HOUSTON — A slab of driftwood on shore is detritus that goes unnoticed. Within reach of a man drowning in a vast, cold ocean, however, it is more precious than gold. Desperation imbues value to the otherwise mundane.
So it was in the fifth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series Friday night for the Houston Astros. Adrift in an ocean of nervous at-bats, pushing their season to the brink of elimination, locked in a nerve-jangling scoreless game against the Yankees, the Astros reeked of desperation. They had scored just five runs in the previous 31 innings. In the first four innings of Game 6 already they had swung at 10 pitches out of the strike zone against New York starter Luis Severino. Anxiety visibly poisoned their at-bats.
Even shortstop Jose Altuve, usually all lightness and energy, turned dark, muttering at umpire Jim Reynolds on his way to the dugout in the fourth after Altuve whiffed at another pitch out of the zone, as if Reynolds’ strike call on the previous pitch was to blame. George Springer kept swinging out of his spikes, and poor Josh Reddick, hitless for 15 straight days, and with a pathetic hangdog look of which country songs are made, hit everything in the dugout out of frustration because he hit nothing at the plate.
And then, in the nick of time, so that more genius and guile from Astros pitcher Justin Verlander would not be wasted, along bobbed a piece of driftwood.
Postseason driftwood comes in many shapes. It was Ben Zobrist’s bunt in NLCS Game 4 last year, and it was the rain delay in World Series Game 7. It was Eck walking Mike Davis in 1988, Mariano throwing away a bunt in 2001, and Bartman touching a foul ball before Moises Alou could in 2003.
This driftwood doesn’t figure to loom as large as those, though we will see how ALCS Game 7 plays out Saturday night. It began with Alex Bregman, Houston’s 23-year-old third baseman, before his at-bat leading off the fifth, telling himself, “Make him throw strikes. Get him in the zone.”
“I thought he was going to start me with a slider,” Bregman said of Severino, “and I told himself to take a strike to see if he could locate it.”
Severino missed just off the plate, down and away, exactly the kind of pitch the Astros had been chasing for four straight games.
“The 1-0 pitch I was just trying to shoot the other way,” Bregman said, of a fastball he fouled to the right side. “It was in the zone. He’s got good rise on that pitch.”
Severino next missed up and away with another fastball. Again, Bregman took a pitch out of the zone.
“I knew he’d come back with a slider,” Bregman said.
Severino obliged, but threw it high. Though Bregman was sitting on the pitch, he took it for ball three.
“Now at 3-1 I’m thinking, zone in on one spot,” Bregman said. “Make him throw it into the zone where I’m looking, otherwise let it go.”
Severino threw a fastball at 99.7 mph, but that, too, came in high. Bregman spat on it. Ball four. Hello, at last, driftwood.
The at-bat changed everything, maybe even who wins the AL pennant.
“It was huge,” catcher Brian McCann said, “for a couple of reasons. We get a man on and Severino in the stretch with nobody out. That was the first time it happened. We also get back to the way we play baseball.”
Starting with Bregman’s at-bat, the Astros did not chase another one of Severino’s last 26 pitches. They turned that rediscovered plate discipline into a grinder of an inning for Severino, which begat a 3-0 lead, which begat a 7-1 win, which begat the emotional rescue the Astros had been seeking over four games. Thursday they were a wreck, their at-bats so tight you could hear them squeak. Friday they were renewed.
“Yesterday was an off day,” shortstop Carlos Correa said after the win. “I’m always thinking baseball. And I was thinking, We’re chasing too many pitches. We’re chasing pitches out of the zone. We’ve got guys going up there and just swinging, instead of having a plan. That’s not how it works.
“So before the game, that’s what we were talking about. ‘We need a better approach.’ We’re talking hitting in here all the time, but that was the talk before the game. It wasn’t a meeting—just talking to each other.
“We got back to our game. Yuli [Gurriel], for instance, when he came here [from Cuba] he thought walks were bad. He thought he had to hit, hit, hit. We had to tell him, ‘No, walks are good. It’s your OPS that counts.’ He’s been walking a lot in the last month.”
Marwin Gonzalez pushed Bregman to second with a weak groundout. Then Severino threw four straight off-speed pitches to Evan Gattis, including a 3-0 changeup, and Gattis didn’t bite on any of them.
Severino recovered to get two quick strikes on McCann. He then tried a slider and a fastball just off the plate, but McCann didn’t swing at either of them. Better still, McCann knew where the next pitch was going to be. All series the New York pitchers have stayed on or off the outside part of the plate when they get to two strikes.
“CC [Sabathia] threw me one cutter in,” Bregman said. “Otherwise I haven’t seen a pitch in the whole series. I’m sorry, I don’t want to sound like a [jerk], but if you come in with this team, you might get clipped.”
McCann set his sights for a third straight two-strike pitch away, and Severino stayed true to form. McCann so thoroughly sat on the pitch away that even though it was on the outside corner McCann hooked it so hard to rightfield that it bounced into the stands for a run-scoring double.
As Yankees manager Joe Girardi ordered Chad Green to throw in the bullpen, Severino threw four straight pitches to Springer that flirted with the edges of the strike zone. Springer didn’t swing at any of them. Now it was obvious the air had changed, what Australians call “a cool change.” Severino was spraying pitches and the Astros no longer were assisting him. Wild-swinging Springer had taken only 11 four-pitch walks the entire season, and in Bregman’s wake suddenly he turned into Joey Votto.
Girardi, knowing he had an out in order, left Severino in to get the forlorn Reddick, which he did with a flyball.
Now the game reached its crossroads: Altuve, fresh off his poisonous strikeout his last time up, was up next. Girardi had two pitchers from which to choose to get him out, keep the game at 1-0, and get out of the inning: a tiring Severino or a fresh Green.
The answer was complicated because of Altuve’s freakish ability to hit fastballs nobody else hits. Altuve hit .374 against fastballs during the regular season, seeing them 50 percent of the time. The Yankees had dialed that percentage all the way down to 36 in this series heading into Game 6.
Green’s best pitch is that high-spinning, high-velocity fastball that rides over a hitter’s barrel. Hitters managed only three hits all year when Green threw his best fastball up in the zone. But Girardi had seen what Altuve did to that pitch: he stepped up and promptly smacked it for a single in Game 1, then lined out to deep centerfield against Green in Game 4. Girardi didn’t want to see Altuve against Green’s heater any longer, so he stayed with Severino, whose slider is better than the one Green throws.
Severino had thrown Altuve five sliders out of his seven pitches. Altuve knew what was coming. By now Altuve had scared the Yankees off fastballs to him. Severino threw a first-pitch slider, and it hung like the moon on a clear night. Altuve jumped on it, driving into leftfield for a two-run single and a 3-0 lead.
Now everything was right in the Astros’ world. Hello, terra firma. Verlander was dealing, the at-bats were again competitive, and the hometown fans, with wind back in their lungs, were shaking the rafters of the roof with the joyful noise of relief.
Revived, the Astros flaunted their new-found freedom of mind on poor David Robertson in the eighth, a staccato of punishment that went like this: home run, double, single, double. Altuve provided the home run, a ridiculous display of the hitting savant’s outsized talent. Against the toughest curveball to hit in the majors—batters were hitting just .082 against Robertson’s hook this year—Altuve took a curve near his tiny shoetops and flicked it into the Crawford Boxes in leftfield, not unlike a fly fisherman casting a line.
Even Altuve had to laugh at such sleight of hand when he made it back to the dugout. Or maybe his and the other smiles in there were simply what the gratitude of the rescued looks like.
New York had been a horror for the Astros. They lost three games, played jittery baseball and were cursed and personally insulted by some vulgar Yankee Stadium fans (or worse, as happened to manager A.J. Hinch’s family, doused with beer). Hinch felt the anxiety of his team after Game 5 there, but didn’t want the theatrics of a full-blown team meeting to exacerbate the nervousness. So as he walked through the postgame clubhouse he stopped just long enough to tell them, “This was not a five-game series. Day off tomorrow. No baseball. Come back and be ready to play Friday.”
On the rare occasions when Hinch does hold a team meeting, he will prep veteran DH Carlos Beltran, so that Beltran can have something prepared to say. This time Beltran didn’t need to be told. After Hinch finished his quick talk, Beltran stepped in.
“It’s a seven-game series for a reason,” Beltran said. “There’s no reason to panic. We just have to come back and play our baseball. And we’re going home.”
The series and the Astros re-set in Game 6. They found their equilibrium. It certainly helped that they had Verlander holding back the Yankees like Hoover Dam until they snapped out of their nervous funk. About two hours before the game, Verlander parked his car in the Astros’ underground garage and walked past me in a corridor that leads to the home clubhouse. He had headphones on, and looked angry while biting his lip, as if he had the worst taste in his mouth. Though it was only he and I in the hallway, he never saw me. He saw only one thing: his next pitch.
“The best way for me to explain it,” Verlander said after the game about the excellence of his work in the most-dire circumstances, “is multiple times throughout the game I forget what inning we’re in, what’s going on around me. My only focus is to execute pitch by pitch. I won’t even remember what batter is coming up.”
Verlander is undefeated as an Astro, 9-0, including 4-0 in the postseason. He lowered his ERA when his teams face elimination to 1.21 in five starts, displacing Curt Schilling as the greatest postseason pitcher when your team needs to win one game to save its season. He has 40 strikeouts in those five games against nine walks.
“It’s special every time he takes the mound,” Bregman said. “He’s a maybe once in a lifetime teammate and a once in a lifetime pitcher.”
So now we get the two most magical words there ever were in baseball, at least since 1903, when they began playing the World Series: Game 7. In the 114 years hence, the game Saturday night will be only the 58th Game 7 ever played. The advent of two seven-game championship series, which began in 1985, added to the possibility of getting more Game 7s, but still this is only the 16th out of a possible 68 so far in the Wild Card Era.
The past two Game 7s have been epic: the Cubs’ win over Cleveland in the 2016 World Series, and the Giants riding a bull named Bumgarner to a win over Kansas City in the 2014 World Series. In both instances the road team won by one run, with the game ending with the tying run on base.
The script is in place for another blockbuster. The Yankees’ CC Sabathia, 37, will attempt to be the second-oldest pitcher to start and win a Game 7, behind only Burleigh Grimes, then 38, of the 1931 Cardinals.
The Astros will start with Charlie Morton, a 33-year-old journeyman with a 60-78 record and more career surgeries (Tommy John surgery, left and right hip, hamstring, etc.) than complete games, and, a la Randy Johnson, Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw, may finish with Dallas Keuchel, who hasn’t made a relief appearance since 2013.
To get here, this series, as it has yo-yoed between the weird and the thrilling, seemed devised by Hitchcock. The home team won every game, Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez twice allowed the last run to score by dropping throws with an out in order at the plate, a flyball lodged in the outfield fence, two foul balls hit the rafters, a homer clanked off a 12-year-old’s glove, Chase Headley made like a schoolkid on the bases with his version of stop-drop-and-roll, and Aaron Judge and Altuve, the presumptive top two MVP finishers, traded eighth-inning home runs in Game 6 as if playing the baseball version of horse.
In Hitchcockian terms, the Bregman walk was the MacGuffin of this series, the device on which the plot pivots, though its full import, if any, cannot immediately be known. We have to wait until the credits roll to really understand whether Bregman flipped the script, or just sent us down another rabbit hole.
In such a series, there is no way to know for sure where this ends up. All we know is that we have a Game 7, and for the gift of Seven we can thank Bregman and his little victory for making it possible.