HOUSTON — The boxscore will show that the Astros never trailed in their American League pennant-clinching win over the New York Yankees on Saturday night.
But that’s not to say the monumental win was never in doubt.
Far from it, in fact, after a plodding and tactful night at Minute Maid Park turned electric in one of the most thrilling ninth innings playoff baseball has to offer.
Instead of cruising to a second World Series berth in three years, MLB’s winningest team in the regular season needed a massive blast from their tiny, perfect superstar, Jose Altuve, to walk it off in the ninth.
Altuve’s dramatics — a two-run shot to left field — sealed a 6-4 win over the AL East champion Yankees.
That it came mere moments after New York first baseman D.J. LeMahieu stunned a sellout crowed of 43,357 with a two-run homer in the top of the ninth only added to the deliciousness of the conclusion.
The 5-foot-6 Altuve packs massive power in that diminutive frame but also unabridged joy. The moment the ball left his bat, he began to dance around the bases as the stadium erupted.
The incredible conclusion sends the dynasty-in-the-making Astros off to a best-of-seven Fall Classic, which will begin right here on Tuesday against the National League champion Washington Nationals.
“From Day 1 of the playoffs, the World Series has had to go through Houston and we’ve still got home field,” a jubilant manager A.J. Hinch said. “I can’t wait until Tuesday. We’re going to rock this place in the World Series again.”
Altuve’s game winner came off Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, a stunning answer to the LeMahieu blow off Astros counterpart Roberto Osuna.
With both teams relegated to a ‘bullpen’ day because of no starter available, the Astros won it not just on Altuve’s brilliance and grit but, on its superior pitching depth and defensive play.
“He continues to exceed expectations,” Hinch said of Altuve, who was named series MVP. “The playoff version of him is spectacular. He’s turned himself into a star yet he’s remained humble.”
It was tedious at times, sloppy at others and tense from start to finish. But what a ninth inning it was, most certainly one for the ages.
And ultimately a team that won 107 times in the regular season will head to the World Series as betting favourites to repeat the first franchise title won two years ago.
It was a gutting conclusion for the Yankees, of course, especially after the dramatics in the ninth when a towering LeMahieu fly ball carried just far enough to clear the short wall in right field.
Game 6 was all about the long ball with Yuli Gurriel hitting a three-run homer in the first inning to set the stage — and a long night of madness inside one of the noisiest stadiums in baseball.
All four Yankees runs game via a homer as their swing-and-miss offence once again came up just short of forcing a Game 7, a scenario that seemed unlikely after they dropped three of the first four.
The Astros are an undisputed powerhouse, however, and barely flinched after the Yankees tied it up. The dugout emptied in a flash when the Altuve rocket left his bat at an exit velocity of 106 miles per hour and traveled 406 feet.
“Chappy hung a pitch and a great player got him,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We came up a couple of plays short. Unfortunately, sports can be a little cruel for the team that goes home.”
Essentially, the Astros set themselves up for a shot at repeating their 2017 crown by taking two of three in New York and returning home with a 3-2 series lead.
With Gerrit Cole available for a possible Game 7 tomorrow, Hinch knew he could afford to go with an all-bullpen outing without worry. Win and everyone gets three days rest before the World Series. Lose and Cole would be the man for a deciding Sunday showdown.
In many ways the Yankees beat themselves throughout the series with tentative defensive plays and leaving runners in scoring position. Conversely, the Astros clinched it in part thanks to a pair of spectacular defensive plays in the later innings.
The biggest was a diving snag by left fielder Michael Brantley in the seventh to rob Aaron Hicks of an extra base hit that would have scored Aaron Judge from second. Instead, Hicks got up and threw a bullet to first to double up Judge.
In the previous inning — and with runners on first and second — right fielder Josh Reddick robbed Brett Gardner with a running, diving, near face-planting dive that also likely saved a run.
A game that was still tight, helped maintain the momentum for an Astros team that is now 5-1 at home this post-season and will carry that advantage into the World Series.
While they’ll have difficulty topping what unfolded here on Saturday night, they’ll also be tough to knock off, even by the upstart Nationals.