Astros Strike Early and Late to Stay Alive
Astros Strike Early and Late to Stay Alive
Carlos Correa did not stand at home plate and point his bat toward the Tony Gwynn statue beyond center field at Petco Park late Thursday afternoon. But he called his shot — at least to his own team — and saved the Houston Astros’ season in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series.
“I’m going to end it,” Correa said he told second baseman Jose Altuve, as they headed to the dugout for the bottom of the ninth inning. An in-game lesson from a coach, Alex Cintron, had convinced Correa he would hit a home run.
“I could feel that my swing was in sync,” he said. “I could feel that my rhythm was good. I wanted to drive the ball, and I felt I could do it.”
Correa connected off Nick Anderson, finishing a 4-3 victory for the Astros’ hitters just as they had started it. George Springer had slammed John Curtiss’ first pitch for a towering homer down the left field line, and Correa’s final flourish, to center field, made Houston the first team ever to hit leadoff and walk-off homers in the same postseason game.
The Astros also tied a postseason record by using five rookie pitchers in a game, a relay through the first six and two thirds innings before Josh James and Ryan Pressly took over. The Astros allowed three solo homers, but no hits with runners in scoring position.
“We need to do a little bit better job of that: Take our walks and create runs in many different ways, use our speed, athleticism,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “We have to get on base and put pressure on them at a little better pace.” The Rays still lead the series, three games to two.
This was the rare October game in which the team with more homers lost; the difference was a two-run single by Michael Brantley in the second inning, between the two blasts. The hitting conditions were unforgiving, with late-afternoon shadows and waves of live arms. No Rays hitter faced the same pitcher twice, nor did any of the first five hitters for Houston.
Correa was especially frustrated. After tearing through Minnesota and Oakland in the first two rounds, when he hit .500, Correa was 2 for 14 through the first four games of the A.L.C.S. After going hitless in his first two at-bats of Game 5, he got a critical pointer from Cintron, the hitting coach.
“We’ve got to fix you, you’re doing everything wrong,” Correa said Cintron told him, as the Astros came to bat in the middle innings. “You’re standing at the plate wrong, that’s why you’re not seeing the ball, that’s why you’re not driving it.”
Correa went right to work, ducking into a tunnel for a hurried session in a batting cage with Cintron, who grabbed his shoulders and hands to adjust them. Cintron believed Correa was closing his front shoulder and sapping his power.
“If you’re looking at the pitcher and you’re too closed off and your hands are too far back, your first move is away — and you never want to be around the ball, you want to be inside the ball,” Correa explained. “Being a little more open made my hands able to have space, and I could clear my hands to be able to drive the ball.”
Cintron flipped about 10 balls in the cage to Correa, who felt the difference immediately. He lined out in his third at-bat but was encouraged that he had driven a good sinker up the middle.
Correa took a few more flips from Cintron the next inning, to keep the feeling. Cintron told him he looked ready to go deep in his next at-bat, and Springer said he would.
“As a hitter, there’s something that clicks, there’s something that makes you go,” Correa said. “And I felt like that made me click right there.”
Pressly preserved a 3-3 tie in the top of the ninth, standing a runner at second with fly outs by the dangerous Randy Aronzarena (who hit his sixth postseason homer in the fifth inning) and Austin Meadows.
Anderson had retired the Astros in order in the eighth, but Correa had a plan. Anderson is one of the majors’ best relievers, with a fastball that seems to rise to the hitter’s eye. After Alex Bregman popped out, Correa resolved to look for a fastball and account for its action.
“I was visualizing the pitch that I wanted; I was visualizing what I wanted to do with that pitch,” he said. “When you’re facing a guy like Anderson, this is a guy that throws a fastball with 20-plus inches of hop. So I knew I had to get on top of it. My approach going to the plate was seeing it middle-out, and if the ball is there, swing over it, so you can drive it and not miss it or foul it off.”
Anderson started Correa with two breaking balls; the first missed badly, but Correa swung aggressively at the second, far ahead of it for a strike. Then Anderson fired a fastball at 96 miles an hour, up and away, and he knew he had given Correa exactly what he wanted.
“After the pitch before, that curveball, it was a pretty good pitch,” Anderson said. “He was selling out for the heater the whole time, I guess.”
The ball sailed into a stairwell beyond the center field wall, and Correa, who also won Game 2 of last year’s A.L.C.S. with a homer off the Yankees’ J.A. Happ, joined Bernie Williams and David Ortiz as the only hitters with two game-ending postseason homers.
Ortiz’s second came in the 2004 A.L.C.S., when the Boston Red Sox famously overcame a three-games-to-none deficit to beat the Yankees. They remain the only team to make such a comeback.
The Astros have used that series for inspiration; Bregman shared a highlight film with teammates, including Correa, before Wednesday’s game. The Astros have finished only half the job, and must win again Friday to force a finale on Saturday. The starters from the opener — Blake Snell for Tampa Bay and Framber Valdez for Houston — will be back on full rest for Game 6, when the Astros will try to build off their stirring act of survival.
“Boy, that’ll go down as one of the greatest games in history,” Manager Dusty Baker said, “and hopefully it’ll go down as one of the greatest comebacks in history after two more games.”