The ALCS turning out not to be over until it’s over

Springer's rundown and leaping catch of Frazier's drive saved two runs and likely the Astros' season for one more day . . .

Springer’s rundown and leaping catch of Frazier’s drive saved two runs and likely the Astros’ season for one more day . . .

This was the game Justin Verlander lived for from the first time he donned an Astros uniform this year. He’s 3-1 with a 1.49 ERA lifetime in postseason elimination games. He pitched a complete game masterpiece in Game Two of this American League Championship Series.

In Game Six Verlander had seven innings in him. George Springer had a season-saving catch in him in that seventh inning. And Jose Altuve had a bat to swing at last, after taking an 0-for-12 spread to the plate in the bottom of the fifth, while his Astros spent the first five ALCS games scoring a measly nine runs in 49 innings.

After losing three straight to the Yankees on the New York leg of the ALCS, Game Six was the balm these Astros needed. The best offensive team in the American League on the season looked like the worst until the series came back to their playpen. And, until they pried Yankee starter Luis Severino out of the game and got past Chad Green to get two bullpen gifts from Yankee manager Joe Girardi.

Verlander was determined enough to stay focused that he refused to change his between games routines, except maybe to ramp them up just a little bit more.

“I kind of step on the gas,” he told ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick when the Astros returned to Houston. “I feel as good now as I’ve felt all year. I just stick to my routine. This is what we work so hard for. My workout regimen in the offseason, my throwing regimen, my shoulder regimen in-season — all that stuff. This is when it pays off the most.”

Blowing the Yankees out 7-1 must have seemed to Verlander and all Astroland the sweetest music this side of the Elysian Fields. Even if they’re showing themselves less of a road team than they were on the regular season, which could portend trouble enough against the Dodgers if they make the World Series.

Altuve’s first-pitch two-run single in the bottom of the fifth made it 3-0. His solo bomb in the eighth made it 4-1, as if he were answering Aaron Judge’s monstrous leadoff bomb in the top of the inning. But if it hadn’t been for Springer an inning earlier, Judge’s blast might have tied it up at three.

With one out and two subsequent Yankees aboard, Todd Frazier sent one high and deep and headed for the center field fence. Springer mounted his horse and galloped until he had no choice but to leap, grabbing the ball a second or three before it might have hit the fence and ricocheted away for a two-run extra base hit.

Verlander turned around watching. Then he shot his arms straight up like a football referee signaling a good field goal. After he got Chase Headley to ground out meekly to end the inning, he waited for Springer near the first base coaching line to high five him.

“I thought homer,” Verlander said of Frazier’s drive. “Especially the way the balls have been flying this postseason, and really all year.”

The Yankees came into Game Six with other plans. Entering the ALCS as no-questions-asked underdogs, overthrowing the Astros in Yankee Stadium just might have the Baby Bombers thinking the impossible. Remember? They weren’t supposed to reach the postseason at all for another year, year and a half, even if—admit it, Yankee haters—this edition of the team has actually been, do we dare say it, rather likeable.

The old imperial Yankees of yore were baseball’s Goliaths. The first George Steinbrenner era was buying teams and being the ones who threw out the first manager of the year, usually. The second George Steinbrenner era, where the Boss kept his paws off and let the late Gene Michael rebuild the organisation back to greatness, were just methodical executioners. Professional to a fare-thee-well.

. . . and Altuve helped secure the saving with the bomb he's about to hit . . .

. . . and Altuve helped secure the saving with the bomb he’s about to hit . . .

Not even their staunchest fans thought the Jeter-Williams-Pettitte-Posada-Rivera Yankees were likeable, even if The Mariano was the one who transcended the borders of the Empire Emeritus and made himself the Yankee you just couldn’t hate no matter what. There were even Red Sox fans who wished it was someone else on the mound when Dave Roberts stole second.

Come to think of it, there were those ready to measure the Astros for straitjackets and padded cells when they began the multiple-season rebuild that brought them here at last. They thought GM Jeff Luhnow was certifiable and his organisation unrepeatable in polite company. Who has the last laugh now?

These Astros and these Yankees are two likeable clubs. Fun to watch. Fun, even, to like. There’s no reason to wish disaster upon either team.

The problem is that someone has to lose this ALCS, and someone has to sally forth and deal with a group of Dodgers who are just as likeable and are hungering to win their first World Series rings since the last days of the Reagan Administration.

The Astros’ vaunted offense picked the wrong time and place to fall asleep at the switches before coming back to Houston; the Yankees couldn’t figure out a way, any way, to wear Verlander down and get into that vulnerable Astros bullpen. But as a wise old Yankee once said, this ALCS is turning out not to be over until it’s over.

Springer could at least steal a pair of runs from the Yankees if he wasn’t delivering many for his side: he was 2-for-18 in the series entering Game Six. Josh Reddick was 0-for-the-series and Brian McCann was likewise with seven less plate appearances. Alex Bregman was 2-for-17, Marwin (the Magician) Gonzalez, 2-for-15, Carlos Beltran 1-for-12. Carlos Correa and Altuve together were 2-for-22 on the Bronx leg of the set.

McCann finally came up with a hit when the Astros needed it the most, his ground-rule double in the fifth off Severino busting a scoreless tie. “I came up in plenty of spots this postseason and didn’t come through,” the veteran catcher said, “so to get that hit was big.”

The best collection of Astros since the 2005 pennant winner—before they were picked as the team to be named later in the deal that made a National League team out of the Brewers—picked the wrong time to be lost for ways of pecking away at the Yankees’ effective starters and impenetrable bullpen. Their best hope was another round of success against Severino, against whom the Astros slugged .583 this year.

They pried only three out of Severino but they got the gift of gassed David Robertson to open the bottom of the eighth. Altuve never looked the gift horse in the mouth. He launched a 2-2 service into the short left field porch without blinking.

“Most guys will go into a funk and not feel great,” said Astros spare part Jake Marisnick. “He’s always, ‘This at-bat, I’m going to get him.’ You’re like, ‘Jose, he’s gotten you the last couple of times,’ and he’s like, ‘No, I’m going to get him this time’.”

So did Correa with a first-pitch double down the left field line. So did Yuli Gurriel, lineing a single to right. So did Bregman, doubling home Correa and—after Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez lost the handle on shortstop/cutoff man Didi Gregorius’s throw to the plate—Gurriel. And, after Girardi lifted Robertson for Dellin Betances, so did Evan Gattis, lofting a sacrifice fly for what proved a 7-1 lead even the Astros’ none-too-solid bullpen couldn’t surrender.

But the right Ken Giles showed up to keep the Yankees to a walk in the top of the ninth, and it was on to Game Seven.

Betances has had his troubles this year but if you didn’t count the inherited run on the sac fly he was effective enough getting the side retired with no further damage. That just might prove a key for the Yankees at the finish line, with Robertson spent and all hands likely to be on deck.

“We’ve gone down in series,” said Judge, looking ahead to Seven. “We’ve gone down in games. We’ve always fought back. That’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

“It’s going to be a crazy night,” Altuve said looking ahead likewise. “I know both teams are going to go out there and leave everything they have.”

The Yankees will begin with CC Sabathia, who’s baffled the Astros so far in this series. The Astros will start Charlie Morton with all hands including Lance McCullers, Jr. and even Dallas Keuchel on the bullpen deck. If both teams throw anything less than the kitchen sink at each other, it’ll shock everyone no matter who finishes with a World Series date yet to come.

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