SAN DIEGO — A few minutes before he gave the Astros a 4–3 win in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, Carlos Correa told manager Dusty Baker that he would do it.
“Walk-off,” said the shortstop, and then he swaggered to the plate.
Baker, in his first year as Astros skipper, had heard that Correa occasionally called his shot in that way. He had done it a year before, when he walked off the Yankees in the 11th inning of Game 2 of the ALCS. But Baker had never seen it, and he thought it might be nice to have some backup just in case. So he prayed to his father, Johnnie Sr., who died in 2009. He prayed to his brother, Victor, who died in March. He prayed to the half-dozen Baseball Hall of Famers who died this year.
Please let us walk it off here, he pleaded. Because we’re in bad shape, and the Rays are in great shape.
Houston employs four reliable starting pitchers. Lefty Framber Valdez started Game 1 of the series, which the Astros lost. Righty Lance McCullers Jr. started Game 2, which the Astros also lost. Righty José Urquidy started Game 3, which they lost as well. Righty Zack Greinke started Game 4, which the Astros won to stave off elimination. That left no one for Game 5.
So Baker knew he had to piece together nine innings from his bullpen. He could get through nine, he believed. He was not sure he could get through 10.
For most of the game, it seemed the Astros might escape. Baker handled his relievers aggressively, pulling them the instant they ran into trouble, and sometimes before. This meant they took a 3–2 lead into the eighth, but it also meant they had churned through five arms, with a sixth on the mound.
Houston lost three of its most reliable relievers to injury this season—Roberto Osuna, to elbow soreness in early August; Chris Devenski, to arthroscopic elbow surgery in early September; and Brad Peacock, to arthroscopic shoulder surgery a week later. Since then Baker has been forced to call upon rookie after rookie. He checked the ALCS roster earlier this week and noted ruefully the service time column: “84 days … 60 days … no days,” he said. On Thursday, Houston would set an MLB record for most rookie pitchers used in a postseason win, with five.
But first they had to earn that win. When righty Josh James allowed a solo home run to Ji-Man Choi, Baker’s heart sank. He knew his options were dwindling: closer Ryan Pressly and set-up man Cristian Javier, who had pitched the night before; Valdez, who was scheduled to start Game 6; and finally, righty Cy Sneed, a mop-up guy.
As he tracked his own pitcher usage, Baker also tracked Tampa Bay’s. Opposing manager Kevin Cash was also running a bullpen game, but he had used only three pitchers, and none of his top three. And the Rays lacked the urgency of an elimination game, so they could play loose. Visions of a 17-inning bruiser danced in Baker’s head.
He reluctantly told Valdez to begin warming. He figured he’d use him for an inning, which would probably burn him for the start on Friday but might keep him available in relief, then go to Javier for two. Then it was Sneed’s game until it was over.
As Baker was doing that math, James tweaked his back. Baker summoned Pressly and hoped he could get four outs.
He did, but that still left the Astros gazing at a game of indefinite length if they could not win in the bottom of the ninth.
The Rays sent their closer, Nick Anderson, to the mound. Alex Bregman lofted a fly ball into short right field, where second baseman Brandon Lowe was perfectly positioned.
Next came Correa. He had felt off in his first two at bats, which ended in a flyout and a groundball double play. Hitting coach Alex Cintrón motioned to him urgently. “You’re doing everything wrong!” he reported. “That’s why you’re not driving it.”
They went to the batting cage. “You’re too closed off!” Cintrón said. Correa’s stance was sapping him of his power; because he was angled wrong, his first move was away rather than toward the ball. The coach grabbed Correa’s shoulders and opened him to the plate. Cintrón flipped him a few balls. Ohhh, Correa thought.
He lined out in his next at bat. But he felt better. Afterward, he went back to the cage. “Let me feel it again,” he said.
“If you do that, you’re going to go deep,” Cintrón said.
So Correa strode to the plate and opened his shoulders. He took a high curveball for ball one. He swung at another one for strike one. Then he got a four-seamer on the outside part of the plate. The Astros were celebrating before it landed beyond the center-field wall.
“Watching Correa do his thing, it’s kind of majestic, to be honest with you,” said Pressly.
Only one team, the 2004 Red Sox, has ever dug out of an 0–3 hole. A group of Astros watched videos from that series before the game on Thursday. They plan to be the second.
After it was over and the Astros were launching themselves into the air around home plate, the shortstop and the manager found one another.
Correa said, “I f------ told you!”
Baker said, “Keep telling me!”