Astros Win Game 7, Advance to World Series

Last night was the fifth time in 18 days the Yankees, a wild card entrant into the postseason, had faced a win-or-go-home game — a grueling, harrowing reality that had both hardened and emboldened them. At one time, the Cleveland Indians seemed as unbeatable at Progressive Field as the Astros did at Minute Maid Park, but the Yankees survived Game 5 of the Division Series there, and they believed they could prevail again Saturday night.

The Astros, on the other hand, had never been so tested. After April 13, they held first place in the AL West for the entire season, and after May 27, their lead never dipped below 10 games. Over the final 34 games of their regular season, a time when playoff-bound teams are looking to find another gear, they played only four games against teams that finished the season with a winning record. They were not what you would call battle-tested, and had pretty much zero experience with playing from behind until Game 6 on Friday night.

Once a precious lead is gained in Game 7 of a postseason series, everything else melts away, and all that is left, all that matters in the world, is the slow, steady, arduous counting down of outs.

When the Houston Astros got ahead of the New York Yankees in last night’s decisive game of the American League Championship Series, they needed 15 outs to reach the World Series, and each one seemed to take forever to secure. Every ball safely tucked in the glove of an Astros fielder was met by roars of increasing intensity from the crowd at Minute Maid Park.

Finally, the last out fell from the sky into George Springer’s glove. The Astros had a 4-0 victory and the most precious gift, the American League Pennant. This will be the franchise’s first trip to the World Series in 12 years, and only the second in their franchise’s history. They amassed near second base to hoist the trophy and soak in the moment.

The Astros, winners of 101 games in the regular season, will face the Los Angeles Dodgers (104 wins) in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Dodger Stadium in what will be the first matchup of 100-win teams in the Fall Classic since the Baltimore Orioles (108) conquered the Cincinnati Reds (102) in 1970.

Feeding off the supercharged electricity and relentless noise of a crowd of 43,201, and taking advantage of some strangely conservative bullpen moves by Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, the Astros built a four-run lead in the game’s middle innings on solo homers by Evan Gattis and Jose Altuve and a two-run double by Brian McCann.

Houston starter Charlie Morton carved up the Yankees for five brilliant, shutout innings, and unlike Girardi, Astros Manager A.J. Hinch approached the remainder of the game with ruthless aggression — or as ruthless as he could get with a bullpen compromised by ineffectiveness and weariness.
There were 12 outs to go. With Morton’s efficiency beginning to crumble, Hinch turned not to his stable of relievers, but to Lance McCullers Jr, who had told Hinch he wanted to start the game, Hinch declined and put him in the bullpen as he was the Astros’ Game 3 starter. It proved to be an inspired move. McCullers gave up a leadoff single in the sixth, but retired the next six Yankees in a row.
McCullers came back out for the eighth, pitched around a leadoff walk, struck out Yankees slugger Aaron Judge to end it, and the Astros needed three more outs.
As the ninth inning arrived, the door to the Astros’ bullpen remained closed. McCullers ascended the steps of the dugout and jogged back to the mound. He struck out Didi Gregorius. Two outs to go. He struck out Gary Sanchez. One out to go. He got Greg Bird to fly to center, as i said earlier into Springers glove, thats the series.

Bedlam, pandemonium, chaos and maybe even a bit of lawlessness, spread not only through the stadium, but all of Houston.

The Minute Maid Park crowd was deafeningly loud from the first pitch, and managed to find another few decibels when Morton struck out the first batter of the game, Brett Gardner, on three pitches, the last of them a 97-mph heater.

The electricity built through the early innings.

The Astros squandered a leadoff single in the bottom of the first, and the Yankees did the same in the top of the second.

And the game remained scoreless.

When Yuli Gurriel slashed a flyball to deep right field leading off the bottom of the second against Yankees starter CC Sabathia, the crowd rose in anticipation only to deflate when Judge elevated with every inch of his 6-foot-7 frame, crashed into the wall with every ounce of his 280-pound body and came down the ball, robbing Gurriel of a home run. Sabathia stood to the side of the mound and raised both arms toward Judge in appreciation.

And the game remained scoreless.

Sabathia began missing the plate in the third, to the point where the Yankees had Kahnle warming, but he escaped a first-and-second, one-out jam with a pair of ground balls. To that point, Sabathia had thrown 23 strikes and 22 balls.

And the game remained scoreless.

Morton, the forgotten man of the Astros’ rotation despite going 14-7 with a 3.62 ERA this season, carved up the Yankees with surgical precision early on, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first seven batters he faced, allowing only one base runner through four innings and collecting the first 12 outs with only 36 pitches, 28 of them strikes. Nobody stirred in the Astros’ bullpen.

And the game remained scoreless.

It might have been a good time for Girardi to pull Sabathia, with his command flagging and the Astros starting to get better swings at him. But Sabathia went back out for the bottom of the fourth, and Gattis, after falling behind 0-2, fouled off a few pitches, worked the count to 2-2 and on the eighth pitch of the at-bat smashed a hanging slider, over the fence in left-center.

And the game was no longer scoreless.

The Yankees at that point trailed by a single run, which may not have seemed so daunting, except they had not scored more than that in any of the first three games at Minute Maid Park. In this park, against that team, two runs felt like 10.

 By all rights, the Yankees should have tied the game in the fifth when Todd Frazier, with runners on the corners and one out, hit a slow dribbler to third. The sure out was to first base, but when third baseman Alex Bregman charged and scooped up the ball, he quickly threw home. The throw had to be perfect, the runner (Greg Bird) had to be slow, and catcher McCann had to somehow hold onto the ball as Bird slid into his mitt — but all 3 happened, the latest act of  defensive wizardry the Astros pulled off in their home park, producing an improbable out that kept the Astros in the lead at 1-0.
When Altuve connected off Kahnle with one out in the fifth, the first homer allowed by Kahnle in nearly two months, it was 2-0, and Girardi was again slow to activate his bullpen. He stayed with Kahnle through a single by Carlos Correa and through a hit-and-run single by Yuli Gurriel. He had relievers warmed up and ready, but stuck with Kahnle, a right-hander, again to face the lefty-swinging McCann — who yanked a hanging changeup into the right-field corner for a two-run double. It was 4-0, Astros.

McCann’s clutch hit must have been doubly painful for the Yankees, who are paying nearly a third of his $17 million salary this season after trading him to Houston 11 months ago. Pain was evident on the Yankees’ faces, and it had nothing to do with who was paying McCann’s salary. The Baby Bombers, as they have come to be known, may have arrived a year ahead of expectations as a contender, but that made it no easier to accept a defeat when the pennant was so close.

Just four years removed from their third straight 100-loss season in 2013, the Astros shut down the Yankees for two straight games after dropping three in a row in the Bronx. As Sports Illustrated predicted in ’13, Houston is headed to the World Series.

The home team won all seven games of this series, and in the end what separated winning from losing may have been the fact the Astros, by virtue of their excellent regular season, had the privilege of hosting four of the seven. They were a good team all season. But in their home park, they are champions.

Now on to face the only team, that seemed destined for them, so different, yet so alike. This is gonna be a fun, gritty, battle-it-out World Series. Just as these two teams have done all year, If you love good baseball, go get a new Lay-Z-Boy. You’re not gonna want to miss this.

Astros vs Dodgers
World SeriesGame 1
Tuesday, October 24, 7:09 PM on FOX
Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, California
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