Astros bats deliver clutch hits in the biggest moments

By Rich Zwelling, Contributor
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HOUSTON - One day on, and I'm still pinching myself to make sure it was real. The Astros' hitting had been abysmal during the entire series.

They couldn't really have won two of their four victories against the Yankees with walk-off homers, right? But we all know these things aren't mutually exclusive. It doesn't matter how poorly the numbers look if the hits come at the right time. And oh my, did they come at the right time -- throughout the series.

When Astros fans remember this series, no one's going to complain about how Yuli Gurriel batted under .150 for the series. They're going to remember how he attacked a first-pitch inside fastball from Yankee pitcher Chad Green and lined it into the Crawford boxes to give the Astros a 3-0 lead in the first inning of Game 6. 

George Springer and Carlos Correa also batted under .200 for the series. Will fans remember that a generation from now? Or will they remember Springer sending a first-pitch hanging slider from Adam Ottavino 400-plus feet off the community leaders sign in left-center field to tie Game 2 and bring life back into the Minute Maid Park crowd? 

Remember, just before that, Aaron Judge had taken Justin Verlander deep to put the Yankees up 2-1 after they'd won 7-0 at Minute Maid Park in Game 1. We were all still worried the Astros were on the verge of collapse. It was Springer's swing that changed the momentum. 

And it didn't matter that Correa was batting terribly. Again, all it took was a first-pitch offering, this time from J.A. Happ in the bottom of the 11th, and Correa ended Game 2 with one swing, the first of the two walk-off homers the Astros got in the series. That was a sign the postseason magic had really begun. 

The Astros would ride that wave to the Bronx and take Game 3 behind Gerrit Cole's gritty pitching performance. Josh Reddick -- another guy who batted under .200 for the series -- hit an early homer off of Luis Severino. That homer, as it turns out, accounted for the winning run in a game that also featured a homer from Jose Altuve. The Astros had gotten a crucial win in Yankee Stadium.

On paper, you'd think Games 3 and 4 went terribly. The Astros were 3-for-22 with runners in scoring position (RISP) and left 18 men on base (LOB). But upon closer inspection, the Yankees were even worse: 0-for-13 with RISP and 19 LOB. The story there is simply good-quality pitching and cold conditions that made conditions even more difficult for the batters. 

That meant the difference would be timely at-bats with big, big results. And Game 4 gave us that with two huge swings. Springer and Correa struggling? Not at those two at bats, when they combined to drive in six runs on a pair of three-run homers off of Masahiro Tanaka and Chad Green, respectively.

And Altuve. Yeah, well, I guess it's only in retrospect that we can look at that DJ LeMahieu bomb off of Roberto Osuna as a mixed blessing. At the time, it felt like another bad flashback. I saw Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. I saw Brad Lidge hanging a slider over the middle of the plate and Albert Pujols crushing it onto the train tracks to hand the Astros a loss and send fans into a deathly silence. 

But then I said, wait a sec. It's just a new ballgame. We're not down this time; we're just tied. Let's walk this thing off! With Aroldis Chapman in, things seemed to be headed to extra innings. And sure enough, he got two quick outs. But then Springer came up, and something happened: Chapman's control suddenly faded. He walked Springer on five pitches, three of which weren't close. That brought his pitch count to 15, and Altuve was now at the plate.

Now, Altuve to this point had been the best Astros hitter in the series (batting over .300). But unlike some of his worse-hitting teammates, he hadn't had a defining postseason moment. With Chapman looking either exhausted or just uncontrolled, Altuve likely smelled an opportunity. The first two pitches were fastballs that landed high and well wide. That likely signaled to Altuve the fastball control wasn't there, so he could expect on off-speed pitch. He did get a slider inside, but took it to get a good look.

Would Chapman risk going back to the fastball or try another off-speed? 

Luckily for Altuve (and for us), Chapman threw virtually the same slider, only this time, it hung well high and wide in the zone, likely nowhere near where Chapman wanted it -- perfect for Altuve's wide torquing swing. 

Altuve became the only player besides Bill Mazeroski to hit a home run to end a Yankees postseason series with a loss. That happened in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series. You can't get much more momentous than that.

Video reference for Mazeroski: 

 

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