HOUSTON — Twenty-four hours before his 11th-inning blast cleared the rightfield fence on Sunday, Carlos Correa wondered if he would ever get another hit.
He was still recovering from a back so tight that he spent team flights lying in the aisle. He had keyed the Astros’ offense en route to their 2017 championship, but this postseason he had been more thud than threat. After going 0-for-3 in Game 1 of the ALCS, he was hitting .136 this October. And worst of all, he saw no way out.
“Everything felt so off,” he recalled at his locker after he gave the Astros a 3–2 victory in Game 2. So as his teammates trudged home after Houston’s Game 1 loss, he decamped with his dinner to the video room. He spent close to an hour there, alone until assistant hitting coach Troy Snitker happened to walk by. They studied Correa’s mechanics, searching for a fix. Eventually, his mind full, the 25-year-old shortstop went home.
The next morning, he practiced in the mirror. He began to think he had found something. He arrived at Minute Maid Park and took batting practice in the cage. All of a sudden, he was certain.
“You know when something clicks, and you’re like, ‘Oh’?” he said. “That’s what it was.”
Five hours before he jumped on a first-pitch fastball from J.A. Happ, Correa told infielder Aledmys Díaz that he’d be busy after the game: He would be talking to reporters about his game-winning home run.
He was vaguer when he saw second baseman José Altuve. He was going to do something special, he promised.
Altuve remembered that comment in the sixth inning. Correa had already had a good game: His double in the second drove home third baseman Alex Bregman with Houston’s first run of the series. Four frames later, the game was tied at 2. With two out and men on first and second, the Yankees’ Brett Gardner lined a ball to the right of second base. It skipped off Altuve’s glove. Third-base coach Phil Nevin watched the play develop and waved D.J. LeMahieu home.
But Correa had also watched the play develop. He knows how treacherous those in-between hops can be. Just in case, he had begun creeping toward Altuve. Oh, Correa thought. I got this guy. He barehanded the ball and fired a strike to nab LeMahieu by 20 feet. Altuve thought that was pretty special.
Two hours before he broke the tie, Correa thought he had done it. The Yankees’ Tommy Kahnle left a four-seamer at Correa’s belt, and he sent it 396 feet to centerfield. A ball hit that hard, at that angle is a hit 95% of the time, according to Statcast. Unfortunately for Correa, the wall is 409 feet from home plate. I thought I had that one, he muttered.
Fifteen minutes before he ended the game, Correa told the other infielders that he would do it. In the top of the 11th with two on and two out, Houston manager A.J. Hinch summoned righty Josh James to face Gary Sánchez. As Correa huddled on the mound with first baseman Yuli Gurriel, Altuve and Bregman, Correa asked about Happ. Gurriel had faced him in the 10th and flied to left. Correa would lead off the bottom of the 11 and he wanted to know what his approach should be.
His fastball is sneaky, Gurriel said. Make sure you hit it out front.
O.K., Correa told his teammates. I got it.
James fanned Sánchez. The Yankees took the field. Correa strode to the plate. Happ kicked and delivered. Correa was ready. The four-seamer left Happ’s hand at 94 mph. It left Correa’s bat at 103.
The instant he connected, he knew it was gone. He began a celebration almost as spectacular as the home run: He tossed his bat to the ground, then lifted his right hand to his ear and stared at his emptying dugout as he leapt along the first baseline. He rounded third, then appeared to mimic another star Houston athlete, the Rockets’ James Harden: Correa chucked his helmet as if it were a jump shot, then stomped on home plate as his teammates engulfed him.
Twenty minutes after he made the ALCS a best of five, Correa sat at a podium and grinned. He blacked out after he hit the ball, he said. He could not remember any of his celebration. He’d have to take a look at the video.