paxton, a fishing aficionado born outside Vancouver in Ladner, British Columbia, wore three-quarter-length sleeves on a night with a first pitch temperature of 52 degrees. That was the coldest for a Verlander start since last year's ALCS opener in Boston — he had on long sleeves, and half of Houston's fielders wore hoodies or balaclavas.
After lasting just 2 1/3 innings in Sunday's Game 2, Paxton struck out nine batters in six innings, allowing four hits and four walks. Punching his pitching hand into his glove after big strikeouts, he saved his biggest emotion for his 112th and final pitch. Yankees manager Aaron Boone had just made a trip to the mound, unsure if he would make a change.
"He just said, 'Are you ready? Do you have anything more left in the tank?'" Paxton said. "And I said, 'Yeah, let's go. I want this.'"
Robinson Chirinos hit a first-pitch fastball Brett Gardner caught in front of the left-field scoreboard with a runner on.
"When it first left the bat: 'Oh, no!'" Boone remembered thinking to himself.
After Tommy Kahnle allowed George Springer's one-out single in seventh and walked José Altuve, Zack Britton retired Michael Brantley and Alex Bregman. Britton struck out two in a perfect eighth, and Aroldis Chapman finished with a 1-2-3 ninth for the save.
Paxton outpitched Verlander, an eight-time All-Star and former AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner, on a night when each team had five hits.
Verlander opened with a JV first inning — not Justin vintage, but junior varsity. He allowed a pair of first-inning homers for the first time in 28 postseason starts and gave up four runs in an inning for the first time since Houston acquired him from the Detroit Tigers in August 2017.
"Fastball command wasn't very good, and the slider was just hanging," said Verlander, who retired 10 in a row after Hicks' homer and wound up allowing five hits in seven innings with nine strikeouts and no walks.
A night after the Yankees made four errors in one of their messier games of the season during an 8-3 loss, Paxton fell behind after 14 pitches. Springer reached on an infield hit, took second on Gary Sánchez's passed ball, advanced on a groundout and scored when Paxton bounced a breaking ball off Sánchez's glove for a wild pitch.
"A lot of nerves," Paxton said. "I was just overthrowing a little bit early."
New York came out swinging against Verlander, who had been 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA against the Yankees in seven postseason starts.
LeMahieu fouled off a pitch, then drove a fastball 355 feet to right-center for New York's first leadoff homer since Derek Jeter in 2009 ALCS against the Angels.
"LeMahieu took a couple big swings, hits the homer and woke up the building," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch, whose team won 107 regular-season games but needed all five of its AL Division Series to get past the wild-card Tampa Bay Rays.
Aaron Judge singled and Gleyber Torres doubled. Verlander struck out Giancarlo Stanton, who went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts after missing three games with a strained right quadriceps.
Hicks, sidelined for more than two months by a right elbow injury that made his wonder whether he would need Tommy John surgery, made a surprise return for the ALCS and re-entered the starting lineup for Game 3. He fell behind 0-2, took three straight balls and sent a chest-high slider down the right-field line. He dropped his bat, turned and watched the ball, took a half-dozen slow steps toward first and started jogging after it clanked off the pole for his first home run since July 24.
"It curved a lot more than I thought it would," he said.
New York had never hit a pair of first-inning homers in 404 previous postseason games. Verlander could only crouch on the infield grass as Hicks circled the bases.
Hicks ended a stretch of 15 straight hitless at-bats for the Yankees with runners in scoring position. New York has relied on the long ball, scoring 12 of its 17 runs against the Astros on seven homers.
"We just always fight back," Judge said. "That's what we talked about in our meeting today. Let's go back to being ourselves."
This was the 1,609th postseason game in MLB history, and the first in which both teams scored in the first inning and neither scored in the rest of the game.
On the injury front, New York's CC Sabathia dislocated his left shoulder while pitching in Game 4 and was replaced on the Yankees' active roster by right-hander Ben Heller. That ended the 19-season career of the 39-year-old left-hander, who is retiring. He was given a big ovation when shown on the video board in the sixth inning Friday night and waved to fans from the dugout.
Neither team announced a Game 6 starter. Rookie right-hander José Urquidy is Houston's most likely option, and New York could go with right-hander Chad Green as an opener who pitches no more than a handful of outs or start lefty J.A. Happ. New York would start right-hander Luis Severino if Game 7 is necessary.