Three thoughts from Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros–who in 2013 had their third straight 100-loss season–beat the Yankees 4-0 in Game 7 of the ALCS to erase a 3-2 series deficit and reach their second-ever World Series.
1. CHARLIE MORTON’S RESULTS FINALLY MATCHED HIS STUFF
Houston manager A.J. Hinch knew this could be a kitchen sink type of game, and he probably expected it. “We have 12 pitchers on staff,” he said on Saturday afternoon. “Do I have to use all of them? Maybe. That wouldn’t be completely out of the realm.”
Then he outlined what was his best case scenario, as unlikely as it was. “We could still go from Morton to McCullers to Giles and then go to the World Series.”
There was actually one scenario that was even better–that Hinch wouldn’t even need Ken Giles–and that, incredibly, is what happened. Morton, who entered the evening with a 10.13 ERA, deserves the lion’s share of the credit. Of course, that ERA wasn’t particularly deserved to begin with. “He’s been one of the unluckiest pitchers in the postseason,” Hinch had said. “He’s not been hit hard, given up a couple runs here and there.”
Though it was more than a couple runs, Hinch’s point was correct. The box score might have shown that he allowed seven in 3 2/3 innings in Game 3 of this ALCS–but three of those came on the ugliest one-handed home run you’ve ever seen, by Todd Frazier, and another three came on a wild pitch and then an Aaron Judge moonshot, both of which happened after Morton was pulled in favor of Will Harris.
Morton’s stuff was even better on Saturday: his fastball comfortably sat at 96-miles per hour, and he complimented it with filthy, pinpoint breaking balls. This time, he got the outcome he deserved. He allowed a single baserunner in the first four innings, needing only 36 pitches–just eight of which were balls–to complete them. Though he wobbled in an 18-pitch fifth, he escaped unscathed, thanks to a sensational play we’ll discuss next. Then it was on to Lance McCullers and the World Series–even better than what A.J. Hinch had hoped for, if not predicted.
2. ALEX BREGMAN’S PLAY WAS SO CRAZY THAT IT WORKED
Momentum felt as if it was turning in the top of the fifth, with the Astros clinging to a 1-0 lead thanks to an Evan Gattis homer off of CC Sabathia–a lead that should have been much greater, as Houston had strafed the Yankees’ veteran, producing nearly as many baserunners (eight) as he had recorded outs (ten). Morton appeared to be laboring, allowing a leadoff double down the rightfield line to Greg Bird, and an out later walking Aaron Hicks on a wild pitch that allowed Bird to advance to third.
Then Frazier stepped up. Frazier had hit that ugly homer to right off Morton in Game 3, but this at-bat produced the opposite result: a chopper in the direction of Alex Bregman at third base.
The obvious play–probably the only logical play–with one out halfway through a 1-0 game, was to first. Though Bird is slow-footed, an attempt to nail him at home was simply too dangerous, crazily so. It required not just a perfectly timed and placed throw, but a flawless catch and tag by catcher Brian McCann. So many things could have gone wrong, and if only one did then the door would be left wide open for an even bigger inning, as the game would be tied and there would still be runners on first and second with only one out.
Bregman threw home. Perhaps he did it because he is 23 and doesn’t know any better. That would’ve likely been the storyline had it not worked, had everything gone awry after that. Up in the Astros’ front office’s box, populated by probabilistically disciplined thinkers, everyone gasped. The play had, at best, perhaps a 25% chance of success; if it didn’t work, the game’s outcome would have swung significantly in the Yankees’ favor.
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But the Astros didn’t select Bregman second overall in the 2015 draft, and install him as their third baseman last summer, to crunch numbers down on the field. He was operating from instinct and experience–and throwing to first didn’t even cross his mind. He was either going to second, to try to start an inning-ending double play, or home, and he quickly eliminated the first option. “We had a play with about ten games left in the regular season,” he would say. “Justin Upton hit me a ground ball and I tried to turn the double play. He beat it out to first base. In a one run game, I said, Hey, I’m gonna take my chance throwing this guy out at the plate. Try to keep momentum on our side. Everyone in this clubhouse has big balls. I felt like I had to go for it. It’s Game 7. You can’t hold anything back.”
Then? “Pulled out the inner Peyton Manning, and dropped a dime.”
It was a perfectly delivered dart. McCann got his glove down beneath the feet of a sliding Bird–and somehow held on as Bird’s spikes raked his forearm. “Honestly, how McCann hung on to that was incredible,” said Bregman. “What a tag.”
Bird was out at home, and after Morton got Chase Headley to ground softly to Altuve, the Astros were out of the inning.
McCann, despite the recent collision, blew the game open in the bottom of the frame with a two-run double. But it was his play, in combination with Bregman, that represented the game’s true pivot point–the point as which everything could have gone awry for the Astros, and instead went everything but.
3. THE ASTROS ARE SET UP FINE FOR THE WORLD SERIES
The Dodgers have been chilling since Thursday night, after blowing away the Cubs in the fifth game of the NLCS. By Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday in L.A., Clayton Kershaw will be on regular rest, and everyone else will have had time to recuperate from bumps and bruises–even a sore back, in the case of shortstop Corey Seager. So they clearly hold a distinct physical advantage over the Astros, whom the Yankees took down to the wire–right?
Well, not exactly–and that’s thanks in large measure to Morton. His five shutout innings, followed by four from McCullers, meant that Dallas Keuchel never even got up in the `pen during Game 7. Justin Verlander certainly didn’t. By Game 1, Keuchel will actually be on five days’ rest, and Verlander will be on the regular four for Wednesday’s Game 2.
So, yes, the ALCS went the distance, but the Astros emerged from it physically intact, in the most important ways. It’ll be strength against strength from the start, just as it should be.
FINAL BONUS THOUGHT