In Game 5, at the Astrodome, the Astros led by three runs in the eighth inning with Nolan Ryan on the mound. Yet the Phillies came back and went on to win the World Series.
In 1986, also at the Astrodome, the Astros held another three-run lead, this time over the Mets in the ninth inning. A victory would have set up Game 7 and shifted the edge to the Astros, who could use their ace, Mike Scott, whose suspiciously moving splitters had burrowed into the Mets’ psyche.
Yet the Mets, like the Phillies before them, stormed back to win the game and, eventually, the World Series.
Fast forward past a few swift exits in the division series, a seven-game loss to St. Louis in the 2004 N.L.C.S. and a sweep by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series. After beating the Yankees in the 2015 A.L. wild-card game, the Astros took a 6-2 lead into the eighth inning of Game 4 of their division series with the Kansas City Royals.
By now, you know the pattern. The Royals, who were facing elimination, came back to win the game. They, too, were soon World Series champions.
Which brings us to Friday, when the Astros again found themselves with a three-run lead in the eighth inning, trying to extend the series. Verlander had avoided a jam in the seventh, surviving a walk, a hit batter, a 10-pitch at-bat by Aaron Hicks and Todd Frazier’s dangerous drive to center, which George Springer snared with a leap. A groundout ended the inning on Verlander’s 99th pitch.
Not all pitches take the same kind of toll on a pitcher. Ninety-nine pitches in the caldron of October can feel different from the same amount in a blowout in June. Such was the case for Verlander, who had worked all nine innings of Game 2. His 99 on Friday were all he could give.
“There’s no point in saving anything,” Verlander said, explaining that he tries to forget the inning in postseason games so he can concentrate solely on the next pitch. “It’s just kind of: I’m out there until I’m not out there any longer.”
For Hinch, the point came after seven innings. Verlander would not have lasted much longer anyway, he said, so it was better to pull him between innings. He would not send a tiring stalwart back to the mound to face the Yankees with the season on the line, as a doomed Grady Little did with Boston’s Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the 2003 A.L.C.S.
Brad Peacock came in, Hinch said, because he liked the way his slider and riding fastball would play against the top of the Yankees’ order. But after Brett Gardner flied out, Aaron Judge clobbered a fastball to the train tracks high above deep left-center.
“I tried to challenge Judge and just lost — he put a pretty good swing on it,” Peacock said, laughing. “A solo’s not gonna kill us there. Just kept my confidence and made some pitches.”
With the lead cut to 3-1 and Didi Gregorius and Gary Sanchez coming up, the Yankees had a chance to follow the example of the Phillies, the Mets and the Royals. But Peacock fought back after three balls to Gregorius, inducing a flyout, and he froze Sanchez with a full-count, two-seam fastball that ran back over the plate for strike three.
Hinch said he had decided to use closer Ken Giles for only one inning, after the Yankees bruised Giles in the eighth for a comeback win in Game 4. Even after the Astros extended their lead off David Robertson, Hinch stayed with Giles, turning to his best option to get the series to Game 7.
Now it is here, with perhaps a full staff of Astros pitchers ready to follow starter Charlie Morton. Expect bullpen seating to be at a premium, with Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and perhaps even Verlander — “he’s superhuman,” Hinch said — available on short rest.
“If things get crazy, I’m your man,” Keuchel said, smiling. “I’ll be good; it’s just my arm.”
Verlander said he would talk with Hinch on Saturday and be honest about what he could offer. The fact that he will even be considered, of course, underscores how erratic the Astros’ relievers can be. Friday’s example aside, history offers a grim forecast for Houston.
Then again, Game 7 is not always kind to the Yankees, either. The last time they played one, in 2004, they let a pennant — and a once-insurmountable three-games-to-none lead — slip away to the rival Red Sox. Nothing on Saturday could be as crushing as that.