HOUSTON – Play clean. From the beginning of spring training, when the Houston Astros spent days running drills as mind-numbing as they were necessary, they heard those two words again and again. This was as talented a team as any in the American League. Ability meant nothing if they couldn’t translate it into something tangible on the field.
What’s so striking about the Astros these days, as they head to the Bronx with a two-games-to-none lead in the American League Championship Series over the New York Yankees following their second consecutive 2-1 victory, is how clean doesn’t even cover the brand of baseball they’re playing. They are grandma’s kitchen on Sunday after she scrubs through three sponges. They are an operating room before surgery. They are pristine and thorough, pure as two hydrogen atoms meeting one oxygen, and their orientation to detail made the difference between them and the Yankees in the series’ first two games.
Game 2 at Minute Maid Park on Saturday ended when the Yankees proved incapable of playing clean at a vital moment. With the game tied at 1 in the bottom of the ninth inning following a nine-inning, 13-strikeout, gem from Houston starter Justin Verlander, Astros sparkplug Jose Altuve singled off Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman. Six pitches later, on a full count, Houston shortstop Carlos Correa sliced a 99-mph fastball toward the gap. Right fielder Aaron Judge corralled the ball before it reached the wall and made a decent-but-not-strong throw to shortstop Didi Gregorius, the cutoff man who stood behind second base. Gregorius whirled toward home and unleashed a short-hop throw. The speedy Altuve should have been out after third-base coach Gary Pettis’ aggressive send. He wasn’t even in the television camera’s frame when the ball bounced in front of catcher Gary Sanchez. The ball kicked off Sanchez’s glove, and Altuve blurred into home, sliding feet first, swiping the plate and leaving the Astros two wins shy of the World Series.
“Bottom line is that if I catch that ball, he’s going to be out,” Sanchez said. “I dropped the ball.”
Literally and figuratively. Asked if he thought Altuve was out when he released the ball, Gregorius said: “Yes.” While Sanchez’s positioning was optimal, standing in front of the plate and allowing Altuve a path toward it, he had plenty of time to secure the ball with two hands and swipe a tag. Instead, Sanchez played the ball to his left and watched it squirt away.
The play unfolded in stark contrast to one six innings earlier, when the Astros exhibited their defensive superiority in a relay so perfect Tom Emanski and Fred McGriff would’ve approved. When Brett Gardner rapped a line drive into the right-field corner, the Astros’ Josh Reddick sprinted toward it and prepared himself to set off a spotless chain of events.
Reddick possesses one of the finest outfield arms in the game, but it would’ve meant little without his positioning to make the first throw in the relay. He side-stepped toward the ball, keeping his weight on his front foot until he bent over. As he transferred his weight toward his back foot, Reddick lunged toward the ball, making sure to push it toward the ground, as outfielders are taught, so he could get a firm grip and prevent it from slipping. In one motion, Reddick came up with the ball and fired a no-look seed in hopes Correa would be in the right place.
“I threw it in the direction where I figured he’d be,” Reddick said. “I got lucky.”
This wasn’t luck. It was smart baseball players doing smart things. The Astros had practiced relays before Game 1 of the ALCS, just as they had occasionally throughout the season in what manager A.J. Hinch called “routine maintenance.” The Astros are the team that changes their oil every 3,000 miles because they understand a well-tended engine doesn’t break down at integral moments.
Correa, for example, knew that he needed to switch spots with Altuve, who under normal circumstances would be the cut-off man. Correa’s arm is far superior to Altuve’s, and any chance to keep Gardner from tripling depended on it. As the ball left Reddick’s hand, Correa squared his body to the throw, in case he needed to shift laterally. He barely moved until the ball was feet from him, at which point he pivoted 90 degrees to catch it on his side and position himself for the throw to third. He heard: “Three! Three! Three!” That told him there might be a play.
Gardner was burning, going from home to third in just over 11 seconds, among the fastest times for the Yankees this year. Correa’s throw stalked him like a predator does its meal for the day. Third baseman Alex Bregman straddled the bag, knowing it would be close.
“When you have arms like Reddick and Correa do, you always have a shot,” Bregman said. “So I was expecting it. Once I saw Reddick get a clean transfer off the wall, I tried to not really move that much.”
The one-hop throw came to Bregman’s backhand side. He picked it cleanly and instead of reaching for Gardner, made the proper fundamental play: sweep toward the bag. The tag brushed up against Gardner’s left arm. As the dust from his head-first slide settle, umpire Jerry Meals extended both arms sideways. Gardner was safe.
Bregman knew otherwise. He pointed toward the dugout to tell Hinch to challenge the call. The replay umpire in New York reviewed it and took barely a minute to overturn the call. Gardner was out. And one batter after Reddick had made a fantastic catch against the right-field wall, he played the first link in a series of events that demanded perfection.
“If anyone in the chain misses and doesn’t do his part, the whole relay breaks down,” Hinch said. “You can’t do it without them working in tandem. It starts with the outfielder fielding the ball cleanly. If Carlos isn’t in position, then it’s dead. If Bregman doesn’t hold his ground and manipulate runner, base, where the throw is, the play is dead.”
One day after left fielder Marwin Gonzalez saved a run by throwing out Greg Bird at the plate on a 97-mph seed, the Astros had one-upped themselves. The cleanliness with which Verlander played – 124 pitches, 93 strikes, a fastball that sat at 97 mph in the ninth inning, a slider that bit like a piranha – kept the game tight even as the Yankees bullpen excelled as it has all postseason. The cleanliness with which they play offense has been evident from their lack of strikeouts – nine, compared to the Yankees’ 27 in the first two games – and manifested itself in the ninth, when with one out Correa told Altuve: “We’ve got to make this happen.”
They didn’t want to let Verlander’s start, one of the finest of his fine career, go to waste. They certainly didn’t want to fritter away the capital they’d built up with gloves worthy of every precious metal available. They wanted to make New York be as good as them. And though five games remain for the Yankees to demonstrate otherwise, on Saturday they weren’t.