Under most circumstances these days it takes something dramatic to upstage Justin Verlander even on a modestly effective night for him. And on a night the Astros needed it, in Game Two of the American League Championship Series, they got something dramatic—from a guy whose season was rudely interrupted by two trips to the injured list.
Carlos Correa wasn’t even cleared to play coming off back soreness that began in August until just about the last minute before the Astros’ arduous division series against the Rays. And earlier in the season the rib fracture he incurred undergoing a home massage made him an unfortunate butt of some rather unfortunate tacky jokes.
But they’re not joking after Correa’s Game Two performances. First, he stopped the Yankees from a third run in the top of the sixth with some shortstop acrobatics. Then, he hit a leadoff home run off reliever J.A. Happ in the bottom of the eleventh to win the game, 3-2. Thirteen times on the season the Astros won by walkoff. This one was the most important. Certainly the most satisfying.
“Going into that last inning, I thought, ‘I got this’,” Correa told a reporter after the game. “I felt like I got this. And I had the right approach against him. I’ve been successful against him going the other way. And that’s what I tried to do. I saw a good pitch down the middle, and I drove the other way.”
He had this, all right. The Carlos Correa Show was practically responsible all by itself for sending the ALCS to Yankee Stadium even up.
Don’t get me wrong, Verlander was as handy and dandy as the evening was long, even if he wasn’t the virtuoso he’d been in the first division series game. And the Astros matched the Yankees grind for grind again.
The future Hall of Famer endured five Yankee hits including a mammoth two-run homer by Aaron Judge in the top of the fourth that put the Yankees ahead briefly, while striking out seven against two walks in six and two-thirds innings’ work. It wasn’t vintage Verlander but it was enough to keep the Astros alive and split.
Even though he and they needed Correa to channel his inner Karl Wallenda two innings after Judge got the gift that usually fails to stop giving, a hanging slider that hung just enough for the Leaning Tower of the South Bronx to hang it far over the center field fence.
Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner fired a liner toward second base that took a tweener hop as Astros second baseman Jose Altuve took a stab at it. Correa from shortstop saw in a split second that Altuve had no chance on a play that tough with the ball squirting off from Altuve’s right, and with D.J. LaMahieu hitting the afterburners around third.
Correa ran over and grabbed the ball with his throwing hand and threw as perfect a strike home as you could pray to see—and Astroworld prayed hard for it. Prayers answered. LaMahieu was a dead pigeon by several feet despite his slide home. One step or inch off on either end of that play and a third Yankee run would have scored and Correa’s eleventh-hour, eleventh-inning bomb wouldn’t have happened in the first place.
The tall shortstop whose second-inning double sent Alex Bregman home with the first Astro run of the game in the first place knew only too well what that odd hop away from Altuve meant.
“As an infielder, I know how tough it is to catch a ball that’s a line drive right at you in between,” he said. “So as soon as I knew that it was going to crash in between, I was creeping over. When it hit him, and I saw the ball go my way, I just went after it. And I grabbed it, and when I looked up and I saw he was sending the runner, I thought, ‘Oh, I got this guy.’ So I threw him out. I don’t know why he sent him, but thank you.”
He’ll have Verlander’s eternal gratitude for the play. “The second I saw him come over and make a clean catch of the ball and come up and ready to throw, honestly, I thought he was out,” Verlander said after the game. “It went from ‘Crap!’ to ‘We got this guy. We got an extra out!’ It was just incredible.”
“That’s not going to get talked about,” said Astros center fielder George Springer, “but that’s an unbelievable play.”
Why did Yankee third base coach Phil Nevin send LaMahieu even knowing Correa has a shotgun arm, throwing angles be damned? Yankee manager Aaron Boone answered: “I thought it skipped off [Altuve] further . . . I was an absolute send from where I was standing. Great heads up play by Correa, to be in that position . . . I had no issue with the play at all.”
No arguing with that thinking. Boone saw the chance to re-take the lead after Springer, perhaps beginning to re-awaken from a postseason slumber, greeted Yankee reliever Adam Ottavino in fresh relief of Chad Green by hitting Ottavino’s first pitch of the gig, a hanging slider, over the left center field fence in the bottom of the fifth
Yankee third baseman Gio Urshela almost equaled Correa in the Wallenda department in the bottom of the sixth, when Yuli Gurriel ripped a leadoff liner up the third base line that had extra bases stamped on the meat of the ball. Urshela leaped like an elevator to catch it before hitting the dirt like the elevator’s cables were snapped.
“Complete grind from both teams,” Springer said in a postgame field interview. “It’s fun, but it’s a little nerve-wracking. That’s a great team over there. And they play really, really well at home. So for us to get this one after a tough game [Saturday] night was obviously big for us.”
The Yankees had to turn Game Two into a bullpen game when starting pitcher James Paxton began well but ran into command issues too early for the Yankees’ comfort. He’d shaken off a leadoff walk to Springer in the first by luring Michael Brantley into dialing Area Code 4-6-3 before Altuve lined out sharply to Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius.
But Correa punctured him in the second and—after striking Springer out swinging to open—Brantly and Altuve singled back-to-back.
Green came in and rid himself of Bregman (line out to left) and Yordan Alvarez (pop out to shortstop) quickly enough, then zipped through a 1-2-3 fourth including striking Correa out on a slightly elevated fastball. He opened the fourth striking out pinch-hitter Kyle Tucker before Boone reached for Ottavino and Springer finally reached for the stars, or at least the rear end of the park.
From there Ottavino and six Yankee relievers—including CC Sabathia, of all people, getting Brantley to ground out to short to open the tenth before yielding to Jonathan Loaisiga—kept the Astros hitless and scoreless through five and two-thirds innings. The Astro bullpen was no slouch department, either, keeping the Yankees scoreless and limited to one measly hit and a quartet of walks that proved harmless, after all.
“Our bullpen was nasty,” Correa said. “Gave us a chance to win the game.”
“It was a struggle tonight,” said Boone. “They’re tough to score runs off, especially on a night when Verlander is out there.”
Happ saved Loaisiga’s bacon after two one-out walks in the bottom of the tenth with a swinging strikeout (Altuve) and a fly out to left (Gurriel). Then, opening the bottom of the eleventh, he threw Correa a first-pitch fastball. What Correa called down the middle actually sailed in a little up and a little away.
And just like that it sailed a lot out, about eight rows or so into the right field seats. Sending him, too, past Lance Berkman as the Astros’ all-time post-season RBI man with 27 while he was at it.
“Just back and forth—the two best ballclubs in the game,” said Judge. “I wish we could have come away with two here, but now time to regroup and get ready for Tuesday.”
Correa was 3-for-22 in the postseason until he teed off, but he said he felt confident enough before the game over feeling his swing return that he was sure he’d hit one out in Game Two. The only thing he couldn’t or wouldn’t predict was when. But his newly-returned timing couldn’t have picked better timing.
Neither could his reaction after he hit the final blast. Put this into the next “Let the Kids Play!” promo post haste. And, eat your heart out, Jose Bautista.
Correa stepped out of the box quietly. He dropped his bat almost like he was dropping a toothpick, as Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez accepted fate and began walking away just as quietly. Then Correa brought his hand to his ear, holding it there a few steps up the first base line, as though asking the crowd to let him come on and feel the noise.
And as he made his way down the third base line, he hoisted his batting helmet in his hands like a basketballer about to make the three-point shot. Except no three-point shot—not even Robert Horry’s buzzer-beater to win Game Four of the NBA’s Western Conference finals for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002—was ever quite this emphatic.
“It’s been a tough road this year but I’m finally here,” said Correa. Astroworld probably said “Thank God!”