HOUSTON — A turn at bat can range in scale from a memo scribbled on a sticky note to a novel. What it has to say depends on the moment and the craftsmanship of the author. It can be an opportunity wasted or one that deserves to be bound in leather and archived. The turn Carlos Correa of the Astros took Friday in the seventh inning of American League Championship Series Game 1 deserves preservation, both for its importance and what it says about the hitting genius of the Houston shortstop.
On the 33rd anniversary of the Kirk Gibson home run, the War and Peace of at-bats, Correa authored his own masterpiece. Exactly as Gibson did, only without the hitch in his gait, Correa maneuvered a relief pitcher away from his best pitch to hit a home run that put his team ahead and led to a 5–4 victory in the opening game of a postseason series. This wasn’t the World Series, as it was for Gibson and the 1988 Dodgers, but it was a dagger into the hopes of the Boston Red Sox, who thought they had stolen a road win.
“I wasn’t trying to just get on base, I can tell you that,” Correa says. “I was looking to hit a home run.”
It is one of the most difficult tricks for a hitter to pull off: hit a home run when the pitcher knows you are trying to hit one. With two outs and the bases empty late in a close game in the modern game, when hits are scarcest since the mound was lowered in 1969, the hitter’s job is to swing for extra bases. Three singles to produce a run are unlikely. Knowing this, the pitcher chooses his type and location of pitches specifically to defend the home run. The pitcher gladly will sign on to a walk if it means simply keeping the ball in the ballpark.
That’s why Correa’s home run was such a work of art. He succeeded when there was so little room to succeed.
“You have an appreciation for him all time, especially in the big moments,” says Houston hitting coach Troy Snitker. “When the game gets big, when the time is important, he’s constantly stepping up for us. He finds a way to take his at-bats to the next level. He’s fun to watch.”
Follow along on how a masterpiece is written.
Chapter One: The Changeup
Correa had faced Hansel Robles only twice before: a groundout in 2019 and a strikeout in 2020. This game was tied, 3–3. Robles threw a good changeup that tumbled just barely off the low, outside corner. Correa didn’t bite.
“I saw the changeup right out of his hand,” Correa says. “I just saw it really well.”
It’s one of the most valuable gifts a hitter can be blessed with: recognizing a pitch almost instantly. Nobody was better at this early detection system than Barry Bonds.
This season Correa lowered his chase rate from 31.9% to 24.1%, a career low. Among all big league hitters, only Yuli Gurriel, his teammate, cut his chase rate more than Correa. How is that possible?
“By intent,” Snitker says. “It’s something he takes pride in. He’s always in the dugout yelling at guys in their at-bats to swing at strikes. He checks in on guys who swing out of the zone. He’s checking all the time.
“He does it in batting practice. He does it in the cage. That’s something he's locked into all the time. He’s very disciplined. He’s one of the most … he’s probably the best I’ve ever seen at taking his best swing all the time. He’s never feeling for it. Never swinging just to swing.”
Chapter Two: The First Fastball
Knowing Robles likes to quick pitch on occasion, Correa made sure he settled firm in his ready position even before Robles brought his hands to the set position.
Robles challenged Correa with a 99-mph fastball. Correa fouled it back. He was on it.
Chapter Three: The Second Fastball
Trying to get the ball away, Robles missed badly. The 99-mph heater sailed right by Correa’s chin. He backed away from the pitch. Then he composed himself for a beat before stepping back in the box.
Chapter Four: The Third Fastball
Robles threw a beautiful pitch. He hit his intended target this time. The pitch ever so slightly grazed the outside corner. Correa took it, as any hitter with home run on his mind should. Strike two.
Chapter Five: The Fourth Fastball
Looking to put away Correa, Robles busted out the quick pitch.
“I was mad at myself,” Correa says, “because I forgot on that one pitch to get ready early.”
The pitch came screaming in at 96 mph; Robles sacrificed two or three ticks on his heater to wield the surprise factor of the quick step. Even without his early ready position, Correa pulled the pitch foul to stay alive. Robles had managed to catch him unaware, but Correa had the quickness not to get beat. In fact, he was able to get his barrel out front to pull it.
“Carlos has that little gather step, and he can turn it on really quick,” Snitker says. “He doesn’t have to have a big move. He can jab it down when something like that happens. He can adjust to different speeds and different tempos.”
Baseball is a game in which strikeouts are accepted like traffic jams and rainy days, as if there is nothing you can do about them. Hitters try to get off their “A” hack regardless of count or pitch type. Often there is no “B” hack.
Correa is the rare hitter with what Snitker calls “an adjustable swing.” Correa can get on top of high fastballs as well as he can launch low breaking balls. He shoots inside fastballs the other way or sometimes simply turns on them, as he did in the third inning with a 94-mph heater from Boston starter Chris Sale that he whistled into left field for a single.
“He can cover a lot of pitches and he’s adjustable,” Snitker says. “He can get to the ball up. He tomahawked that heater [from Carlos Rodón] the other day. He can cover the whole plate. He’s got an adjustable swing.”
Chapter Five: The Climax
Robles had just thrown Correa four straight fastballs, and Correa was still standing there in the box, an author at work. In 1988, Dennis Eckersley figuratively threw up his hands and threw Kirk Gibson a slider after throwing seven straight fastballs.
Eckersley would later say, “I was tired of throwing fastballs, so I thought to myself, 'If I give him something off-speed, maybe he'll pull off it.' It was really stupid, because something off-speed is probably the only thing he can get to at this point.”
Likewise, Robles had the urge to try something else. That Correa pulled his quick-pitch fastball foul was enough to get Robles to go away from his fastball:
“I think he did,” Snitker says, after being asked if Correa scared him off his fastball. “Robles has a good heater. He sped him up a little with a [change] at the top.”
Back in July, Robles tried his right-on-right changeup to José Abreu of the White Sox on an 0-and-1 count. Robles left it up slightly and on the inner half. Abreu blasted it for a home run. It was the only time in the past four years that somebody hit Robles’s right-on-right changeup out of the yard.
“I saw it right out of his hand,” Correa says. “I saw it coming out like this …”
He mimed how a pitcher’s hand pronates when releasing a changeup. Just as he did with the first pitch, Correa decoded what was coming as soon as it left Robles’ hand.
The pitch came in high. It was so high it was above the top line of the strike zone. Changeups that miss so badly so high are so rare that there were only five changeups hit for homers this year. Correa obliterated it.
The certainty of the blast was so obvious that as it was flying above the field and well before it touched down in the left field boxes, Correa dropped his bat and with his right hand pointed at his left wrist, in the manner of someone checking the time. In the ALDS clincher in Chicago, after his missile double off Rodón, Correa had provided the same bit of theatre while yelling, “It’s my time!”
The highlight will play forever in postseason annals, like the bat flip of José Bautista, the admiring gaze of Reggie Jackson as in recoil he flings the bat away or, yes, as Gibson pumps his fist dragging his sore legs around the bases.
But this was more than a highlight. The craftsmanship is found in everything that preceded that swing. It wasn’t one pitch. It wasn’t even five. It was everything that went into building an adjustable swing and a sense of knowing what is a strike and what isn’t. On so many levels, it was a turn at bat that in the annals of hitting will stand as a work of art.
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