ALCS Game 7: The Houston Astros, World Series Bound

Jose Altuve said after Game 6 that he expected both the Astros and the Yankees would leave everything on the field in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. He may have been too polite to say that, except for one Game 6 burst, the Yankees may have left everything behind in New York.

Altuve swung the big stick for the Astros in Game 7, he was their no-questions-asked best all around position player in the ALCS and all season long, and if anyone's the face of the Astros the little big man is. But anyone with eyes to see should be able to tell you that without George Springer the Astros aren't going to the World Series.

If ALCS MVP Justin Verlander wanted to high five him to death in Game 6, the Astros probably wanted to give him the keys to the city after Game 7.

Running Todd Frazier's 2-run extra-base hit in the making and catching it with a backward flying leap against the center field wall probably kept the Yankees from getting frisky enough to take Game 6. Running down Greg Bird's would-be extra base hit and leaping to the wall and over left fielder Marwin Gonzalez to spear it in the Game 7 seventh probably hammered the final nail into the Yankee coffin.

Not that the Astros had all that much to worry about in the end. The Baby Bombers' inexperience finally caught up to them in Game 7. Even with old CC Sabathia on the mound to start but running out of fuel at last in the fourth inning.

These Yankees weren't even supposed to make this postseason. Getting here in the first place was something resembling miraculous. In the end, that was all it was. It only began with four leadoff hitters on base in Game 7 and stranded all four times, sometimes by a little fancy Astro glove work, sometimes by the Yankees' own futility.

And these Astros, the best offense in the American League this season, weren't supposed to find ways past the Yankees' effective starters and near shutdown bullpen, right? After walking into a Yankee buzzsaw in Games 3 through 5 and beating the Yankees in the first pair with only 3 runs per game in those?

Maybe the Astros learned more from the three straight losses in New York than the Yankees learned from beating them in those three games.

Take Charlie Morton. The Yankees slapped him silly in Game 3. In Game 7, he battened down the hatches and the Yankees couldn't hit him with a subway train.

He might have gotten a glandular boost from former Yankee Brian McCann in the fifth, scooping Alex Bregman's dubious throw home and held a tag on Bird trying to score on Todd Frazier's dribbler to third, but it was up to Morton to finish the frame and he did, luring Chase Headley to an inning-ending ground out.

Take Lance McCullers, Jr., too. He fought the Yankees' Sonny Gray to a near-draw in a Game 4 start, which was impressive enough until the Yankees got fast and loose into the Houston bullpen.

But out of the bullpen in Game 7, McCullers was the reincarnation of Moe Drabowsky. He struck out six in four innings and just might have struck out eleven (as Drabowsky did in seven innings in the 1966 World Series' Game 1) or more if he'd come in earlier.

McCullers, the son of a journeyman major league pitcher, probably scared a few people while he was at it. His final 24 pitches were curve balls. Half the time during those final five Yankee hitters, McCann didn't even bother putting signs down for the right-hander.

"When I'm throwing so many in a row and nobody's making an adjustment," McCullers said when it was over, "I'm not going to stop throwing it. Either they were having a hard time seeing it or they're just trying to be aggressive early. When I throw it, I want it to look like a fastball coming out of my hand. I want that initial reaction to be fastball."

There was another example of the Astros' exploiting the Yankees' inexperience. But in some ways it didn't matter who these Astros were playing this time around. Manager A.J. Hinch was ready to throw the kitchen sink at the Yankees in Game 7, including Dallas Keuchel out of the bullpen if need be. (Troublesome World Series question: what does it say about the Astros' bullpen that, as virtuoso as McCullers proved to be, Hinch reached for him when Morton ran dry and stayed with him the rest of the way?)

It turned out all he needed was a stopper or two. His team's heart didn't hurt, either. For all that the Astros were built by and in the head, for all they endured with those three straight 100+ loss seasons while general manager Jeff Luhnow rebuilt and retooled them for just this, the Astro heart beat even louder.

"We're pretty book-smart, but that's not a bad thing," Hinch said, referring to the Astros' reputation for analytics, while going on to say that's not where things stop for them. "We're people. We care about people. We still have instincts. We still rely on the chemistry that is built in the clubhouse ... we'll usually do the opposite of what the rest of the industry is doing to continue to move and try to find a competitive advantage."

Yankee manager Joe Girardi seemed calmly aware that his team's majority inexperience would prove a factor. "It's a team that hasn't experienced a lot of this ... and going on the road in hostile environments,'' he said. "We were able to win [division series] Game 5 in Cleveland and I felt good about us winning one game here. But we just weren't able to do it."

Aaron Judge, who had a futile Game 7 at the plate but stole a home run from Yuli Gurriel with a running, leaping, lunging catch opening the bottom of the second Saturday night, doesn't buy the inexperience thing.

"We didn't win the World Series," said the likely American League Rookie of the Year and Altuve's only serious Most Valuable Player competition this year. "How are we satisfied with that? That's what we want. That's why we work, that's why we train, that's why we do everything in the offseason, the cage work. Everything is to get an opportunity to win a World Series. We came up short."

Bird opened the fifth with a first-pitch double to the right field corner and Aaron Hicks walked on a wild pitch to let Bird take third. But then Bird got thrown out at the plate and it looked like the Yankees had nothing left in the tank.

Their bullpen didn't help this time. Tommy Kahnle, one of their most effective postseason relievers, finally found his needle on E after he got rid of Springer on a grounder to end a fourth inning in which Evan Gattis put the Astros on the board with a leadoff bomb and, after Josh Reddick followed with a single, put paid to Sabathia's night. And maybe his Yankee career.

An inning later, Altuve measured Kahnle's empty reserve and drove one over the right field wall with one out, and McCann flattened a 2-2 service down the right field line and into the corner to send Carlos Correa (a line single up the pipe right after Altuve's bomb) and Gurriel home.

Adam Warren, David Robertson, and Dellin Betances kept the Astros off the board after that. It was too little, too late, with McCullers and the Astros' sometimes underrated defense keeping the Yankees handcuffed and stuffed. Where was this Robertson Friday night, instead of the one who surrendered Altuve's leadoff bomb and Bregman's 2-run double in the bottom of the eighth of Game 6?

Sabathia heads for free agency after reinventing himself as a finesse pitcher following knee issues. Game 7 ended his streak of consecutive wins following Yankee losses. He hopes it doesn't end his time as a Yankee.

Verlander wouldn't mind staying an Astro for a good while to come. He felt well enough at home from the moment he arrived in a 31 August deal with the Tigers. That he hasn't lost since becoming an Astro may only be secondary for him.

"It wasn't just, 'Hey, glad to have you.' It was a different type of feeling," Verlander said in the middle of the Game 7 conquest. "I felt like I bonded with every single person on this team almost immediately. For many different reasons. The pitchers — I've really enjoyed talking to a lot of them, with them just kind of picking my brain and me picking their brain. And then the position players, man, it's something special to see these guys play. I made a point to let them know that."

It's been something special watching these Astros play and give their hurricane battered city the kind of lift you can't buy. So far, they're channeling their inner 2013 Red Sox, who picked up a Boston ravaged by the Boston Marathon bombing and took it to a World Series triumph. So far.

Their only blemish in this ALCS was winning nothing away from home and looking like anything but a team that had a .654 winning percentage on the road during the regular season. They're about to face a collection of Dodgers who almost don't care where they win as long as they win, but who had a .704 home winning percentage and a .580 road percentage.

But listening to Astro fans' "M-V-P!" chants for Altuve, their roaring after Springer's impersonations of Willie Mays, their appreciation for every pitch, every Yankee out, every Astro run ripped, poked, nudged, or bombed home, was a sound to behold.

"They're not here to watch me play," said Altuve, whose exuberance makes him as much a fan favorite as his talent. "They're here to watch the Houston Astros play."

They'll get to watch the Astros play in the World Series now. Maybe even seven games, considering how tough the Dodgers awaiting them are. You won't hear one Astro or one Astro fan complain.

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