But the ending that ultimately came to pass — José Altuve’s two-out, two-run, ninth-inning, walk-off homer against Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, which gave the Astros the pennant and sent them into a World Series matchup with the Washington Nationals — was more than merely dramatic and satisfying. For telling the story of these Astros, the twisting and turning ALCS and the way baseball is played here at the end of 2019, it was the perfect vehicle.
Why was Altuve’s pennant-clinching homer so fitting a conclusion? This is why:
• It was Altuve, the 5-foot-6 force of nature who defines the Astros better than anybody.
“It could have been nobody else but him,” Astros pitcher Justin Verlander told reporters in their champagne-soaked clubhouse late Saturday night. “It was so perfectly fitting.”
Altuve, the 29-year-old second baseman, is the longest-tenured player on the Astros, predating even the regime of General Manager Jeff Luhnow. Signed out of Venezuela at age 16 in 2007 for a mere $15,000 — after his father begged an Astros scout to give him a tryout despite his diminutive size — he blossomed into an MVP (2017) and a central character in the Astros’ current, five-year run of success.
He was there for the 324 losses between 2011 and 2013 as the Astros endured an ugly teardown/rebuild, and he has been there for every step of the climb to the top: the out-of-nowhere playoff appearance in 2015, the World Series title in 2017, the 103 victories in 2018 and the return to the World Series that he ensured with one swing of the bat Saturday night.
“He’s been here since the beginning. He’s had a lot of big moments,” Luhnow said in front of the hastily assembled stage where the Astros received the AL championship trophy. “But to hit a walk-off homer to send your team to the World Series after what happened, where we blew a lead, that’s storybook stuff, and there’s no player I’d script that for better than Altuve. He’s ready for that moment. He was ready for that pitch, facing one of the best closers in baseball. That’s something we’re going to be reading about for a long time.”
• It was at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros are so good at home — a major league-leading 60-21 this regular season, 15-5 over the past three postseasons — that when they lose a game there, as they did in Game 1 of the ALCS, it carries an element of shock.
On Saturday night, even after the Astros blew a two-run lead in the ninth — on DJ LeMahieu’s game-tying homer off Houston closer Roberto Osuna — there was a sense of inevitability, particularly as the top of the Astros’ lineup came around against Chapman in the ninth, with George Springer drawing a two-out walk ahead of Altuve’s turn.
“It’s going out to left,” ace Gerrit Cole, as later recounted to Fox Sports, predicted on the Houston bench when Altuve came to the plate in the ninth. “And it’s going deep.”
The 107-win Astros holding off the 103-win Yankees in September to claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs was no small matter. They rode their top players and their best pitchers late in the season to achieve it — precisely so they could play the most important postseason games, such as Game 5 of the AL Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays (a win), Game 6 of the ALCS on Saturday night (another win) and Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night, in their own building.
“This is one of the best places to play,” Manager A.J. Hinch said. “To reward [the fans] with that experience of the walk-off homer, give them a chance to just go crazy at close to midnight and know that we’ve got more baseball to be played. We still have home field for the World Series. It’s why we worked our tail off to get as many wins as we could. It is for them. We want to hang another flag for them, and we’re four wins away.”
• It was a homer.
As everyone knows by now, this was the Year of the Home Run in baseball, with a record 6,776 hit this year, 11 percent more than any previous season in history. And as everyone predicted, this postseason was going to come down to homers — the team that hit the most was going to prevail.
But guess what? It hasn’t exactly happened that way. The ALCS was the eighth series of this postseason, including the wild-card games, and the team that hit the most homers is just 4-4 in those series. That includes this ALCS, in which the Yankees out-homered the Astros 10-8. (The Rays out-homered the Astros 7-6 in the division series as well.)
But what matters more than the sheer number of homers is the magnitude and the circumstances — having runners on base when the homers come and hitting them late in games and in the highest-leverage situations.
Yuli Gurriel’s three-run homer in Saturday night’s first inning, off Yankees “opener” Chad Green, was a perfect example. It was the seventh three-run homer in this postseason overall, with three of them coming by the Astros against the Yankees in this series. Two of those, one each from Springer and Carlos Correa, came in their pivotal Game 4 win at Yankee Stadium.
Likewise, there have been 11 homers hit this postseason in situations designated as “high leverage,” according to baseball-reference.com, and five of those have been hit by the Astros, two by Altuve.
• It was off Chapman, and on a slider.
If anything, this series demonstrated the acute limitations — dare we say the folly? — of trying to do what the Yankees did this postseason, essentially attempting to ride an elite bullpen to sustained success over the course of what could wind up being a four-week enterprise. In stark contrast to the Astros’ starter-reliant approach, they consistently pulled their starters in the middle of games and leaned on five key relievers.
It almost worked. But it had an inherent flaw.
One of the reasons relievers have become so successful in modern baseball is the element of novelty — when a batter sees a top reliever only once per game, and perhaps a few times in a season, it is tougher than facing an elite starter for a third time in a game or a 10th or 12th time in a season.
But when Green faced Gurriel in the first inning Saturday night, for example, it was the fourth time they had met in this series, the first three of which resulted in outs.
The Astros also knew Chapman well, having beaten him in Game 2 of the 2017 ALCS — with Altuve starting the winning rally with a one-out single — and already had seen him twice in this series, including Game 2, when they extended him to 25 pitches.
On Saturday night, the Yankees could have chosen to walk or pitch around Altuve and face light-hitting defensive sub Jake Marisnick instead. But they pitched to Altuve, with Chapman throwing a lazy, 2-1 slider that he pounded high off the stadium facade in left.
It was poor execution on the part of Chapman but also poor decision-making. Among other reasons was this: Although this may be the era of slider dominance — with that pitch rising in usage across the majors in each of the past five seasons, to a high of 18.3 percent of all pitches in 2019 — the Astros are the best at neutralizing it, slugging .492 against sliders, more than 50 points better than any other team in the majors.
The Astros are now closing in on dynastic status — or at least as close as any team has come since the 1996-2000 Yankees. They are four wins against the Nationals away from becoming the first team since the 1942-44 St. Louis Cardinals to win 100-plus games in three straight seasons with at least two World Series titles in the same span.
“Our goal was to win multiple championships,” Luhnow said late Saturday night. “We’re not there yet. We won one. Now we’re going to another [World Series], and hopefully we’ll get that done.”