One shortstop, one swing, one win

Carlos Correa—no, he wasn’t conducting The Four Seasons, either.

Realistically, nobody thought the Tampa Bay Rays and the Houston Astros were going to play a short American League Championship Series. Not even when the Rays bedeviled and bedazzled their way to a 3-0 series lead.

But if the acrobatic and customarily timely Rays end up falling home for the winter, Carlos Correa may yet prove the one who drew up the tickets to be punched.

The Rays and did overcome their opener John Curtiss serving George Springer one pitch to drive off the third patio of the Western Metal Supply Co. building behind the left field fence. They had eight more innings to do it Thursday afternoon, and they did.

But can they overcome Nick Anderson serving Correa a 1-1 pitch to send over the center field fence with one out in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Astros, 4-3? Depending on the answer, the Rays will find themselves either going to the World Series or going home with questions to haunt them all winter and maybe beyond.

Maybe that sounds too pessimistic for a team still holding a 3-2 ALCS lead. But remember the 2004 New York Yankees. They still led that ALCS 3-2, too, despite the Boston Red Sox’s throwing a sweep prospect out the window at the eleventh hour and being on the apparent march. We still know how that worked out for the Empire Emeritus.

We also know the Rays and the Astros tried to play each other’s best games Thursday. The Rays showed long ball power at the plate—and little else. The Astros played the Rays’ bullpen game—and neutralised the Rays when things called for their usual merry-go-round approach. They left just enough room for Correa to wreck the Rays’ arguable best reliever of the year.

It’s not that Anderson was gassed or prone to doing things he wasn’t supposed to do, or that manager Kevin Cash failed to read his man fully. This wasn’t Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly throwing an already-overworked Byung-Hyun Kim out for a third inning to be ruined on his sixtieth pitch of the niight by Derek Jeter’s fabled Mr. November blast.

The only thing Anderson did was throw Correa a nasty fastball tailing toward the outer part of the zone. But the only thing Correa did was exercise an adjustment he said postgame that he made in the clubhouse cage, with hitting coach Alex Cintron, earlier on the afternoon, then send that would-be tailer into postseason immortality when it looked to most as though Game Five headed to extra innings.

Correa saved his manager Dusty Baker from doing what he would have had to do but with as much enthusiasm as a mid-20th century child taking his castor oil for an illness. Having pushed just about every bullpen chip he had to the middle of the table, Baker would likely have had to reach for his intended Game Six starter, Framber Valdez. He could match the Rays bullpen for bullpen through nine. After nine, he’d have made a suicide bet.

With one swing Correa saved Valdez for his intended assignment and put himself and the Astros into the record book. Name one other postseason game in which the winning team homered on the first and the final pitch. You can send Magellan on an around-the-world sail and come up with only one. The one Correa won.

Name any other player in Show history to hit two postseason game-winning home runs without ever doing it in the regular season? Did you say Red Sox legend David Ortiz? Big Papi had eleven in regular-season play. Did you say Bernie Williams, the longtime Yankee center field stalwart? Williams did it three times in regular-season play. But if you said Carlos Correa, give yourself a pat on the back at least as hearty as the flip Correa gave his bat as he proceeded up the first base line to run it out.

Name any other shortstop in Show history to hit a game-winning bomb in a postseason elimination before Correa teed off. If you said nobody, make that pat on the back a big pounding slap. Jeter’s rip off Kim? Tied the 2001 World Series at two games each. Ozzie Smith’s gone-crazy-folks blast off Los Angeles Dodgers reliever Tom Niedenfuer, in Game Five of the 1985 National League Championship Series? All that did was put the St. Louis Cardinals ahead 3-2.

Once again, Correa swings alone.

“That’s as big a moment as I’ve ever been involved in,” Baker said after Thursday’s game.  “That’s one of the reasons I came back . . . That’s as sweet as it gets right there.” Baker should know. In a nineteen-season playing career and a 23-season managing career, Baker was never part of any postseason game that ended with a home run until now.

(Yes, folks. That was the same Tom Niedenfuer who’d get destroyed in Game Six in 1985, when Tommy Lasorda thought it was perfectly safe to let him pitch to Jack Clark with first base open and the Dodgers one out from going to the World Series, and Jack the Ripper thought it was even safer to hit a first-pitch three-run homer for which the Dodgers had no response in the bottom of that ninth.)

The magnitude of Correa’s blast is yet to find its full definition. That would require the Astros hanging in to win the ALCS. If they do, Hall of Fame writer Jayson Stark has news for you: they’d buy Correa membership in a very exclusive club of players whose postseason game-winners kept their eventual World Series-winning teams from going home for the winter if they’d lost the games won by their game-winners.

That club now is merely Bill Mazeroski (Game Seven, 1960 World Series), Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett (Game Six, 1991 World Series), Hall of Famer-in-waiting Ortiz (Game Four, 2004 ALCS), and David Freese (Game Six, 2011 World Series). Mazeroski’s, of course, won that World Series. Puckett, Ortiz, Freese, and now Correa bought their teams another day to play.

Correa didn’t point to the fences the way Babe Ruth remains alleged to have done in the 1932 World Series, but Baker swore after the game Correa told him before going out to the plate in the ninth that he was going to end the game right there. Correa swore he told Jose Altuve the same thing.

“Please Lord,’’ Baker did admit to praying, “let us walk it off.”

“I wanted to drive the ball,” Correa told reporters, “and I felt I could do it. So when I was walking on the field, I said, ‘I’m going to end it’.’’

Until or unless someone else spills and says the shortstop and the skipper were full of it, give them the benefit of that doubt. It’s maybe the first such benefit any Astro has earned this year. They brought enough of that lack of benefit upon themselves in the Astrogate aftermath. They should have considered themselves sadly fortunate the pandemic-mandated empty ballparks in which they played kept them from facing maybe the most hostile road crowds baseball’s seen this side of its classic blood rivalries.

It’s going to be tough enough for the Astros to finish what’s been done only once before, rise from the dead to win after being down 3-0 in a postseason set. Third baseman Alex Bregman illuminated that for his teammates, say a few published reports: he showed them a documentary of those 2004 Red Sox.

Those Red Sox did it to their historic rivals. These Astros aren’t trying to take it to, say, the Oakland Athletics or the Texas Rangers. OK, so there’s no blood feud involved. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, not one Astro has any particular animus against the Rays themselves. Just as happened in last year’s division series, the one the Rays almost swiped from the Astros, the Rays are just another obstacle on the Astros’ way back to the World Series. For now.

Are the Rays worried yet? Maybe they should be. Unless they can remember how to hit situationally and stop trying to get their Yankees on. Cash can say all he wants that he doesn’t think the Rays are getting home run happy, but all of a sudden the Rays are doing nearly all their scoring with the long ball.

That five-run fifth in Game Three was a usually-typical Rays uprising—single, force out, single, two-run single, sacrifice bunt, back-to-back hit batsmen the second of which forced in a run, two-run double. The only aberration was the bunt. The Rays didn’t sac bunt all year before then. (Neither did anyone else in this postseason.) Just like old Casey Stengel (and how today’s boring old-school farts forget!), the Rays don’t believe in surrendering outs normally.

Innings and rallies like that seem distant memories. And you can’t go to the World Series on any kind of memories.

They scored two of their three Game Four runs on a two-run homer. They scored all three of their Game Five runs with home runs. When first baseman Ji-Man Choi led off the top of the eighth pulling one into the right field seats off Astros reliever Josh James, it tied the score at three and had one and all thinking along with the Astros: “We have them right where they want us.”

Late innings. The Astros’ largely youthful bullpen spent for the day. The Rays’ other high-leverage bulls still lurking, with Baker in danger of having to burn Valdez and force himself into a Game Six alternative.

Then Correa shook away Bregman’s leadoff pop fly out to short right field, speared by Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe running toward the line from the infield shift/fourth-outfielder array. Correa took a ball one curve ball up and a little in, then swung and missed on an Anderson curve that dropped smack dab in the middle of the strike zone.

Then Anderson threw that fastball tailing away from the middle of the zone. It didn’t tail away quick enough to keep Correa from turning it into a satellite.

The Rays’ missing man refuses to surrender. Kevin Kiermaier hadn’t been seen since he was drilled on the wrist during that Game Three fifth-inning push, until he pinch-ran for Mike Zunino in the top of the ninth and stayed in the game for center field defense. His absence in Game Four and almost all Game Five probably hurt more than the Rays would ever admit.

“We like our chances,” Kiermaier said postgame. “We have a lot of confidence in our bunch that we’ll get the job done . . . We have to work at-bats, have solid approaches, move base to base like usual.”

They beat Valdez and company sort of that way in Game One, a solo homer, an RBI single, and their don’t-even-think-about-it bullpen. They’ll have to do it again in Game Six. Not even a lineup of nine Randy Arozarenas can hit home runs every time up.

Their best chance to hang in and win is playing Rayball and not letting the Astros even think about playing it. Thanks to Correa, the Astros now have other thoughts in mind.

The Astros keep the extra inch

Greinke found what he needed when his skipper’s confidence found him when it was needed.

Once upon a time, stealing the pennant came to mean things like eleventh-hour surges at the end of the stretch drive. Or, off-field-based (and illegal) sign-stealing chicanery. (That means you, 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, 1940 Detroit Tigers, 1948 Cleveland Indians, 2017 Houston Astros, and 2018 Boston Red Sox.)

This time around, it may still mean the Tampa Bay Rays stealing the American League pennant by robbing the Houston Astros wide awake every time the Astros think a nicely-hit ball is about to send a run or two home.

But not quite yet.

Whatever you think about the Astros, they won’t just go gently into winter vacation. They didn’t muster up a jaw-dropping eleven-run first inning such as the Los Angeles Dodgers dropped on the Atlanta Braves earlier Wednesday. They didn’t have to. They needed just an extra home run and a managerial non-decision to live to play one more day at least.

This time, in Game Four of the American League Championship Series, the Astros didn’t give the Rays’ defensive aerialists further chances to rob them blind whenever they thought hard hits had chances to fall in. This time, they didn’t give the Rays the inches from which the Rays would push, shove, nudge, and yank miles.

This time, George Springer hit a tie-breaking two-run homer in the bottom of the fifth off Rays starter Tyler Glasnow and Astros manager Dusty Baker did an about-face rather than lift his starter Zack Greinke with first and second, one out, and white-hot Rays left fielder Randy Arozarena—whose two-run homer off Greinke in the top of the fourth tied the game in the first place—checking in at the plate in the top of the sixth.

Baker had his options just about ready to roll. He had Cristian Javier and Ryan Pressly throwing in his bullpen. And when he went to the mound, he talked to Greinke some but to catcher Martin Maldonado more, and Maldonado stood up for his pitcher just when Greinke needed it the most.

Greinke didn’t forget Game Seven of last year’s World Series. That’s when then-skipper A.J. Hinch noticed he’d run out of fuel and lifted him for Will Harris, his best relief option. To Greinke it meant lack of confidence, never mind that he’d been battered by the Rays in that division series, slapped silly by the New York Yankees in that ALCS, and taken for a home run by Washington’s Anthony Rendon before walking Juan Soto in that Game Seven seventh.

That was then: Greinke came out for Harris and Howie Kendrick ripped what looked like Harris’s unhittable cutter for a two-run homer off the Minute Maid Park foul pole with the Astros’ next-to-last Series hopes attached. This was Wednesday night: Baker turned around and returned to his dugout.

Greinke struck Arozarena out on a check swing. He got help from Astros shortstop Carlos Correa cutting off a hopper from Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi that might have left room for left fielder Manny Margot to score, if Correa didn’t reach it on the short outfield grass and knock it down.

Then Greinke struck out Michael Brosseau—whose late home run against the Yankees got the Rays to this ALCS in the first place—with a changeup that dove off a cliff just before Brosseau’s bat could give it a kiss. Kiss the Rays’ deepest threat of the night goodbye. Then turn the game over to the pen.

Arozarena’s check swing came on what would have been ball two. Brosseau struck out on what would have been ball four and an Astro lead cut to 4-3. And thus would Rays shortstop Willy Adames’s RBI double have been a tie game in the top of the ninth with the likelihood of extra innings.

“My plan,” Baker told reporters after the 4-3 Astro win, “was to take him out, but I wasn’t really convinced of my plan. Sometimes you look in the guy’s eyes, sometimes you listen to the catcher, and you do what you gotta do.”

“It was nice having someone have confidence in me,” Greinke told the reporters. “Because since I’ve been here, they haven’t seemed to have confidence in my ability. So it was nice having that happen in an important time like that.”

Especially for a seventeen-year veteran whose arm was ailing and inconsistent all postseason long, until he found the best of his late-career self when he needed it the most Wednesday night, putting his best off-speed pitches into a Mixmaster and cranking no higher than cookie-mixing speed.

He also vindicated Baker, a very veteran manager who’s not allergic to the analytic game but who’s lived as much by his gut as his brain and has often been caught with his pants down when his gut gets betrayed by circumstances far beyond his control.

Baker was one game from yet another tsunami of second-guessing when Greinke justified his gut Wednesday night. The skipper isn’t all the way through the turbulence just yet. But for once in his life Baker read his players and tea leaves right. He may yet have a few sharp readings left in him before this set’s over. May.

If baseball’s the game of inches, Greinke and the Houston pen made sure the Rays didn’t get the inches that would have mattered. Not that the Rays bullpen was caught sleeping. They matched shutout innings with the Astros’ bulls until Adames’s double off Pressly, brought in to close things out after Javier walked Choi to open the ninth. And the Rays used two bulls who weren’t exactly considered among their A-list stoppers.

The Astros’ own core five of Springer, Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Yuli Gurriel played their 54th postseason game together, passing a once-fabled Yankee core (Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, and Paul O’Neill) by a game.

Winning it 4-3 made it that much more precious to the Astro core who may yet play their last games together in this set. One Astro win doth not a Rays collapse make, and the Astros are smart enough to know they’re in for a continuing fight, but don’t fault them for savouring Game Four a little extra.

Especially on a night Altuve’s first-inning launch over the left field fence and Springer’s fifth-inning flog meant the eighteenth lifetime postseason bombs for each man. Matching them to Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson and putting them one behind Hall of Famer-to-be Albert Pujols in the divisional play-era postseason rolls.

Not to mention a night on which Altuve’s apparent and frightening case of the yips at second base took its first steps toward potential dissipation, Altuve handling a pair of none-too-tough chances and throwing without the ball deciding on its own to go to the enemy side.

“Those are things that happen in baseball,” Altuve said, facing the press for the first time all series long. “I left that in the past and showed up today ready to play some baseball and help my team.” The question then becomes whether Altuve can leave those game-changing mishaps in the past. He sure thinks so. Springer’s pretty sure he knows so.

“He prides himself in every aspect of the game,” the center fielder said. “When he believes that he failed or let the guys down, he takes it to heart. But one of the most impressive things about Jose is how he can clear his head and contribute in all aspects of his game. I know the head he has on his shoulders. He’s our leader and always has been.”

That comes from the guy who watched Altuve start Wednesday night’s scoring with a second first-inning solo bomb in as many days and his third in the series, swat an RBI double in the fourth, and tell himself, “You’re not taking care of all the scoring, bro,” before driving a 2-1 service down the left field line and into the third patio up the Western Metal Supply Co. building.

The Astros still had to wrestle for their win. Even if the Rays didn’t have to get their acrobats on, they still turned four double plays on the evening and rapped out seven hits to the Astros’ nine. They’re still out-pitching the Astros by a few hairs, finishing Game Four with a team 2.31 ERA to the Astros’ 2.65.

The bad news for the Astros: Come Game Five, the Rays can go to their bullpen A-listers at will. The Astro pen otherwise has looked remarkable for the most part, but the Rays live and die by their bullpen as much as they live and die by their high-wire defense.

Most likely, the Astros send Framber Valdez out to start Game Five, likely against the Rays’ Blake Snell. No announcements were made at this writing, and Rays skipper Kevin Cash would have no compunction at all against going to a bullpen game the Astros aren’t positioned or built to deliver just yet.

But, as the Beatles also sang once upon a time, a splendid time is guaranteed for all.