In his first at-bat of a win-or-go home Game 5, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa struck out on a foul tip. In his second at-bat, Correa, who was only 2-for-14 in the American League Championship Series after batting .500 in the first two rounds of the postseason, grounded out to second base.
The Astros had jumped out to the earliest possible lead over the Tampa Bay Rays — a home run on the first pitch of the game by George Springer — but a loss would end their season. The baseball world outside of Houston would celebrate.
For the past few weeks, since they snuck into the postseason thanks to an expanded field and advanced because they’re probably a better team than how they played over the first 60 games, the Astros must have known that no one wanted them there. What they couldn’t seem to decide is if they were winning (when they were winning) because of or in spite of their villain status.
Depending on how someone phrased the inevitable question and how much the interviewee was feeling himself at that particular moment, they were either keeping their heads down in earnest pursuit of Houston pride or they were flouting their shameless success and saying things like, “We know what it feels like, so we want to be able to have that feeling again. 2017 was such a special year.”
It’s not clear if, when he said that after they beat the A’s in the Division Series, Correa intended to taunt the rest of the league with reminders of the championship they won as cheaters.
This postseason was supposed to be either a full self-aware heel turn to prove we’re living in the worst possible timeline without even cosmic justice, or else the national public repudiation that went unfinished when the pandemic suspended all sports back in March. But the relationship between the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme in 2017 and the Astros’ success this October is likely much simpler than either motivation or distraction. It’s just the same impulse: that of unbridled competitiveness.
Three years ago, the Astros would do anything — anything — for an edge, for a win. This season knocked them down with injury and sluggish seasons from star hitters. Then they fell behind 3-0 to the Rays in the best-of-seven ALCS. Only one team has ever come back from such a deficit. The Astros could try to ignore the odds, one-game-at-a-time mentality and all, but with social media, the stats find you.
Then Zack Grienke pitched well on Wednesday, Dusty Baker trusted him when others might not have, and it was 3-1.
Thursday was another must-win. Without a starting pitcher to speak of, they would stitch together innings from an inexperienced bullpen. A good time for their veteran-laden offense to get hot.
Coming back to the dugout from an inning in the field, Correa spotted hitting coach Alex Cintrón, looking desperate to talk to him.
“Come, come come, we got to fix you,” Cintrón told Correa. “You're doing everything wrong. You're standing at the plate wrong, that's why you're not seeing the ball. That's why you're not driving it.”
So Correa grabbed a bat and some batting gloves and followed his coach to the cage, anything for a little bit of an edge. Cintrón wanted Correa to be less closed off, open his front shoulder toward the pitcher more. Correa had been standing with his hands too far back, forcing them to come around on the ball. In the cage, Cintrón grabbed his shortstop’s shoulders and moved them to where they should be.
“I want you right here,” Cintrón said, “with your hands right here. And then you do your move, and you’re going to drive it.”
In the next at-bat, Correa hit the ball sharply up the middle, where it was caught for an out, but it felt good. It felt like something had clicked and he didn’t want to lose it, so again he and Cintrón went to the cage to practice the swing. It was there they decided that if Correa could just hang on to that feeling, he would drive the ball into the seats next time he got the chance.
The next time he got the chance came at an opportune time.
With one out in the bottom of the ninth and the score knotted at three apiece, Correa told his manager, the 71-year-old Baker, that he was going to end it.
“And I said, ‘Go ahead on, man,’” Baker told reporters postgame. “And then I said a prayer to my dad and my brother and I said, ‘Lord, please let us walk off because if not we got to use Framber and then we don't have Framber tomorrow.’”
A prayer to spare his Game 6 starter, Framber Valdez, then warming in the bullpen in case of extra innings. By that point the Rays, famous for their quick hooks and elaborate bullpen plans, were on their fourth pitcher of the night. The Astros had used seven.
“We were in bad shape pitching wise,” Baker said. “And they were in great shape.”
The Astros had set a postseason record, sending five consecutive rookies to the mound. It had gotten them this far — tied in the bottom of the ninth — but without any off days baked into the postseason schedule this year, it would have been a pyrrhic win if it came in the double-digit innings and left them without a pitcher for tomorrow.
Yes, a walk-off would be nice.
And that’s exactly what happened. On a 1-1 count from Rays relief ace Nick Anderson, who had given up two home runs all season, Correa drove a 96 mph four-seam fastball over the center field wall. The Astros had won, only the fourth team to force a Game 6 after falling behind 3-0.
As he rounded the bases, Correa felt like he blacked out. It was the second postseason walk-off homer of his career. Last year’s was special, too, but Thursday night, this one was his favorite.
The whole team was waiting for Correa at home plate, high fives and chest bumps until he got to Baker, who enveloped him in a bear hug. The Astros are only halfway to a historic comeback, in the series if not in the hearts of fans everywhere. They will be hated if they play in the World Series, the whole country bandwagoning whomever emerges from the NLCS. They’ll say they’re not trying to prove anything, but the specter of whether they can win without cheating will hang over every game.
And right now, that’s what they want more than anything.
Correa, still hugging Baker and shouting to be heard over all the commotion, had gotten them one step closer. “I f---ing told you,” he said.
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