HOUSTON — What baseball does best is save itself.
When it seems hopelessly out of touch, when it waves its arms and shouts “Look at me!” only to fall backward over the couch, a fusty game that can hardly get its equipment right goes out and sticks the freakin’ landing.
Also, the Houston Astros ran out of beer Saturday night, which speaks of not enough beer in the house or else too much house in the beer.
The events that led to that cascade of postgame misfortune will be told and retold here, how a two-run lead fell in the top of the ninth inning, how the tiniest of them got it back in the bottom of the ninth inning, how they all ran off to the World Series together, for the second time in three years. This is where nearly four hours of a game that had its moments but otherwise told of a sport staggering under the weight of its new brain becomes the best of itself again in the ninth minute after four hours.
It’s too long, it’s too tedious, nobody knows what the ball is doing anymore and the geniuses are getting in the way of the baseball, and then the New York Yankees and Astros stage a ninth inning like that, when DJ LeMahieu homers for two runs off the Astros’ closer to tie the score, when Jose Altuve homers for two off the Yankees’ closer to trigger the confetti, and the American League Championship Series exhausts itself and the beer supply.
The moral, then, is that the heartbeat still exists in there somewhere, in the drama that builds and the bat barrel that flashes and the hanging slider that gets exactly what it deserves. Then, too, in the hugs and laughter on the field and the hugs and tears in the locker room across the way, the way seasons continue and end simultaneously, in the same way the game infuriates and inspires.
“Yeah,” LeMahieu said, “I thought it was going to be our night.”
More, their year.
“It’s failure,” Aaron Judge said.
The Yankees haven’t won at the end in a decade. So Aroldis Chapman, having minutes before watched Astros right-hander Roberto Osuna allow the home run that appeared to change everything, threw the last pitch of the series and at the third-base line nearly bumped into Altuve frolicking past.
“You know,” Chapman said, “I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. He hit that ball well. For that split second, I just couldn’t believe it.”
That’s what saves it all, too, those times when nobody can quite believe it, when the perfect moment leaps from the dingiest shadow and cuts a whole city off at the knees.
“I hit the ball,” Altuve recounted, “you make sure the ball is gone before you celebrate.”
The ball struck a concrete pillar above the yellow line in left-center field and bounded across the outfield, a jolt of a home run that put the Yankees back on a plane for New York the day after they arrived.
“Then I’m thinking, ‘We’re going to the World Series,’” Altuve said. “And then I’m thinking -- I don’t know. A lot of things.”
He’d hit .348 in the ALCS and become its Most Valuable Player, which, at times, is redundant around here.
“He’s the heart and soul of the Houston Astros,” said Jeff Luhnow, the club’s president of baseball operations.
Said A.J. Hinch, their manager: “I’m so proud of him. I’m so fortunate to be his manager.”
Going on five hours earlier, Hinch had sat in the same chair, mulling the coming baseball game.
“Welcome to 2019,” he said, and you can’t make me go.
In Game 6 of the ALCS here, neither the Astros nor Yankees, whose combined payrolls are close to $375 million, could field a true starting pitcher. From among 50 men.
This was not a Game 6 problem. This is a baseball problem that snaked its way into Game 6.
The Astros are going to the World Series. A baseball game was played and somebody won and this is the deserved result of that. Their job is not to defend how they won, just to win, and that’s fine. The Astros were the class of the American League, they will play the Washington Nationals come Tuesday night, and this is the way it should be, if not necessarily how it should be. The score they danced to and showered themselves with was 6-4. They’d played the game presented to them, got most of the important hits, then the very most important hit, made brilliant defensive plays in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings with runners on base, and found that their seven pitchers over nine innings were slightly better than the Yankees’ seven over nine.
So on a football Saturday, with baseball endeavoring to identify and connect with its next generation of live-stream viewers and cap buyers, what it presented on Oct. 19, its most important game to date, was the two best teams in the American League and an interminable parade of who’s-that middle relievers, followed by two closers.
The Astros and Yankees, hardball royalty, picked a funny time to hold pitcher tryouts.
Hinch and Yankees manager Aaron Boone spent as much time on the mound as any of their pitchers, mostly waiting on the next pitcher to arrive.
They were, perhaps, victims of circumstance, including a league-wide shortage of pitching. More specific to them, there’d been injuries and ineffectiveness and rain in the Bronx and, in the case of the Yankees, a disciplinary proceeding. The game will find you, they like to say, and on the evening of Game 6 in front of a packed Minute Maid Park, the game found two franchises who’d put forth a decent first five games of the series and otherwise run out of starting pitching.
So, not Jack Morris against John Smoltz, from all those World Series ago. Not David Price against Justin Verlander, which is how last season ended for the Astros on this very field. Not even Gerrit Cole against Luis Severino, which was scheduled for Game 7 here.
None of those. Instead, Chad Green against Brad Peacock, two fine gentlemen and professional pitchers whose roles in an elimination ALCS game might best be left to emergency status. The game slogged past them and deep into the bullpens, into starters who’d been pared from their postseason rotations, into matchups born from intricate preparation, then finally, finally, finally to the men hired and paid to protect leads at the end, to the place in the game that would breathe and bleed and swoon. They both failed, because two batters would not, and that is precisely and perfectly what the game can be, if you stick around long enough. Maybe the game doesn’t need saving, exactly. But it’s good to be reminded of when it can be bad and when it can be great, even if it takes some time to get there. Bring plenty of beer.
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