HOUSTON - The magic is back.
We were waiting for that moment, that undeniable feeling that the Astros postseason had begun. Really begun. The Game 5 victory over Tampa Bay was great, but it was blunted a bit by the knowledge that Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow had tipped his pitches and that George Springer, Michael Brantley and a certain Carlos Correa were still batting well under .200. That 7-0 shellacking to the Yankees in Game 1 didn't help.
But the playoffs are fickle, and sometimes it takes only one guy to seize the momentum completely. That's an understatement, in retrospect, for Game 2. Carlos Correa was responsible not just for two Astros runs but negative-one Yankees runs. It's so special, because someone needed to step up to bring everything together for the Astros, and who better than the guy so daunted by injuries throughout the season, the guy written off so many times during the regular season, even by Astros fans.
Last year, Correa's injury woes left him out of play for six weeks prior to the postseason, and it cost the team during their five-game loss to the Boston Red Sox. At the end of May, Houston fans girded themselves for further disappointment when the Astros announced that Correa had suffered a rib fracture during a massage at home. He wouldn't return to play until late July. Then on Aug. 19, Correa exited a game against the Detroit Tigers with back discomfort. He wouldn't return for another four weeks. Then toward the end of September, Correa's back again flared up, and Astros Manager A.J. Hinch made the call to rest him for the remainder of the regular season.
Understandably, many Astros fans were less than optimistic about Correa's postseason prospects. And as if to justify their worries, Correa batted 3-for-22 going into Sunday night's game. But as powerful as analysis is in baseball these days, it can't always account for the sudden momentum swings of the playoffs. And in a game dominated by outstanding pitching and defense, it was Correa who single-handedly ignited what should be considered the Astros true 2019 offensive postseason bid. He drove an RBI double down the left-field line in the second inning, made an unreal heads-up play to throw out Yankees first baseman DJ LeMahieu at home plate to end the sixth inning, and, of course, laid into a first-pitch offering from J.A. Happ in the bottom of the 11th to abruptly send Minute Maid Park into a frenzy and let us all finally get some shut-eye.
Had the Astros lost this game, they'd be headed to Yankee Stadium -- one of the toughest atmospheres in baseball -- needing to win two out of three games for a chance to return to Houston for Games 6 and 7. Instead, they head into Game 3 with the same team spirit and confidence so apparent throughout the 2017 playoff run. It felt great to win the Rays series, but this feels different.
Now it really does feel like the Astros are just getting started. And Gerrit Cole is taking the mound at Yankee Stadium for Game 3, so momentum is solidly in the Astros' favor.
One more parting thought. Another thing analytics don't account for is style. Correa recounted after the game that he felt out-of-body following his walk-off home run. So I guess we can chalk the ensuing gesture up to reflex: He crushed Happ's pitch, stood motionless for a brief moment, dropped the bat casually, then put his right hand to his ear to urge on the growing din.
By now, we've all also seen the helmet jump shot and celebration at home plate. And earlier, when he had thrown out LeMahieu, he brought out the Mutumbo-like finger-wag. There's a fine line between cockiness and exuberance, and Correa somehow pulls it off. And it's going to spread to the rest of the team headed into Yankee Stadium.
The Astros need that fire and confidence over the next three games. And it's that intangible that makes Correa absolutely vital.
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